Font Bureau was built by type designers. Tobias Frere-Jones is one of those vital practitioners who defined what we do and how we do it. We are proud to offer some of his earliest and most interesting typefaces — work that continues to have relevance and utility today.
By David Berlow || Meeting Tobias Frere-Jones can be a forgettable experience, but only if you don’t talk to him. Reserved is his natural state. But below the surface lie exceptional versatility, observational skills, and inventiveness. This all can be seen in the early typefaces he developed at Font Bureau. Gathered here, from Garage Gothic via Interstate to the Poynter and Benton series, and on to the fanciful ones, are those early families: effective, practical, timeless, unique.
Garage Gothic began as fallen receipts from a Brooklyn parking garage. Tobias didn’t have a car, and I never knew him to drive, so I assumed at the time he walked past the garage and found them, or walked past the garage to find them. Either way, what he found was not nearly as interesting as what he made.
Interstate began when the specifications for highway signage fell into Tobias’ hands. For some time he pored over it and we discussed the differences between signage and printage, before he began slowly designing a new family. There were plenty of typographic diversions on the way, leading to the extensive, multifaceted series Interstate is today.
Poynter began as a well-publicized study of modern newspaper types circa 1990. I was mystified by Mike Parker’s advice on a proper direction, but Tobias heard and saw something that took several years to become roman, italic and the first system of graded weights in response to newspaper printing issues.
Those, and more, are now available in updated font formats and progressively released for web use, even after all these years.
For gritty reality and rust-belt appearance, Garage Gothic Regular was derived from numbered tickets given at city parking garages. “Irregular contours and rough alignments found on the lettering were retained in the typeface, albeit disciplined and restrained” says designer Tobias Frere-Jones. Tickets from other garages suggested a pair of heavier weights, which Frere-Jones formed into the Garage Gothic family. 3 styles in 3 weights.
Familiarity lies at the heart of legibility. Interstate is based on the signage alphabets of our Federal Highway Administration, letterforms absorbed at a glance everywhere we drive. Tobias Frere-Jones designed the original fonts in 1993 and 1994. Interstate provides a real edge in swift communication. 40 styles: 3 widths, 8 weights, italics, monospaced, pictogram fonts.
In the 1670s, Christopher Plantin was the largest publisher of his day. Hendrik van den Keere cut for him an astounding series of romans. As Stanley Morison once observed, such types adopted features of Flemish blackletter to strengthen elegant French romans. Large on the body, strong in color, economical in fit, widely distributed, they established effective standards for all that followed. 12 styles: 3 widths, 3 weights, italics.
Rising cost of newsprint lifts expenses globally and publishers narrow the page, pinching columns. How to retain copy without losing readers? Oldstyle diagonal emphasis fits more characters per line. Familiarity forms the heart of readability. Sponsored by Poynter, Tobias Frere-Jones returned to the romans of Hendrik van den Keere, wellspring of our oldstyle tradition, and fashioned the ultimate in serene, readable newstext. 3/12 styles: 2 weights with italic, in 4 grades.
Morris Fuller Benton’s drawings at the Smithsonian show a creative concern for effects of scale on typeface design. Tobias Frere-Jones began with 4-point ATF Franklin Gothic drawings, modifying proportions to mix with Poynter Oldstyle and Benton Sans, and adjusting ends of curved strokes ‘C G S a c e r s’ to suit news printing conditions. Poynter Gothic Text excels as subheads used with Poynter Oldstyle Text. 16 styles: 2 widths, 4 weights, italics.
Tobias Frere-Jones began Armada in 1987. An experiment in algorithmic design, Armada follows the verticals and flat arches so often to be found in the architectural geometry of cast iron and brickwork in 19th century American cityscapes. All of the weights and widths of Armada were drawn by Frere-Jones, offering a full display series of remarkable richness, all variations in a truly architectural theme and discipline. 15 styles: 3 widths, 5 weights.
Who hasn’t admired the energy of Antique Olive Nord? All other ultrabolds seem sluggish in comparison. Nord exudes Excoffon’s animation and Gallic impatience with the rules. Tobias Frere-Jones cross-bred the weight, proportion, and rhythms of Nord with the casual grace of his own Cafeteria, gaining informality and a dancing vitality on the page. In his words, Asphalt swings with “a lively, if faintly inebriated gyration”. 2 styles in 2 widths.
