The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 1: Outgoing

One charming aspect of the Gerrit Noordzij Prize is the design of the award itself. By tradition, it’s something created by the current prize holder, and presented to the incoming awardee. Past winners have used the occasion to create something that not only encapsulates their own work in some personal way, but postulates some connection to the interests of the next designer in succession. Erik Spiekermann, winner of the 2003 award, presented the above to our own Tobias Frere-Jones in 2006: it’s a witty rendering of his twentieth-century Meta typeface, produced in the distinctly nineteenth-century technology of wood type. As a gift to a type designer whose work regularly engages with historical form, I thought it was especially poignant.

The set was made by Scott Polzen, who began exploring the resurrection of wood typemaking while still a student. His latter-day wood types are lovely artifacts, cut from cherry and finished with sandpaper and file, as Polzen explained in an essay in Letterspace, a journal of The Type Directors’ Club. As intriguing as the how of this project is the why: “I’ve come to understand,” Polzen writes, “that my real motivation for this project was to gain a greater sense of participation in the culture of reading and writing: making wood type forced me to think quite literally about how the written word works.” I thought this sentiment nicely echoed Noordzij’s own philosophy about the primacy of written, not printed, words; it makes Polzen’s connection to the award even more apt.

Wim Crouwel will receive the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize on Friday, when we’ll have the first photographs of the award that Tobias designed for him. I will miss seeing it around our office. —JH

What’s in a Font Name

For as long as fonts have had names, they’ve had bad names. Historical inaccuracies have been common for two hundred years: typefounders of the Industrial Revolution groped for historical labels to apply to newly-invented styles (Egyptian, Gothic, etc.), and it wasn’t long before typefaces began to bear the recognizable names of unrelated historical figures. Alongside the very un-Dutch Series Rembrandt, a nineteenth century French specimen book shows the Series Victor Hugo, unconnected with the author but doubtless hoping to cash in on his celebrity; Hugo was still alive at the time.

But most entertaining are faces like this one, which honor prominent figures from typography’s own history. This charming face is from the 1928 type specimen of the Nebiolo foundry in Torino, and here we have a typeface full of Art Nouveau vigor, fresh from the window of a chic gelateria, or a cinema marquee. And what famous early twentieth century figure is it named after? Why, Johannes Gutenberg of course (d. 1468), father of movable type. Can’t you just see Gutenberg stepping out of his Fiat GP racer, his handsome olive complexion set off by a rakish tweed cap?

It seems that most of the world’s typefounders have suffered this cruel fate. Here are some especially juicy mistreatments.


Mrs. Gray and the Mystery of the Grecian Italic

“Grecians” are slab serif typefaces in which curves are replaced by bevelled corners. The fashion for octagonal letters took off in the 1840s (the style may have begun with an American wood type, produced by Johnson & Smith in 1841), and by the end of the decade there were all manner of Grecians on the market: narrow ones, squat ones, light ones, ones with contrasting thicks and thins, and ones without. It’s unusual that the rather obvious “square-proportioned” Grecian didn't arrive until 1857, and that no one thought to add a lowercase until 1870. It’s this very center of the Grecian universe that our Acropolis typeface occupies, which includes an additional feature of our own invention: a Grecian italic, something that no Victorian typefounder ever thought to create.

Or so we thought. This is the Six-Line Reversed Egyptian Italic of William Thorowgood, which sure enough qualifies as a Grecian italic. It has many peculiar features, but the most unearthly is its date: 1828, thirteen years before the first Grecian roman appeared. What’s the story?


Time Traveler?

Except in the most conservative of settings, there’s nothing unusual about freely mixing serifs and sans serifs in text. This technique might still be unexpected in a novel, or in the main text of a newspaper, but otherwise it’s a familiar device that designers have employed for decades. This image could be a piece of printed ephemera from the thirties — a legal notice on a train ticket, perhaps, or a gummed label from an appliance box. It’s really only the loose spacing that marks this as an antique at all: track everything in a little, and brighten up the paper, and this could easily be a front-of-book service piece in a magazine.

Where it’s completely unexpected is in the pages of a 131-year-old type specimen book. This example, showing the eleven point Law Face in combination with an eerily Helvetica-like Gothic No. 7, is from the Compact Specimens of James Conner’s Sons (United States Type Foundry) issued in 1876. Conner’s foundry offered a promiscuous collection of fonts, and the layouts of his specimen books were pretty anarchic, so perhaps this setting was simply an accident of probability. Still, it’s odd to imagine this very modern piece of typography sharing a world with Wyatt Earp and Jesse James. —JH

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