Commercial Type Features

Commercial Type

With a growing stable of typefaces, Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes eschewed larger, established type-marketing options and launched their own foundry.

Angelynn Grant

Last year, in a blog post on ILoveTypography.com, Christian Schwartz recalled how he and Paul Barnes “met” by e-mail over a detail any type nerd could appreciate: The lowercase “g” in a revival of Grotesk, which Schwartz had just released as FF Bau, appeared as two-story (two bowls) rather than one. That conversation evolved into a friendship and productive partnership. Over the next several years, they merged their respective talents to create custom typefaces for a variety of clients including the Empire State Building restoration, T, the New York Times Style Magazine, the Portuguese daily newspaper Público and the now-defunct Condé Nast Portfolio. With a growing stable of typefaces, they have eschewed larger, established type-marketing options and launched their own foundry, Commercial Type. They are award winners as a team and individually: In 2006, both were listed among the most influential designers under 40 by Wallpaper* and, in 2007, Barnes was named one of the 50 best designers in Britain by the Guardian and Schwartz received ATypI’s Prix Charles Peignot.

 

CA: Your first collaboration was on the Guardian redesign. How did that come about?

PB: After the e-mail discussion over FF Bau, we stayed in touch. I became more aware of Christian’s work, the breadth of it, and the realization that he was one of the most talented young type designers around. As a consultant in the publication field, I was always being asked by magazines for the newest thing and I would check to see if Christian had anything unreleased that I could use. I was working on a redesign of Wallpaper* with Tony Chambers just before Christian’s Amplitude had come out, so we used a prereleased version of it. The magazine was happy because it was unique at that time and Christian, I think, was happy because it was a good place for it to appear.

CS: That must have been 2002 or so, because we started work on the Guardian at the very end of 2003. Paul had been brought in as a typographic consultant on a redesign, which was originally going to be a tabloid—a mini version of the broadsheet, but not a fundamental rethinking. He had always felt that the Neue Helvetica the Guardian used wasn’t as well drawn as the original Neue Haas Grotesk from 1957, so he asked me to go back to specimens of the handset metal type (which he was kind enough to provide) and redraw it for the headlines—over Christmas!

PB: Christian just has a natural talent for sans serifs so he was my first thought. As he had done such a good job on FF Bau, I thought he would be sympathetic, that he wouldn't try to change the design. I didn’t want Neue Neue Haas Grotesk.

In the end it wasn’t used, although it was successful as a design. We went back to square one and decided that the Guardian actually needed a serif design. Mark Porter, the design director, asked if Christian and I would be interested in drawing it together and I think we just said, “Yes.” We didn’t have much of a discussion about it.

It comes completely down to context; the double story “g” suits certain styles of letters and the single story suits others." —Paul Barnes



CS: I don’t think I was given a choice, but I don’t think I had any apprehension about it either. Both of us knew that the project would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With everything happening in newspapers, I wonder if anything this large will ever happen again. We seemed to get along well and the Neue Haas Grotesk revival had gone smoothly, so teaming up seemed the natural progression.

PB: And a nice thing is that a few years later, the Neue Haas Grotesk was used by Richard Turley in his redesign at Bloomberg Businessweek. Even though it’s a typeface that is over 50 years old, it seems very contemporary in this context.

CA: Ultimately for the Guardian, you created a new serif called Guardian—an Egyptian—and derived a sans from that. You write on your website, “What happens when you try to make a new sans serif by chopping the slabs off of an Egyptian?” What made an Egyptian the right choice for the newspaper?

CS: First, we drew a serif typeface called Haçienda. (It later became Publico.) Everyone seemed happy, but we felt in the back of our minds that it was’t quite working. As a concept it didn't seem new enough. All the other serious papers in the UK used serif headline typefaces, so the Guardian would seem to be a follower rather than a leader in design.

PB: The problem with the serif was that it didn’t fulfill the need for the typeface to become the brand. Although Helvetica is a very common typeface, when they began using it in the 1980s, it was unique in the newspaper world. When they used it with Garamond, it became the brand. Mark felt that a new sans would feel more like the Guardian than a new serif.

CS: Paul called on a Friday and said that Mark wanted to see a totally new direction by Monday, which is always a daunting problem to try to solve. There’s nothing scarier than a blank sheet of paper.

PB: It was hard because we had invested so much time in Haçienda, but we knew it wasn’t quite right. I remembered that Matthew Carter had once shown me a drawing of a slab serif with its slabs removed making a sans serif and how close the nineteenth-century designs were. So we just made a quick Egyptian out of Haçienda and trimmed off the slabs.

CS: Looking back it seems very natural, but at the time we were hesitant about it. What drew us to the Egyptian is that it seemed like it could become the brand. Not many newspapers used an Egyptian at the time, so it had the feeling of being ahead of the curve. It also felt as if you could do all the things you could do with a sans in being bold and still have the elegance and “newsiness” of a serif. Luckily Mark saw it as well.

CA: Paul, you were an established graphic designer with some type design experience. Christian, you were the opposite, working in type design since your teen years, but also having experience in publication design in New York City. How did your new working relationship on the Guardian benefit from these complementary backgrounds?