The irregularities normally found in script can enliven sans-serif letterforms. In Cafeteria, Tobias Frere-Jones took special care to balance activity with legibility on the paper napkin that served as his sketchpad, drawing a freeform sans-serif that is condensed but in no way stiff. Frere-Jones lives with a tendency to draw wherever he finds himself. Starting this four-part family in 1992 to amuse himself, he eventually amused all of us. 4 styles in 4 weights.
In 1903 faced with the welter of sans offered by ATF, Morris Fuller Benton designed News Gothic, a 20th century standard. In 1995 Tobias Frere-Jones studied drawings in the Smithsonian and started a redesign. Cyrus Highsmith reviewed News Gothic, and with the Font Bureau studio expanded it into Benton Sans, a far reaching new series, with matched weights, widths and performance well beyond the limits of the original. 80 styles: 5 widths, 8 weights, italics.
Benton Modern was originally undertaken by Tobias Frere-Jones to improve text at The Boston Globe. Widening the text face for the Detroit Free Press, he returned Century’s proportions to Morris Fuller Benton’s turn-of-the-century ATF Century Expanded, successfully reviving the great news text type. The italic, based on Century Schoolbook Italic, was designed by Richard Lipton and Christian Schwartz, who also added the Bold. 4/16 styles: 2 weights with italics, in 4 grades.
Drawn at the close of the nineteenth century at the Boston branch of American Type Founders, Epitaph was modeled on a graceful Art Nouveau letterform that was bringing a new vitality to gravestone inscriptions at the time. The energy and life of the Vienna Secession alphabet drew the attention of Tobias Frere-Jones, who digitized the original set of titling capitals and added alternate characters for its Font Bureau release. 1 style.
In 1998, Tobias Frere-Jones designed Grand Central for 212 Associates from late-twenties capitals hand-painted on the walls of Grand Central Station. The design is a distinguished Beaux Arts descendant of the great French Oldstyle originated by Louis Perrin in Lyon in 1846, known across Europe as Elzevir and in the United States as De Vinne. Lettering from different areas was combined for Light; Bold was designed for more distant signs. 2 styles in 2 weights.
Weak ovals replace powerful circular forms in the condensed form of most geometric slab-serifs. In Citadel, Tobias Frere-Jones follows a stronger alternative, substituting straight strokes for the curved sides of round characters. Flat horizontal curves play against the variety of serifs in counterpoint to the repeating rhythm of verticals. The inline stripe adds to the rhythm of a typeface that offers a powerful and stylish geometry. 2 styles: Solid and Inline.
Of all his work, Chauncey Griffith claimed one type, Bell Gothic, as his own design. Griffith Gothic is a revival of the 1937 Mergenthaler original, redrawn as the house sans for Fast Company. Tobias Frere-Jones drew a six weight series from light and bold, removing linecaster adjustments and retaining the pre-emptive thinning of joints as a salient feature. Italics and Condensed complete this ultimately legible sans series. 18 styles: 2 widths, 6 weights, italics.
In 1994, Tobias Frere-Jones completed Hightower for the Journal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. For as long as he had drawn letters, he had wrestled with the problems posed by any modern rendition of the 15th-century Venetian roman. Dissatisfied with others’ attempts to bring Nicholas Jenson’s 1470 roman up to date, Frere-Jones prepared his version of this calligraphic roman, with his own personal italic. 3 styles: roman, italic, small caps.
Nobel offers personal variations on strict Bauhaus geometry. In 1929, three years after the Futura release, Sjoerd Hendrik de Roos at Amsterdam explored alternative character sets to enliven basic Futura forms. The Nobel series was designed for Font Bureau by Tobias Frere-Jones, who fondly views Nobel as “Futura cooked in dirty pots and pans.” The Extra Lights were added by Cyrus Highsmith and Dyana Weissman. 18 styles: 2 widths, 6 weights, italics.
While not a revival in the strictest sense of the word, Niagara recalls the crisp, elegant geometry found in some of the best American styles from the 1930s and ’40s. The four condensed weights were designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, who found inspiration in the straight-sided geometric fonts from that era. With its mixture of weights and engraved styles, Niagara offers the typographer unusual opportunities. 10 styles: 3 weights, small caps, solid and engraved.
Sitting in a Paris cafe with a bottle of beer, Tobias Frere-Jones gave his attention to the label. It was set in a roman design wearing blackletter-like clothes, probably to suggest an origin in Alsace or points to the East. Unable to forget the design, with its blocky, straight line emphasis, Tobias designed Pilsner, an exercise in straight lines in an angle-centered scheme. Pilsner offers a truly adventurous typographic texture. 4 styles in 4 weights.
