I’ve never drawn a revival of a historical typeface. I’ve drawn things that were inspired by different eras of typographic and lettering history, but these have been very loose interpretations of no one specific thing. What I mean is I’ve never tried to make a new interpretation of “Kis,” “Bodoni” or “Ad Lib.” I’ve never been brave enough to make a serious attempt at it. These kinds of projects are quite difficult. There’s tons of historical research, decisions about the original designer’s intent vs. what the historical research shows and questions about how much deviation from the source is allowed before it stops being a revival and becomes something new. Plus, there are already so many designers out there who are great at solving these problems. It’s intimidating. So, I’ve never made any deep forays into Type Supply Jensen or whatever. I have thought pretty deeply about maybe possibly sort of reviving one specific thing, but it’s not exactly a typeface…
Many years ago Ken Barber introduced me to the book Lettering for Advertising by Mortimer Leach. This is a great book on American display lettering techniques in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Mr. Leach uses classic typefaces—Caslon, Bodoni, Futura—to demonstrate how, and how not, to create beautiful headline lettering for advertisements. It’s not only an amazing educational resource, it’s also an example of Mr. Leach’s incredible lettering chops. Every single piece of lettering in the book, from his thumbnail sketches to the final production art, is breathtaking. In particular, his interpretation of Bodoni made me swoon. He wasn’t alone in mastering this style, as there are examples of this style in countless magazine headlines and advertisements from the same era. The original Bodoni typeface is beautiful, but Mid-Twentieth Century hand lettering in the Bodoni style is unbelievably gorgeous. I loved these examples so much that I immediately thought, “I want to make a typeface like that.” For the next ten years I spent a lot of time staring at examples of this lettering and I came to realize that while the letter shapes were beautiful, it was the nearly imperceptible letter shape tweaks that really made these headlines special. The letterers would do subtle things like connect nearby serifs, adjust a letter shape to better fit with its neighbors and more. I started to notice common themes in these spontaneous modifications that I could replicate in the wholly non-spontaneous world of typography. Eventually I had a set of notes that was essentially a logistical plan for making a typeface that emulated this hand lettered Bodoni. I did some drawing, but only a couple of afternoon’s worth of work. Then, I stopped. I didn’t feel quite right about it. I felt like I was merely reproducing the work of others in a new medium. I didn’t feel right about taking someone else’s work without their, or their heirs’, blessing. I also didn’t feel like I was making something that the modern designer didn’t already have in their toolbox. So, it never went anywhere despite an overwhelming love for the letter shapes and a tremendous amount of investment in planning.
Flash forward a few years when Claudia de Almeida and Margaret Swart of o Banquinho asked me if I’d be interested in making something for the redesign of Martha Stewart Living that they were working on with Jaspal Riyait and her team at the magazine. They were looking for a warm, delicate, classical, headline typeface in the Caslon style. Um, yeah, I would very much be interested. I pretty immediately thought of my back-burnered Bodoni. The pretty, but precise and cold, aesthetic that I was going for on that wasn’t going to be right for this redesign, but the general idea of a typeface that subtly adjusts itself in the manner of that beloved lettering could be an interesting way to go. I made some sketches, wrote some notes about what I was thinking, talked to the redesign team and we were a go from there.
