Broken English: A Type House Divided

You must read this brilliant piece by Jason Fagone in New York Magazine on the fallout from the end of Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones’ partnership at the type foundry that brought the world Gotham, Mercury, and Archer:

They had some very good years. The best thing that happened to them was undoubtedly Gotham; most type foundries rely on one or two blockbuster sellers to generate the majority of revenue, and Gotham soon became that for H&FJ. They were making a lot of money. But another way to measure their success was in the rising social status of type designers as a class. More and more, design magazines and websites and even art museums were recognizing digital type as a true and important art form, seeking out its leading practitioners—people like Spiekermann in Germany, Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in Berkeley, and Neville Brody in London—and exalting them as icons. And Hoefler and Frere-Jones probably enjoyed more of this sort of treatment than most. There was something about the union, the partnership, not just one font master but two, like a pop band (later, during the split, design geeks would say it was like the Beatles breaking up), an irresistible concentration of design wisdom and firepower, the two men regularly giving interviews and talks together, racking up prestigious awards. In 2011, the Museum of Modern Art acquired 23 digital typefaces for its permanent collection, including four of H&FJ’s fonts—Gotham, Retina, Mercury, a serif-text font, and HTF Didot. “Type is a design universe unto itself,” a MoMA curator wrote, “an essential dimension in the history of modern art and design.” Hoefler and Frere-Jones were also interviewed and featured prominently in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, about the ubiquitous Swiss-designed font; a lovely exploration of how type can rewire our collective visual consciousness, Helvetica bubbled up from the type-design world into the wider nerd universe and became a surprise festival hit.

By 2011, though, the distinctive personalities of Hoefler and Frere-Jones were generating a slow friction. Jay Moore, an account manager with software-industry experience who worked at H&FJ between 2011 and 2012, describes Hoefler as “pretty intense” and prone to fits of pique. But as much as Hoefler embraced conflict, Frere-Jones avoided it. Moore adds, “Tobias has the capacity to let things go a bit longer, and I think Jonathan has the capacity to harden like steel.” They didn’t spend as many long nights in the office as they used to, in part because both men now had families; Frere-Jones and his wife, Christine, a lawyer from Australia, were caring for a newborn baby, and Hoefler and Borsella would vacation together in France. Borsella was becoming his confidante, taking on a larger role in the company, planning business strategy with Hoefler.

Read the whole piece here.

Broken English: A Type House Divided