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A Type House Divided

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones brought the world Gotham, Mercury, and Archer. They had one of the most successful—and lucrative—partnerships in type design. But one of them thought it wasn’t a partnership at all.


Illustration by Sean Freeman  

Jonathan Hoefler is standing in his office on the seventh floor of the Cable Building in Noho, sipping a mug of ginger tea and telling stories about an obscure 16th-century Flemish punch cutter. His people are getting bored and wandering away to check their phones, the people he has brought here today to make sure he doesn’t say anything that will harm him in the ongoing court battle that has torn apart and reconfigured this famous type-design firm. But Hoefler doesn’t seem to care. He’s grinning through the gap in his top teeth.

Hoefler picks up an antique type-specimen book and flips through page after page of the punch cutter’s alphabets, explaining why the letterforms are so lovely to him. “I think it’s kind of the gentle taper of these serifs,” he says, running his hand reverently across a page of type. “It gives it a kind of intellectual quality.” This punch cutter’s name was Hendrik van den Keere, and Hoefler points to a series of small geometric shapes that dangle like Christmas-tree ornaments from the interiors of some of van den Keere’s letters. Then he turns the page and points to a lowercase a. See? he says. It doesn’t have the usual “ball terminal” at the upper left. Hoefler looks up. “I think that kind of controlled irregularity is what van den Keere was about.”

[1] Sold as a "blended Scotch" serif, Chronicle ages well on all media. Designed by Hoefler and Frere-Jones.   

The 18-person type foundry he runs, Hoefler & Co., is in the process of making an original font family based on a van den Keere alphabet, one of several projects the company is working on. On a tour of the office, Hoefler introduces designers in white cubicles, tweaking typefaces on Macs. One is immersed in customizing a version of Chronicle [ fig. 1 ] commissioned by the online retailer Net-a-Porter. Another designer is at work on a display face that’s part of a larger font family called Surveyor [ fig. 2 ], inspired by lettering on old maps. He grabs a piece of paper and holds it up. PHYLLIIDAE, it says. FA’A’A, OODAAQ, & TRÆÆSKE. Nonsense phrases to test certain letter combinations. He points to a line of six potential E’s, each slightly different. “All of these are kind of plausible at this point,” he says, frowning, “but still not intellectually satisfying.”

[2] Inspired by old map labeling and originally made to order for Martha Stewart Living, this high-tech font now features "smart swashes," automatically adjusting flourishes. Designed by Hoefler and Frere-Jones.  

After the tour, Hoefler brings me to a conference room with wall-to-wall bookcases, weathered spines of rare type books stretching to the ceiling. In addition to his lawyer and a public-relations representative from the Ketchum firm, he’s joined by his wife, Carleen Borsella. Borsella has worked alongside Hoefler on marketing since 2002, and Hoefler mentions her often as he lays out the big picture of how the company functions and what they see coming: their collaborative, agile workflow system; their recent entry into the web-font business; their belief in mobile-first development, the idea that products should be designed to work on smartphones first. It’s all very future-oriented, which is telling, because the past has recently become an issue at Hoefler & Co. The past is tied up with a designer who helped build this place. He brought in money and prestige, but more than that, he used his skill and position to elevate type in the pop-cultural consciousness, to transform type designers into a new class of conquering nerd. Until a few months ago, his name was on the door. He labored here for 15 years in the belief that he was an equal partner with Hoefler, only to find out last year, in a stunning and terrible moment, that Hoefler didn’t see it that way.

That partner, the designer Tobias Frere-Jones, is having trouble getting the words out. Sitting in a conference room at the law firm now representing him—Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney LLP, on the 35th floor of a midtown high-rise—he pauses a lot, retraces his steps, begins his sentences again. His lawyer is here; so is his wife, for support. He’s suing Hoefler for “not less than $20 million” in New York Supreme Court, alleging that Hoefler committed “the most profound treachery and sustained exploitation of friendship, trust and confidence.” Frere-Jones says that in 1999, Hoefler made a verbal offer to make him a 50-50 partner, and that this offer is legally binding, even though Hoefler never wrote it down. He says Hoefler exploited his talents and his intellectual property for years before ultimately refusing to put their agreement on paper, essentially telling him to fuck off.

[3] Spread capitals communicate authority, clustered lowercase adds some youth. Works well in presidential elections. Designed by Frere-Jones.   

Frere-Jones looks like a young art-school professor, which he is, at Yale: thin, compact, striped shirt, vest, thick glasses. He isn’t as smooth or confident as Hoefler. When he starts talking about how he first became interested in type, he sputters for a few seconds, then says, “I could tell a very long version of that story, which I’ll spare you.” According to a designer who used to work with Frere-Jones, his eye is so sharp that he can look at a printout of a letterform and tell if it’s one pixel off, the same way Ted Williams was said to be able to hold a baseball bat and tell if it was a half-ounce too heavy. He often approaches type design from strange and playful angles; in college, he drew an experimental font called Cat’s Cradle, “which nested and tangled each letter into its neighbor, like shopping carts nested together in front of a supermarket,” he says. “The goal was to preserve character identity under duress.” Some of the most popular and versatile fonts of the past two decades are Frere-Jones creations, including Gotham, the font that Barack Obama used to project his ideas and values to the world in 2008—Shepard Fairey’s famous HOPE poster [ fig. 3 ] is in Gotham, too—and also the font chosen by the 9/11 Memorial designers when they carved a remembrance into the granite cornerstone of the Freedom Tower.


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