Interview, Ellen Lupton and Jonathan Hoefler, June 23, 1994. An edited version of this interview appears in the book Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.
I’m organizing the chapter on typography in my Mixing Messages book into two sections: “Typography and History” and “Typography and the Future.” What do you make of that?
The canon of typographers working today is really very small, and there’s not much of a critical discourse among us.
The benchmark for me in judging the interest of a new typeface is does it take a stand in relation to history. In my work, I want to understand the historical conditions behind the precedent that I might be interpreting. Barry Deck, Jeffrey Keedy, Scott Makela, Jonathan Barnbrook: Much of this work takes a stance towards history. The doesn’t seem to be the case with T26.
I was just looking at a type spec book from 100 years ago—novelty types. It’s just like what’s going on now at T26 or FontShop. Thousands of typefaces that aren’t a clear response to anything.
A period in typography which began around 100 years ago is now coming to an end. Around 1890, William Morris revived Jensen, taking a very specific stance towards history: he started an era. This act of revival is behind so many developments in 20th-century typography. Morris was the first to look seriously towards the past. That period which he inaugurated is coming to an end now.
Barry Deck’s work is narrative. Many of my contemporaries are playing with notions of history—such as Jeffery Keedy’s “Lushus.” [spelling?] That’s a typeface that’s quoting the Victorian era, some many typefaces from that era, without quoting anything in particular. It works really well.
Neville Brody is a seminal figure for the “period” between 1980 and 1995. He’s been tremendously creative, but I think of him primarily as an entrepreneur now.
What’s your relationship to history?
An important project for me has been the Ziggurat family. I was developing it for myself, and then Rolling Stone bought it. I wanted an Egyptian that looks nineteenth-century, not twentieth-century. Very angular. Then, I started spinning variations on the theme: I did sans serif, Latin, and Grecian verisions. [Each has its own name; see samples. “Grecian” is a chamfered style, made entirely of angles.] To derive a sans serif from an Egyptian is a nineteenth-century idea. For example, Caslon’s early sans serif was derived this way—filing off the serifs from an Egyptian. Then I did italics, including an italic version of the Grecian font, which is quite bizarre. Now, I’m trying to get Rolling Stone to buy an italic form of the Latin version of the font (called Saracen).
I’ve been working with Rolling Stone for four or five years. I used to do “lettering” projects for them—such as the words “James Brown”—but for the last 3 years, I’ve been focused on typefaces.
[Quantico is the wierd set of caps that’s reminiscent of Scala; currently owned by Rolling Stone.]
In response to your question about history: I want to know why things look the way they do. I’m doing a face right now for Martha Stewart Living. The brief from them was to make a face to replace Monotype Garamond—take up the same space, etc. I’m trying to create a Baroque interpretation of a Renaissance style—proportions are related to Garamond, a 16th-century face, but I’ve made it Baroque—its typographic rather than calligraphic. It has no straight lines—that’s very Renaissance—but it has long, thin serifs and forms not related to the pen.
The term “Geralde” is a contraction of Garamond and Aldus. It’s the phase after Venetian and before “old style.” Garamond is a prototypical example of the “Geralde” phase.
What do you think about Mathew Carter?
I identify very much with Mathew Carter. He has a high regard for research; he has written much of the history; he’s a brilliant draftsman and designer.
And yet he’s not a Luddite. And he’s very open to new ideas. very generous towards diverse opinions and younger people.
I feel that way, too. I’m a hard-core classicist, but I still share a space with Barry Deck.
Tobias Frere Jones is a good friend of mine, too. He does fascinating work that really runs the gamut…
Mathew, Tobias, and I: we all are interested in doing “interpretations that expand upon existing designs without replicating them.” A great example of this is Tobias’s font Interstate, an interpretation of Highway Gothic. He’s interested in doing things with historical form that go beyond replication.
Mathew Carter’s font Mantegna is another great example. Mantegna himself was an important lettering/calligraphy artist, as you can see in his paintings. Mathew was brilliant to make a typeface based on Mantegna.