Loose and angular, this typeface was originally designed by Imre Reiner for the Amsterdam Typefoundry in 1951. Attracted by its free-form structure and unique texture, Tobias Frere-Jones revived the original design from handset proofs in 1993 and designed a new boldface to accompany it. Following Reiner’s personal style of calligraphy, over twenty ligatures were added to each weight for flexibility and variety in headlines. 2 styles in 2 weights.
First drawn in 1993 by Tobias Frere-Jones for Neville Brody’s Fuse magazine, FB Reactor combines abraded forms with Tesla’s theory of destruction through accumulating rhythmic points of noise. The “Derelict” style offers choices of eroding framework for each character. In Degrading, each letter flings soot and smut at its stark neighbors until accumulating flecks build up a roaring vibration that can overwhelm the outlines. 2 styles: Degrading and Derelict.
Stereo was designed by Karlgeorg Hoefer and built with an unusual understanding of the play of casual form in building a fictional third dimension. A powerful exercise by a master of figure–ground relations, Stereo can fool the eye at any size, defining shape and suggesting depth. Its playful success brings laughter to the lips of admiring users. Stereo appeared in 1968, and was seen by Tobias Frere-Jones, who revived it digitally. 1 style.
Tobias Frere-Jones was born in 1970 in New York, where he would come to appreciate the elegant and cultured, as well as the derelict and corrupt. His adolescence was divided between the galleries of Manhattan and the dockyards of Brooklyn. At fourteen he began exhibiting paintings, sculptures and photographs in New York galleries. An artist being raised in a family of writers and printers, he learned the power of written text, and naturally slipped into design of letterforms. By the time he entered Rhode Island School of Design, type design had displaced most other interests. He graduated from the Graphic Design Department in 1992 and began full-time work for Font Bureau, where he was a Senior Designer for several years. In addition to his numerous contributions to the Font Bureau retail library and custom work, he made three fonts — Reactor, Fibonacci, Microphone — for Fuse, a journal of experimental type design. (See a full list of Tobias’ typefaces here.) He joined the faculty of the Yale University School of Art to teach a class in typeface design with Matthew Carter since 1996. In 1999, he left Font Bureau to return to his native New York.
The Royal Academy of the Arts in The Hague awarded Tobias the Gerrit Noordzij Prize in 2006 to honor his unique contributions to typeface design, typography, and type education. (Exhibition and catalog designed by the Type & Media class in 2009, catalog published by Uitgeverij de Buitenkant.)
In 2013, he received the AIGA Medal for exceptional achievements in the field of design.
Feeling that experience from one style can inform new efforts in another, he aims for the widest possible range in his work. He feels equally at home with a traditional text face as with a grungy display face. He seeks inspiration from deliberately non-typographic sources: the music of Schoenberg, the theories of Tesla and Pythagoras, and a row of shopping carts have all provided the initial spark. When asked if the world really needs any more typefaces, he replied: “The day we stop needing new type will be the same day that we stop needing new stories and new songs.”
Upon leaving Font Bureau in 1999, Tobias passed on a 3,366 word / 18,644 character instruction to his coworkers, explaining “the recipe for making Font Bureau specimen pages” in the style of Font Bureau’s iconic stacked-and-justified type showings that have since become a standard in the type industry. The occasionally snarky writing style takes a cue from Thomas MacKellar, who personally wrote much of the text in the specimens for the MacKellar Smiths & Jordan foundry (an early constituent of ATF).
“The idiom of the composition is drawn primarily from nineteenth century woodtype posters, which would often combine fonts more by their lateral measure, and somewhat less by their vertical measure or even the design itself. The result is an interior made very active with its mix of sizes and styles, and an exterior made stable by the strict delineation of the type area.” — Tobias on the Font Bureau specimen design
With this, TFJ built on a style introduced by David Berlow and Roger Black in Font Bureau’s very early days. David: “When I was first asked to digitize Franklin Gothic and Cheltenham in 1989, I wanted to calibrate my process to the original metal faces via the specimens as closely as possible. So, I recomposed the ATF specimens exactly in Pagemaker with the new fonts, learning details of sizing the font to the em, leading, and optical size issues by trying to compose the pages with a single outline.”
“Roger Black was already doing this kind of composition in his publication design work, and I soon learned that anything I made a specimen of in this way, he’d love. So it stuck until the next generation had been convinced of the utter beauty of type composed as art imitating life.” — David Berlow on Font Bureau’s stacked-and-justified specimens