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A Type House Divided

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Because Hoefler and Frere-Jones were both avid collectors of rare type books and regularly bid for the same volumes, they often crossed paths. Every year or so, Hoefler and Frere-Jones would grab a meal and talk about how great it would be if they worked together. According to Frere-Jones, in 1999, Hoefler asked him to dinner at the Gotham Bar and Grill and proposed a 50-50 partnership called Tobias and Jonathan’s Excellent Adventure LLC. They’d get more business together than they would alone; their talents would complement each other. According to Frere-Jones, the deal was basically this: Frere-Jones would make the fonts, and Hoefler would use his client-hustling skills to sell them. (Hoefler, in legal papers, denies that this oral agreement ever existed.)

Frere-Jones moved to New York and brought his rare type books with him. He also agreed to bring 11 fonts to the company, a good chunk of his Boston output. He and Hoefler called these the Dowry Fonts “because this was going to be like a marriage,” Frere-Jones says.

Although he says now that the fonts were worth more than $3 million, he signed an agreement that transferred them to the Hoefler Type Foundry for a sale price of $10. The agreement also spelled out that he and Hoefler were “independent entities,” not partners. Frere-Jones didn’t consult a lawyer; he says he gave the fonts away for $10 because “I was giving them to my own company,” and he signed the agreement about being an independent entity because he was just trying to keep things moving. Unfortunately for Frere-Jones, Hoefler is now using that agreement and Frere-Jones’s employment contract to contend that Frere-Jones was always an employee, not a partner, even though Hoefler’s own statements give a different picture of the arrangement. For instance, in an email to an advertising agency in 2002, Hoefler wrote, “Since 1999, Tobias has been a partner at The Hoefler Type Foundry.” And here’s Hoefler writing to Frere-Jones about a brainstorm related to an exhibit of type-specimen books: “It’s possible that your partner is a genius.”

After Frere-Jones sold his fonts, Hoefler renamed the company. It was now Hoefler & Frere-Jones, H&FJ for short. They drew an elaborate custom ampersand and etched it above the door between their names.


[7] For his signature typeface, Gotham, Frere-Jones took inspiration from geometric city signage.  

It didn’t take long for news of their collaboration to spread. In February 2000, the new creative director of George emailed Hoefler asking for “a new body font plus a sans serif display family … Any thoughts?” Hoefler replied that he was booked solid for the next two months because “my new (and still as-yet-unannounced) partnership with Tobias Frere-Jones has opened the floodgates for new work.”

This was the year Frere-Jones started to draw what would become his best-known creation, in response to a request from GQ. GQ wanted a geometric sans-serif. Frere-Jones looked to the signage of New York for inspiration, particularly the letters that spelled out PORT AUTHORITY above the entrance to the Eighth Avenue bus terminal. He spent his weekends roaming Manhattan with a camera, photographing signs on buildings to get ideas for numerals, lowercase letters, and italics [ fig.
7 ]
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At his computer, he drew an uppercase H, O, and D, because they contained flat and round elements that would determine how other letters looked. When he moved on to the G, the R, and the S, he started to deviate from the mathematical grid, hoping to give the font a subliminal playfulness. As he filled out the alphabet, the letters revealed a promising flexibility; if Frere-Jones set text in caps and spread the spacing out, the words felt authoritarian, imposing, and if he set them in lowercase and pulled the spacing in, they felt fresh and young. He tried to think of a name for the font that would showcase some of the more distinctive letters: the stark, powerful G; the circular o; the strange-tasting a. For a name, he thought about Goats, and Gomorrah. He finally settled on Gotham.


[8] Retina, with notched glyphs to help prevent ink spread on cheap paper, was designed for use at near-invisible type sizes. Designed by Frere-Jones.  

At the very beginning, recalls Frere-Jones, the company was just Hoefler, him, and a third person answering the phones, sitting together in one room. He and Hoefler “more or less lived at the office,” Frere-Jones says. “We were both throwing everything we could at making it succeed.” Frere-Jones worked on Gotham but not exclusively. Another early project was Retina [ fig. 8 ], commissioned by The Wall Street Journal for its stock listings. Because it had to be legible at very small sizes, Frere-Jones removed parts of Retina’s letterforms at strategic joints so that when the letters bled onto the newsprint, they filled themselves in. According to Journal senior designer David Pybas, Retina allowed the paper to print the same amount of information on eight fewer pages every issue, saving about $6 million to $7 million a year in printing costs.


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