Do you think that ultimately all typography is an interpretation of existing work?
No! Think of Barry Deck’s Caustic Biomorph. But then, to some degree, any typeface has some historical elements.
My typeface Fetish is one that I see as not especially related to history. It’s “ultra fancy,” and yet it doesn’t refer to anything particular source. It’s contextual.
Bodoni was more Rococo than classical. The types named after him are based on his later work, when he was competing with Didot. Parma in the late 18th century was a French ducal state. Fournier was a Rococo stylist of the highest order. We forget this by focusing on “rationalism.” Thinking about Bodoni, people tend to focus on the end of his career, when he was competing with Didot—??Manuale Tipographico??. But his book from the 1770s, Fregi e Majucole, is a work related to Fournier and the Rococo spirit.
How would you diagram the typographic situation in the U.S. since 1980?
That’s a hard question, since I was only 10 years old in 1980. But as I see it, in the U. S. it breaks down into two things: in-your-face radical or the well-crafted “New York School” tradition, represented by Tom Carnase, Tony di Spigna, Ed Benguiat, Herb Lubalin, younger guys like Joe Tracey and Peter Fratterdais (in the 40s).
But where do you put the work of you, Tobias Frere Jones, and Mathew Carter? As I see it, your work is about “continuing the discourse of typography,” whereas the so-called “New York School” comes out of a graphic design tradition. [JF seems to misinterpret what I mean, assuming “discursive typography” to mean something like narrative or critical typography.]
I think of “discursive typography” as a relatively new phenomenon. To what degree has there been any “discourse” about type before recently?
But I see typographers who are interested in typographic history in a serious way as engaging a “discourse” of typography…
Mathew Carter is one person who’s work I would call discursive. Morris Fuller Benton—he’s a very important figure. He had an agenda. He was interested in resurrecting old faces and commissioning new ones. The word “discourse” wouldn’t have been used then, of course….
Massimo Vignelli: I hate hearing him described as a modernist. Modernism in the sense of Proust or Stravinsky just hasn’t happened in typography.
But what about the 1920s?
Well, I suppose that’s modernism. I’d have to think about it. Albers and Bayer—yes, that modernist. But Univers and Helvetica are not really “modernist.” The idea of a family of typefaces with unified weights and widths was already 100 years old in 1957. In 1815, Figgins was the first to do a bold companion to a roman face.
I think there is a discourse of typography now.
Barry Deck’s typeface “Fontoid” for Nickleodian is a spoof on the idea of a type that looks futuristic—spoof on Orbit and Data 70, those “typefaces of the future.” Fontoid is a perverse comment on thos fonts. It’s what I would call a discursive typeface.
I think some of my work is “discursive,” but in subtle ways. It’s not overtly illustrative like Barry’s work, explicitly narrative. The font for Martha Stewart, for example, makes a pretty subtle set of references. No one’s going to look at it and say “Oh, I get it.” It’s an inside joke. But then Fontoid is an inside joke, too. It’s subtle in its own way.
What about history in graphic design more generally?
Work by Louise Fili, Carin Goldberg, and Paula Scher—that’s what got me into graphic design in the first place. I wasn’t in a position to learn about the Bauhaus or Russian Constructivism. This stuff was right there in book stores. But I have my doubts about it now. I think a lot of it appropriates history for no reason. Take Carin Goldberg, for example: Why Futura for the cover of Ulysses?
The September 1987 issue of Spy is the single artifact that got me into graphic design. The “Naked City” section at the front of the book—that was so innovative, so fantastic. Spy was all type. That was partly because of budget—no money for fancy illustrations. It was ironic yet typographically sensitive. Low-brow stuff like charts, icons, and arrows used to a truly hysterical effect.
It’s no accident that Hoefler Text (designed for Apple) is based largely on Garamond 3. And Ideal Sans freely quotes from Metro—these were the Spy fonts.