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A Type House Divided

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[10] Frere-Jones and Hoefler last year.  

Several times over the years, Frere-Jones had asked Hoefler to put their partnership in writing, but there was always some pressing deadline, some crisis that had to be handled, and Frere-Jones let it slide. Early last year, though, he became more insistent, and Hoefler said they’d get to it after they launched the cloud. But when the cloud finally debuted in July, and Frere-Jones brought up the paperwork later that month, Hoefler got angry, according to Frere-Jones’s legal complaint. “Stop it,” Hoefler said. “I’m working on it. Stop harassing me.” When I ask him about the piece of paper Frere-Jones was requesting, Hoefler stiffens: “Piece of paper? What piece of paper? Oh, a new piece of paper that he wanted, you mean.”

Three months later, in October, Frere-Jones again approached Hoefler, who told him to forget it. “Jonathan now had a different idea about what this company was and who I was,” says Frere-Jones. “I was just stunned.” Frere-Jones alleges in his complaint that around this time, Hoefler transferred the shares Frere-Jones believed were his to Borsella. Hoefler says flatly that this isn’t true. “Carleen doesn’t own any part of the company and never has.”

Frere-Jones continued to try to speak to Hoefler until January. He got nowhere. So he walked out the door beneath the big ampersand. “I can’t even describe what it was like to do that,” Frere-Jones says. “To have built this place—” he stops. “To have built my company over 15 years and then just walk out … and close the door behind me.” He stops again. “It had my name on it. And. But. I tried everything else.”

In court papers, Hoefler says Frere-Jones’s suit is “a transparent attempt by Frere-Jones to wrest undeserved equity from a successful designer and businessman that has gainfully employed and generously compensated him for the past 14 years.” Hoefler also argues that Frere-Jones’s salary “increased dramatically during [his] employment.”

At his lawyer’s office, Frere-Jones blinks behind his thick glasses, his voice remaining soft. “I think the design community would disagree about this being undeserved,” he says. “Because they know where the stuff came from.” He ran the type department at a company whose only product was type. He was the auteur responsible for the firm’s auteurish reputation. The pipes for the fonts may have changed, but without him, “all those beautiful pipes would be empty.” He says he hopes to gain custody of the fonts that he drew at H&FJ, including Gotham, and bring them to a new business he’s starting—a one-man type foundry. “I made these, I drew these,” he says. “Everyone in the community knows where these faces came from.”

Hoefler and Frere-Jones don’t seem to miss whatever they used to share (their lawyers would rather they not discuss it anyway). On what drew them together, Hoefler offers: “I can say vaguely that the people I talk to about type are the people who love type in the way that I do, and I think we share a lot of those same values.” All Frere-Jones can muster is “I find it really difficult to go there.” Asked what he has learned from the whole ordeal, he replies, “Ah,” and looks down at his folded hands. “I can’t—shouldn’t—trust appearances.”

Not long before they went to court, they each gave an interview to a film crew with Dress Code, a New York design studio. The resulting six-minute documentary, Font Men, was shown at South by Southwest in March. As Hoefler and Frere-Jones take turns speaking about type, examples of some of their most famous letterforms dance and morph on the screen. There’s talk of inherent trust, of always seeing type in the same light. If a design isn’t working, they both feel it intuitively. It’s a final glimpse of their partnership as something satisfying and fruitful.

The film is so focused on painting a picture of personal and professional harmony that you hardly notice that there are few scenes of the men actually together. But there is a brief shot in which Hoefler and Frere-Jones are sitting across from each other in the library examining papers near a vase of yellow flowers [ fig. 10 ]. It feels like a window into what their partnership may have looked like in the early days of the company: two ambitious artists surrounded by centuries of bound type history, hunched over their separate projects that invoke and play with that history. One man showing a proof of some letterforms to the other, the other telling him what is or isn’t quite working.

In another scene, Hoefler and Frere-Jones are sitting side by side, facing the interviewer. “There aren’t that many people I’ve met whose opinions I value as much as Tobias’s,” Hoefler says. “We do have a long-standing disagreement on the height of the lowercase t.” Hoefler shoots Frere-Jones a look of mock severity, then breaks out laughing. Frere-Jones nods, looks at the ceiling, and says, “Oh, okay, all right, yeah, there’s a thing with the lowercase t.


This article has been updated throughout to clarify the difference between typography and type design.


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