Genuine Imitations: A Type Designer’s View of Revivals

Matthew Carter spoke on historical revivals last night at CooperType. I had heard the talk twice before in the past year, but this time I took notes. Matthew is not only a good speaker, but he is full of pithy comments that often manage to be both amusing and deadly serious at the same time. Here are a few of them that I copied down.

“I take a predatory approach to history.”—by this, Matthew meant that he prowls history for ideas about type to explore rather than for entire typefaces to replicate faithfully.

“If you want to use history, you should know more than history.”—You need to know about technology and culture.

“They remind me of drowned rats.”—re: ragged rs, variants that in blackletter are intended to be used following a letter with a curved right side. (Paleographers call it the bowed r.)

“I had hallucinated the typeface… an historical revival without a history.”—re: his design of display capitals for Monotype Van Dijck which Matthew assumed he had based on something historical, but then could not find the source.

“There is no such thing as a genuine type designer’s sketch. They are all fakes.”—Matthew says that such drawings are done after the typeface is finished in order to satisfy journalists and historians who want a paper trail.

The change from metal type to phototype was a greater leap than that from phototype to digital type since it involved a sudden emancipation from the physical limitations of metal type. Matthew made this statement in discussing the liberating effect that phototype had on joining scripts, in particular his groundbreaking Snell Roundhand designed for the Linofilm.

Type designers often “walk a line between crudeness and blandness, the twin pitfalls of the reviver.”—if one is too authentic than one ends up with taxidermy. Matthew believes that “type needs guts”. Strict fidelity to an original is a mistake. There must be some interpretation in the same way that a contemporary musician approaches a composition of the past. “Criticism is implicit in a revival.”

Matthew does not believe in slavishly copying a body type for display purposes. He likes to tweak a few letters, to change them up.

“To find out why I like a face, I digitize it.”—Matthew often does this to satisfy his own curiosity, rather than with a commercial purpose in mind, but sometimes his explorations lead later to fonts for clients.

Francesco Griffo’s roman type cut for use in the De Aetna of Pietro Bembo (1495) is, in Matthew’s opinion, “the archetype of type”. It is set in 16 pt, “the best size for roman type.”

“You take on some degree of responsibility, of stewardship, when you borrow from the past.”—in Matthew’s view, a revival is more than resuscitation. You must honor the past while making the new type work in the present.