PB: I did the meetings, so I was a bit of a middle man, but we did the work pretty equally. Christian is very good at the technical aspects of type design, I am certainly not, so he did a lot of the final parts of the job. Being more of a graphic designer brings a certain amount of distance from the job, which being a type designer doesn’t always allow. Type design by its nature is often quite inward looking; I try to bring the light back in where necessary.

CS: Paul is excellent at coming up with ideas, most of which are good. I can help Paul see the way forward with execution. And when I go too far down the wrong path with my own ideas, Paul can usually see how to get back on track. We work well together because we can often look at what the other has done and give advice that takes it forward. We also realized early on that we could be honest in our opinions with each other without taking it personally, because we have a shared aim in coming up with good results. We have always disagreed about things, but we don't let it get in the way. If we disagree strongly about a character, we can always draw an alternate form and move on.

One of the most rewarding parts of the foundry for me has been the opportunity to find talented type designers and help to bring them along." —Christian Schwartz



CA: How did your partnership progress?

PB: When the Guardian project finished, it felt like we had been working on it for a lifetime. I don’t think I ever wanted to see an Egyptian again.

CS: It was a long two years. The first project afterwards was Esquire, who wanted—you guessed it, an Egyptian—although Paul wasn’t really involved in Stag, aside from the odd comment here and there. We never sat down and talked about forming a partnership, it happened organically. A few other projects came along, like the typefaces for the Empire State Building and finishing Haçienda for Público in Lisbon. We found ourselves collaborating on more and more of our work. Also, we knew that sooner or later we would begin selling the Guardian typeface so we would be tied together in some way.

Paul brought a huge, untapped stockpile of ideas and typefaces to the partnership—some of which were new designs and some revivals. I thought, “He has to finish them,” which turned into, “We have to finish them.” I was consulting on type for Condé Nast Portfolio, who were looking for a new serif display typeface. Paul had Brunel, a design he had been working on since the mid-'90s but had never quite gotten around to finishing. It was a kind of completist revival of British Modern, in a full range of weights and optical sizes. I showed it to the client and they were totally seduced by it. So Paul and I found ourselves finishing it together. There’s nothing like a deadline for getting things moving along. I could see what wasn’t working with it as a typeface, but Paul’s historical knowledge kept it looking authentic to the source as we filled it out. In this way, I think both of us learned a great deal from the other.

CA: You formed your own foundry in 2007 and took it online in 2010. What was the motivation?

CS: When the exclusivity of the Guardian family was coming to an end, we looked at the various opportunities we had for releasing it, whether publishing it through another foundry or publishing it ourselves but relying on outside distribution. In the end we came to the conclusion that we would be happiest if we were marketing and licensing it ourselves and the Guardian family could be the foundation of a library of our own.

PB: We wanted to do things together, such as Caponi for Entertainment Weekly, but we also wanted to release other people’s work and to be able to market them successfully. We knew separately a very talented designer, Kai Bernau, who had been at the KABK (Royal Academy of Art) in the Hague. We had seen his typeface Lyon and both fell in love with it. We thought that would be interesting to release and it’s become amazingly successful.

CS: Matthew Butterick, who had been at the Font Bureau before I was there and later become a lawyer, had written a book called Typography for Lawyers. In it, he had recommended Lyon and also used it for the text in the book. Since then we've been licensing it to lawyers all over the world. Lawyers aren’t a market we would have had the slightest idea how to reach and I think this really illustrates just how diverse the type market is.

CA: Do you still do outside projects?

PB: I still do some consultancy and small projects outside of Commercial Type. It’s been good to do other things as it makes the type design more interesting. I still think of myself as a bit of an amateur when it comes to type. But of course running a foundry is more than just design work. It’s answering customer inquiries, thinking of the future direction, mailing promotional material—lots of non-design tasks.

CS: I think if we had known at the beginning how much work it was to run and maintain a foundry we might have done something else instead! But it’s too late to turn back now. One of the most rewarding parts of the foundry for me has been the opportunity to find talented type designers and help to bring them along, whether it’s a more informal working relationship like we have with designers like Kai and his wife Susana Carvalho in the Hague and Dan Milne in Melbourne or the designers who work full-time in our studio in New York, Berton Hasebe and Vincent Chan. Working with our staff and with outside designers helps us to stay excited and current and to know what's going on in the world outside of New York and London. Berton’s first release, Platform, is a typeface I don’t think either Paul or I ever would have drawn and it’s important to the Commercial Type library because of that. The main thing we all have in common is an interest in and a connection to graphic design—we all have graphic design backgrounds rather than, say, calligraphy or any of the other various routes people take to find themselves in the world of type design.

CA: Lastly, I personally have a predilection for two-story “g”s. Do either or both of you favor one over the other? Or does it always come down to context and concept?

PB: It comes completely down to context; the double story “g” suits certain styles of letters and the single story suits others.

CS: The one absolute in type design is that there are no absolutes. ca

Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at designsharp@angelynngrant.com. In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.

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