Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Five foundries that make us go “mmmm…”

Five foundries that make us go “mmmm…”
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Get me on the topic of type, and I can go on for hours. I can’t entirely account for my love of letterforms but it makes it no less real. I get rather emotional about typography. This morning I showered, staring at a bottle of overpriced shampoo, actually irritated by the awkwardly varied stem-weights that made its wordmark seem sickly.

On the other hand, I am also known to coo and purr over certain nuances that feel almost sculptural. Most recently I’ve been enamored with the ampersands and the construction of the number eight in Underware’s Auto. This of course is much to the chagrin of those around me. My wife, Amea, will feign interest in the topic at dinner time, and I appreciate this, but I know that she finds the whole thing arcane and strange.

My friend Hans even mentioned the topic during his speech at my wedding. He explained in graphic detail how I call and speak feverishly about books like “10,000 Sans Serif Fonts You Must Know.”

I later noted that no such book exists, but likely would have bought it, if it did.

This is a self-indulgent blog post

All year long, we’ve been talking in the studio about a few type foundries that are doing great work. We admire some of them from afar, as we haven’t been able to afford licencing their type, or haven’t yet found appropriate projects to employ their families. On other occasions, we have been fortunate enough to use type from some of these foundries and even been able to talk to their designers. I must say that some of these typefaces have really made our projects come to life.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of foundries, but rather, a few whose work is on our wish list. If we could licence all of their type today and throw away all the other type we utilize, we might just do so. These are all smaller shops that provide fresh alternatives to the big guys like Linotype and FontFont.


Perhaps it’s my Finnish roots that make me wax poetic for the work of Underware, a foundry featuring the work of a few amazing Dutch and Finnish type designers. No… Scratch that. It’s just their type—but what type! Their family Auto is a wonderful example—truly a complete type family, featuring three italics, thirty-two ampersands and seventy-two fonts. Sauna is equally beautiful and elegantly constructed. They also show-off their chops with Bello, a contemporary script that deserves mention for its beauty and balance. The foundry also partakes in a number of type workshops that appeal to the type-geek in all of us.

Hoefler & Frere-Jones

Some people just do things better than the rest of us. I keep trying my hand at building type, but when I look over the work of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, I think that I’m in over my head. Perhaps it’s silly for me to even mention this group, as their name has become ubiquitous with fine typography; nevertheless, I couldn’t compile this list without a nod to them. We recently relied on Whitney for a project, and it was simply gorgeous. It’s hard to find a specimen on their site that doesn’t feel like an instant classic. As a designer, one could build a career using only these families. (I just wish they didn’t make their licencing so cumbersome.)


When Bob from Montreal worked with us in 2002, he ordered a catalogue from House Industries. I have never let go of that catalogue. Although we have not yet found an opportunity to use any type from House, I’m always looking for a chance. Lesser type designers with such an affinity for vintage Americana could readily fall into the trap of building knock-off display fonts, The folks at House have no worry of doing so. They go old school, working with the likes of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Ed Benguiat, while going to painstaking lengths to create workable families. (They note that Ed Interlock required 1,400 letter combinations.) Plus, they talk about ink, paint, graphite, and erasers in a way that very few do these days. (I think I’m blushing with admiration.) For fun, visit the case studies section of the site.


Rodrigo Cavazos is a fellow over at PSY/OPS, a San Francisco based foundry desperately in need of a site redesign. That being said, their specimens make it worth slogging through a somewhat awkward site. In the past year, we’ve probably relied on PSY/OPS type in more projects than that of any other foundry. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how workable we’ve found families like Sophisto to be in a variety of instances. I have a high regard for type designers who build exhaustive type families with multiple weights, ever so slightly nuanced. In my mind, this makes all of the difference between a type family that’s curious and one that’s a real workhorse. At smashLAB, we’ve been able to use Sophisto in a variety of projects, from an aggressive campaign for a community redevelopment, to my own playful wedding invitations. Families like this truly have their place in your font menu.


My last mention is about not one foundry, but rather a collective called Village. We found them through Keith Tam—a fellow Vancouverite who we still haven’t met, but we’d love to talk type with over coffee. Village features the work of eleven foundries who “have decided to go it alone, together.” Their roster includes Thirstype, Joshua Darden, the Feliciano Type Foundry and others. The whole outfit seems to be headed-up by Chester and Tracy Jenkins in New York City. I think that I in part want to be their friends just because of the reserved and smart website they have designed to house their efforts. Those patterns—so very nice.

Buy type

When we purchased some type from Village, Chester sent an email noting that we may have purchased too many licences in error. When we explained that we just needed additional licences, he noted that they love it when people get “all legal” with their type. I was a bit surprised. (Not too much, but certainly a bit.)

I know how tough it is to manage costs in a small studio, and how prohibitive type purchases can seem; nevertheless, I think we all have an obligation to do our best. To date, I have not heard of a single wealthy type designer. That said, their knowledge and skill truly empowers us to build better design. I think that we can all agree that they deserve to be paid. And frankly, if we aren’t willing to pay for their wares, are we any better than the unaware client who walks in to our office noting that they could have bought their logo at for way less?

In 2007, let’s do what we can to get “all legal”, as Chester put it. :-)

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