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A Type House Divided


Hoefler and Frere-Jones “spent a lot of time discussing projects and just hanging out,” says Jesse Ragan, a type designer who worked at the company between 2001 and 2005. “Definitely they had their own typefaces, their own babies, their own creations, but they would get feedback from each other.” In 2002, when they moved to a new office in the Cable Building, they combined their personal collections of type books into a majestic double-sided set of bookcases. Says Ragan, “They’d constantly call out references: ‘Oh, this could be more of a Clarendon a, or a Bodoni a.’ They would pull books down from the library and say, ‘No, this is more what I mean, something more like this, something that has this personality.’ ” From time to time they’d take a break to play a first-person-shooter video game called Marathon, blasting each other to bits over the network. One afternoon, Hoefler sent Frere-Jones an email: “are you around later for a game of Immolate-Your-Business-Partner?” Frere-Jones replied, “YES.”

“More Steve McQueen than Steven Seagal” read one internal design note. Another explained, “Whiskey highball, not a martini.” Designed by Frere-Jones.  

As far as clients could tell, the two men were “joined at the hip,” says Alexander Isley, a creative director who commissioned fonts from them. “They were seamlessly collaborative. I feel I could pick up the phone and speak with either of them, and [the other] would know about it.”

But as the company grew, from five employees to ten to 15, each man carved out his own domain. Today, the exact division of labor has become an issue. “I’ve been drawing type for 25 years,” Hoefler says. “I work with the designers here to make type every day. And whether I am making something myself or overseeing it as somebody’s editor, I am responsible for the look, feel, and performance of every character that goes out of this office, and that’s always been the case.” However, according to Frere-Jones and multiple former H&FJ employees, Hoefler left the vast majority of the type-design work to Frere-Jones, who ran the type department from his office way off in the corner. He listened to abstract electronic music and jazz in an enormous pair of headphones that blotted out the noise of Broadway and Houston and crafted a series of hit fonts with his team. Meanwhile, Hoefler and his people did everything else. They pitched clients, negotiated prices, designed the website, designed the type catalogues, wrote the sales copy. The arrangement seems to have been fairly explicit: As Hoefler would put it later, in a brief documentary about H&FJ, “Tobias and his group are more heavily weighted on the ‘making the fonts’ side, and me and my group are on the ‘using the fonts’ side.”

When he had to, Hoefler played hardball. He cared a lot about making sure no one stole H&FJ’s work. A typeface, after all, conceals its authorship. Someone makes a font, puts it out in the world, and if it works perfectly, it’s just letters on a screen, a receding expression of the alphabet. Maybe it means something for people to use Palatino over Times New Roman, but few stop to wonder who drew the letters, who gave the characters their identity.

Slab-serif Archer mixes typewriter cues with unexpected ball terminals; designed by Hoefler and Frere-Jones, it appeared in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  

Frere-Jones was okay with that; unlike Hoefler, he never named a font after himself, the obvious solution to the invisible-authorship problem. “The name is the user’s first point of contact with a typeface, and it should help the user rather than trumpet me,” Frere-Jones says. “I’ve also never felt it necessary to remind people that I designed my typefaces, because everyone already knows it.” Hoefler, however, knew that not everyone did. He would see an H&FJ font on a poster or a billboard or a website and check to see if the company using the font had paid for it; if it hadn’t, he would send a cease-and-desist letter. He once took the unusual step of suing a former employee he alleged had taken H&FJ font designs to a competing company. The employee denied it, and the case settled out of court. (In cases where it seemed like a font had been published that was based on one of H&FJ’s designs, Frere-Jones would do the investigation, “figure out if this was true or not,” he says, “and then I would tell Jonathan what I was able to find, and it would be up to him to decide how to handle it.”)

According to Spiekermann, who knows both Hoefler and Frere-Jones, Frere-Jones is “a cool kid” who “wants to make cool stuff,” whereas Hoefler is “the little nitty-gritty mean little bastard. He is a tight-ass, as we say in German.”

If Frere-Jones saw the business part as drudgery, Hoefler actually found it creatively satisfying. “It’s tempting if you’re a visual artist to think that business is the other stuff,” he says during the January interview at his office. “It’s the dry stuff. It’s paperwork. It’s this guy in a suit”—he points to his lawyer—“and that guy with his phone”—he points to his PR guy. “And it’s not.”


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