So, I was drawing a revival of Caslon. Then I had a little freak out and my mind started racing, “I don’t have any original samples of printed Caslon. I only have reproductions in history books. But, that’s probably okay because I’m drawing more of a Mid-Twentieth Century hand-lettered version of Caslon. But I don’t have a ton of samples of that, especially ones that have the really delicate hairlines that the design direction calls for. So, um, what is my reference material actually going to be? Oh no. I’ve made a terrible mistake.” At this point, I panicked and remembered why I had always avoided making a revival. I had inadequate reference material. I didn’t didn’t know much about William Caslon, let alone how he would render his famous types for use in large headlines in a 21st Century magazine. And, I didn’t want to slavishly mimic Mortimer Leach or another lettering artist’s work. Around this time, I read something that Joe Rhode wrote about primary vs. secondary sources referenced in theme park design. (What, you don’t keep up with theme park design theory!?) That got me to thinking, “What if I didn’t use any primary sources for reference. What if all of my references to Caslon were many five, eight, ten generations removed from the original?” It would be kind of like drawing a description of a description of a typeface that happened to be named Caslon. I wouldn’t have to do a deep dive into history or amass a large library of 18th century printed matter. Besides, we had a pretty tight deadline so there wasn’t a lot of research time available and playing loose with history would let me move quickly. My panic attack subsided and I organically developed some rules: draw everything from my own shoddy memory of Caslon, when I couldn’t remember what a shape looked like I’d reference reproductions of American Type Founders’ Caslon 540, if I was struggling with a particular drawing I’d look at the “What not to do” part of the Caslon section in Lettering for Advertising and when none of those were helpful, I’d just go with my gut. During the development, I saw sample redesign layouts using the typefaces and I made lots of adjustments to make the typefaces work even better. For example, I saw that there were going to be a lot of all uppercase headlines, so I spent a lot of time making the majuscules’ vertical serifs have the same optical weight and occupy the same relative horizontal coordinates. This prevents the cacophony of serifs often seen in all caps, serif headlines. I did months of fine-tuning like this.
The family, named Stoneleigh, consists of three main parts: roman, italic and stencil. The roman and italic are drawn to evoke precisely rendered hand lettering in the Caslon style. The romans are very confident, but with a light hand. The italics are a cross between a traditional Caslon italic and a formal script. They aren’t designed to look like the italic for the roman as much as they are designed to be an angled style that complements and contrasts the roman. The stencil sticks with the same structure as the roman, but is rendered in a form reminiscent of industrial lettering templates. This gives the designers at Martha Stewart Living another texture that they can play with.
Stoneleigh was also a tough challenge from a technical standpoint. Parts of the magazine are printed with offset lithography while others are printed with rotogravure. Rotogravure is great for printing photographs but quite hostile for line art, especially delicate line art. Stoneleigh is full of delicate lines. Like, it’s kind of the main feature of the typeface. If the version of Stoneleigh that looks good at 100 point were scaled down to 30 point, the hairlines would be absolutely destroyed by the rotogravure plate making process. Given that the family needed to work in callouts as small as 12 point, I had to solve this. So, I provided a suite of variations of each weight with hairlines in different thicknesses (among other necessary adjustments), each corresponding with a specific point size for use in rotogravure printing. This ensures that the delicate features of the typeface emerge (relatively) unscathed on the rotogravure printed sheets.
So, back to all of those tiny little contextual modifications that letterers would make. This was fairly easy to pull off with OpenType technology, but it required a whole lot of drawing. There are alternates with barely perceptable differences:
There are a whole bunch of pre-built ligatures:
There are a lot of alternates that create ligatures on the fly:
These all come together in word shapes like this:
All of these had to be created for all weights and rotogravure versions. It was a whole, whole lot of drawing. And, because I like drawing, I decided that the designers might occasionally have a use for swash capitals. So, I drew swash capitals. But, I didn’t want to make traditional swash capitals in the Caslon style. I figured that if a Mid-Twentieth Century lettering artist were drawing a headline with a swash capital, they wouldn’t just mimic the typographic style. No, they’d do something a lot more free flowing. So, I worked out a style for the swash capitals that has a lot more in common with formal script majuscules than it does with traditional typographic forms.
These took forever to draw. In fact, I may have spent more time on the swash capitals than I did on anything else in the typeface. I became obsessed with making these as perfect as I could. Balancing the free flowing curls with the italic minuscules proved to be very hard to get right. I think I got pretty close to what I was hoping for.
Now that the project is (almost) done, I understand a bit more about revivals, especially why many designers love making them. Trying to get inside the thought process of how a great letterer would draw an interpretation of Caslon was a lot of fun. It really pushed me to do things that I never would have attempted otherwise. So far, one issue has been published with the typeface and I couldn’t be more thrilled with what Jas and her team are doing with Stoneleigh. I can’t wait to see what they do with it next.
Stoneleigh is licensed exclusively to Martha Stewart Living through October 2019.