Mallory: a new typeface from Tobias Frere-Jones

Tobias Frere-Jones has released his first commercial typeface since splitting with long-term creative partner Jonathan Hoefler. We spoke to the designer about setting up his own foundry and drawing on his heritage to create the new release.

Hoefler and Frere-Jones’ partnership came to an acrimonious end last year, when Frere-Jones filed a $20 million lawsuit against Hoefler. The matter was settled out of court last September.

Hoefler & Frere-Jones has now become Hoefler & Co and Frere-Jones has set up his own type foundry in Brooklyn. His first release is Mallory, a design inspired by his own identity. Frere-Jones says he has been working on the typeface exclusively for the past few months, but the project began in February 2014.

Mallory by Frere-Jones Type
Mallory by Frere-Jones Type

“The initial idea was more of an experiment,” he says. “I was looking at a new way of conceiving type and thought, what would happen if I tried to make a typeface that had the same sort of heritage I do? My mother’s British and my father’s American, so the idea was to draw on those different traditions. I wanted something with the dignity and organisation of a British typeface, and from the American side, something energetic and friendly,” he adds.

Once he’d begun work on his hybrid design, Frere-Jones says he set himself a challenge to create a typeface that could be paired with a range of other typefaces for wide ranging identity systems. “Because of its eclectic vocabulary, I thought there would be something in it that would find sympathy with a number of other designs,” he adds.

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Mallory by Frere-Jones Type

Mallory’s ‘Britishness’ is reflected in its strict geometry and the precision of letterforms, while quirks such as slanted terminals add a little warmth and irreverence. The typeface comes in eight weights, from a Thin described as “prim and austere” to a “loud and gregarious” Ultra. The end result is a precise sans with a human touch, and a typeface that can be both serious and informal.

Mallory8

“The challenge was to fine tune this voice – this particular mix of personalities – and find the right balance of being tidy, and being gregarious and human,” says Frere-Jones. “The other challenge was finding a way to keep that personality going across other styles and find some analogue to it. Brother and sisters are hardly interchangeable with one another but they share a lot of traits, and it’s much the same with a run of weights in a type family,” he explains. “There needed to be a kind of theme, whether that’s in the interplay of widths, or the degree of openness in the curves, or the contrast between thick and thin.”

Five of Mallory’s weights also come in MicroPlus styles, which have been designed for use at small sizes both in print and online. To create these, Frere-Jones says he looked at traditional methods of adapting metal type for smaller sizes, for example, by making serifs heavier and increasing the space between letters.

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Mallory by Frere-Jones Type

“A number of foundries have specialised versions of their type which are re-proportioned for use on screen. But in my research [he has extensively studied the work of punch cutters as well as optimising over a dozen families for use on screen], I’ve realised that the things you need to do to ensure a typeface reads well on screen is the same as what you need to do at really small sizes in print, so I decided to address the two things simultaneously. Print and web environments are increasingly blurred, and if [a font] is only relevant in one, it’s not as useful as it could be for the user,” he says.

While web fonts are often designed specifically for use on screen, Frere-Jones says there is little need to separate print and web typography. “For a while it made sense, but I think in the coming years that’s going to change. While there are lots of things that are new in web typography, there are also lots of things that are exactly the same as they’ve always been. We have the same brains, our eyes work in the same way, and the really fundamental stuff about presenting a sequence of forms that people can draw meaning from hasn’t changed,” he adds.

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Mallory by Frere-Jones Type

Frere-Jones’ foundry has launched a new website to coincide with the typeface’s release, allowing users to test out different weights and styles on screen. In between working on Mallory, he has been designing custom commissions and writing for his blog. Posts include a fascinating look at New York’s typographic history and another on the difficulty of naming fonts, while an ongoing series titled Typeface Mechanics deals with technical issues such as managing degrees of weight across large font families. (His Instagram account is also a visual treat for type fans, with shots of architectural lettering and signage from around the US.) He now works with three others at his foundry: director of business and licensing Christine Bateup and designers Tom Ripper and Grahame Bradley.

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Mallory by Frere-Jones Type

After almost two decades working in a partnership, Frere-Jones says setting up his own business was an exciting but daunting challenge. “It’s hard, there’s an intricate methodology and workload to design, manufacturing and the business, and rebuilding all of that is a tremendous amount of work,” he says. “But it’s also a great opportunity to take what I’ve learned over the past 25 years and reassess and reset my methodology,” he says.

“The industry is really very different from when I started out in the 1990s, both for makers and users,” he says. The tools are entirely different, they’re much more sophisticated and powerful now, and the problem of getting these fonts to customers has been solved in varying ways, but one of the most potent and less obvious changes is that user’s expectations of what a font will do for them is much higher, and I try to keep that in mind when I’m designing,” he adds.

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