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Catching up with Tobias-Frere Jones

The Brooklyn type designer talks about NYC and walking around to find lettering.

Tobias Frere-Jones has built an impressive body of work, designing some of the most popular typefaces in the world — Interstate, Poynter Oldstyle, Retina, and Gotham to name but a few. This recipient of the 2006 Gerrit Noordzij Prize and the 2013 AIGA Medal has the uncanny ability to distill letterforms that are part of our collective consciousness into type families with high aesthetic and technical quality. In January 2015 he announced the birth of his highly-anticipated foundry Frere-Jones. Typographics adopted its maiden release, Mallory for most of this year’s festival materials.

Tobias didn’t attend the first Typographics last year, but he did sponsor the official tote bag, which was a big hit with attendees. I asked him about his expectations for this year …

TFJ: I’ve heard plenty from people who were there last year. I’m expecting something quite intense and lively this year because it’s a single-track conference. Which is a good thing—no one wants to miss anything—but that means the program is quite dense. I’m looking forward to that.

YP: Did you get the chance to check the schedule? Do you want to see anyone in particular speak?

TFJ: Honestly, I am looking forward to all of it. I think the organizers have done a great job at composing the roster. Not only did they manage to find a good balance between men and women, but also between people who are established like Stephen Doyle, and younger designers that I am less familiar with. I really want to discover what they are up to and what they are thinking about.

YP: You were born in Brooklyn, and still live and work there. Do you have any recommendations for people attending the conference who would like to visit?

TFJ: The first thing to keep in mind about Brooklyn is that it is very large. It used to be a city by itself. Whatever you might have seen in some movie or television show probably doesn’t exist anymore. And if it does, it can be miles away from where you might be. Brooklyn has so much variation in it. I like it because it has all the sophistication and all the potential of a big city, but it is more comfortable and not as overwhelming.

Image from the AIGA NY Alphabet/City walking tour with Tobias Frere-Jones, September 2007. Photo by Michael Surtees.

YP: After the conference people can join two lettering walks — through Coney Island with Dan Rhatigan and in Brooklyn with Alexander Tochilovsky. You photographically documented the architectural lettering of New York which led to the design of the Gotham type family, but didn’t you also guide a lettering tour some years ago?

TFJ: I did do a lettering tour, but that was through Manhattan.

YP: You are not guiding a walk this time, but if you would, do you think you could still do the same tour today? How fast does the typographic landscape evolve in New York?

TFJ: Actually I did that walk multiple times, and between the first and the second time I already had to change the course because some of the businesses and shop facades were gone. Change has been part of New York’s character for 300 years or so—it keeps knocking itself down and rebuilding, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. This makes it even more urgent to get out there and take pictures of the lettering: next time you’re in town they may have disappeared.

YP: Does the current retro trend result in many new signs that are hand-painted the traditional way? Do they manage to maintain that authenticity?

TFJ: I find a lot of the new signs are actually quite good. You can often see many new restaurants hired a professional to do the painting and gilding and so on. It’s reassuring to see this can still happen if someone knows what the possibilities are, and bothers to take the time to find a sign painter. There is no good reason to not do it well.

YP: Indeed. Thank you for the chat, and I hope to find the time to pop over and discover a little of Brooklyn.

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