Quirky, Vernacular, and British: Chiswick

Quirky, Vernacular, and British: Chiswick

Guest writer Mark Davis shares about the recent presentation by the British-half of Commercial Type at The Cooper Union in NYC.

Unpolished, yet energetic piano chords played from the backstage of an empty auditorium at Cooper Union. It was March 21st, 2017 and Paul Barnes was about to give a presentation on one of his newest typeface families, Chiswick.

He was about to unveil a system that, like his impromptu piano performance, was motivated by sheer spontaneity, and embraces the beauty of imperfections. But in the meantime, he found a piano backstage in the Rose Auditorium. As he started his presentation, Barnes said “I was told you were an interested and patient audience, so I do hope you’ll indulge me.”

The audience laughed at the wryly self-effacing humor of the British man in a gray suit.

Chiswick is Barnes’ take on late 18th century British lettering, this time with a modern serif, a high-contrast sans, and a grotesque. (The first two come in several optical sizes and are available at Commercial Type, which Barnes co-founded with Christian Schwartz.) 

The design was spun during the frenzies of working for clients. “We prefer to take on client projects where we can be a part of the collaboration,” said Barnes. “One of the first questions we ask is ‘Why won’t an existing typeface be suitable for licensing?’”

Barnes continued, “Creating a custom typeface is a costly process, but licensing an existing design can be just as expensive for a larger company.” Questions like this display how Commercial attends to a Client’s needs first, rather than merely trying to win new custom projects.

Paul Barnes, at a Type@Cooper lecture in New York, March 21

Paul Barnes, at a Type@Cooper lecture in New York, March 21

When Wolff Olins approached Commercial Type to design a font for the rebrand of The National Trust, Barnes turned to the ripe, vernacular lettering of the British Isles for inspiration. Barnes described that vernacular lettering styles are developed around the same time in the same place, whether they are painted, cast, etched, or carved in stone.

Barnes used the opportunity to explore the gamut of styles of mid 18th century English letterforms in one “Super Family.” Although the final typefaces for The National Trust identity turned out differently than Chiswick, the process led Barnes to create not only Chiswick, but three other Commercial Type releases, including Darby Sans.


The audience proved to be a very interested one, as they were straining to see the photos of Barnes’ found lettering that inspired the typeface. If only the house manager for the event actually turned the lights off so the audience could see the photos on the projector screen…

A remarkable part about Chiswick was how the characters were not perfect.

If you lay the ‘i’ ‘l’ and ‘j’ on top of one another, they don’t overlap perfectly. They aren’t exactly the same width, the side bearings are different, and the serifs don’t exactly match. Barnes says that this was a way to “add warmth” that the lettering artists had in their letterforms.

As Barnes breathlessly took the audience through all the styles and variations and additional alternates and beautiful, imaginative variations evocative of lettering, it was clear to see how this series has been in development for so many years.

Barnes said, “When I was putting this presentation together, I had to ask the others at Commercial where all these bits were hidden.”

Two small facts about Chiswick that were shared during the presentation that I thought were interesting:

  1. The typeface was named after the Chiswick House and Gardens, a building of great British Heritage and is of a similar time period as the inspirational sources for the typeface.
  2. If you want to say the typeface’s name the British way, it’s “Chizzick.”
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