Tag Archives: deceit

A Type House Divided — New York Magazine

Were H&FJ Partners Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones Ever Partners at All? — New York Magazine.

The 18-person type foundry he runs, Hoefler & Co., is in the process of making an original font family based on a van den Keere alphabet, one of several projects the company is working on. On a tour of the office, Hoefler introduces designers in white cubicles, tweaking typefaces on Macs. One is immersed in customizing a version of Chronicle [ fig. 1 ] commissioned by the online retailer Net-a-Porter. Another designer is at work on a display face that’s part of a larger font family called Surveyor [ fig. 2 ], inspired by lettering on old maps. He grabs a piece of paper and holds it up. PHYLLIIDAE, it says. FA’A’A, OODAAQ, & TRÆÆSKE. Nonsense phrases to test certain letter combinations. He points to a line of six potential E’s, each slightly different. “All of these are kind of plausible at this point,” he says, frowning, “but still not intellectually satisfying.”

[…]

The past is tied up with a designer who helped build this place. He brought in money and prestige, but more than that, he used his skill and position to elevate type in the pop-cultural consciousness, to transform type designers into a new class of conquering nerd. Until a few months ago, his name was on the door. He labored here for 15 years in the belief that he was an equal partner with Hoefler, only to find out last year, in a stunning and terrible moment, that Hoefler didn’t see it that way.

[…]

He’s suing Hoefler for “not less than $20 million” in New York Supreme Court, alleging that Hoefler committed “the most profound treachery and sustained exploitation of friendship, trust and confidence.” Frere-Jones says that in 1999, Hoefler made a verbal offer to make him a 50-50 partner, and that this offer is legally binding, even though Hoefler never wrote it down. He says Hoefler exploited his talents and his intellectual property for years before ultimately refusing to put their agreement on paper, essentially telling him to fuck off.

[…]

Frere-Jones looks like a young art-school professor, which he is, at Yale: thin, compact, striped shirt, vest, thick glasses. He isn’t as smooth or confident as Hoefler. When he starts talking about how he first became interested in type, he sputters for a few seconds, then says, “I could tell a very long version of that story, which I’ll spare you.” According to a designer who used to work with Frere-Jones, his eye is so sharp that he can look at a printout of a letterform and tell if it’s one pixel off, the same way Ted Williams was said to be able to hold a baseball bat and tell if it was a half-ounce too heavy. He often approaches type design from strange and playful angles; in college, he drew an experimental font called Cat’s Cradle, “which nested and tangled each letter into its neighbor, like shopping carts nested together in front of a supermarket,” he says. “The goal was to preserve character identity under duress.” Some of the most popular and versatile fonts of the past two decades are Frere-Jones creations, including Gotham, the font that Barack Obama used to project his ideas and values to the world in 2008—Shepard Fairey’s famous HOPE poster [ fig. 3 ] is in Gotham, too—and also the font chosen by the 9/11 Memorial designers when they carved a remembrance into the granite cornerstone of the Freedom Tower.

[…]

The idea that there were such things as “typeface designers,” people whose job was to draw letters, struck Frere-Jones with great force: Designing alphabets, he’d later say, seemed like “designing water or designing air.”

[…]

He happened to be entering the field at the dawn of a type revolution. It used to be that there were just 2,000 or 3,000 fonts in the world, pieces of actual metal, and only designers knew their names. The personal computer was changing all that. Now anyone could type a document in Palatino or Times New Roman or Helvetica. People suddenly had relationships with fonts. And because it was so much easier to create and market a purely digital font than a physical one, individual designers or small groups could sell fonts of their own. A new generation was about to make its name.

[…]

Type is a derivative form. A designer starts not with a blank canvas but with a set of rules for creating letters and the knowledge that thousands of others have interpreted the rules stretching all the way back to Gutenberg. Even by his early 20s, Frere-Jones knew enough about type history to avoid repetition and create shapes that seemed contemporary. He also had a monastic sort of patience. He could sit in his office and tweak the thousands of small details required to bring a high-end font family to completion: the endless “kerning pairs” that determine the spacing between letters; the multiple weights and widths of a font that allow designers to make words lighter or darker or narrower or wider as they please; and the cooperation of all the shapes with each other—the lowercase and the uppercase, the light and the bold, the roman and the italic—so that anyone using or reading the font will experience “a sense of balance and organization on multiple levels,” he says. “It’s like trying to conduct an orchestra with, I don’t know, 500 people in it.”

[…]

Unlike Frere-Jones, Hoefler never set out to become a type designer specifically. What excited him about type was what you could make with it, what you could say: “It wasn’t just the typeface, it was the complete communication.” But because electronic publishing was still new, most digital fonts then were of poor quality, so he had to make his own. Art directors kept asking him where he was getting these great fonts, so in 1989, he hung a shingle as the Hoefler Type Foundry and started drawing alphabets for money. He remembers Sports Illustrated calling him: “Let’s do a typeface that feels masculine but doesn’t undermine that this magazine is about journalism. It works for Michael Jordan, but also for the Ukrainian gymnast who breaks her ankle the week before the Olympics [ fig. 5 ].” He also drew a font for Apple he called Hoefler Text [ fig. 6 ], which became standard on every Mac.

Because Hoefler and Frere-Jones were both avid collectors of rare type books and regularly bid for the same volumes, they often crossed paths. Every year or so, Hoefler and Frere-Jones would grab a meal and talk about how great it would be if they worked together. According to Frere-Jones, in 1999, Hoefler asked him to dinner at the Gotham Bar and Grill and proposed a 50-50 partnership called Tobias and Jonathan’s Excellent Adventure LLC. They’d get more business together than they would alone; their talents would complement each other. According to Frere-Jones, the deal was basically this: Frere-Jones would make the fonts, and Hoefler would use his client-hustling skills to sell them. (Hoefler, in legal papers, denies that this oral agreement ever existed.)

Frere-Jones moved to New York and brought his rare type books with him. He also agreed to bring 11 fonts to the company, a good chunk of his Boston output. He and Hoefler called these the Dowry Fonts “because this was going to be like a marriage,” Frere-Jones says.

Although he says now that the fonts were worth more than $3 million, he signed an agreement that transferred them to the Hoefler Type Foundry for a sale price of $10. The agreement also spelled out that he and Hoefler were “independent entities,” not partners. Frere-Jones didn’t consult a lawyer; he says he gave the fonts away for $10 because “I was giving them to my own company,” and he signed the agreement about being an independent entity because he was just trying to keep things moving. Unfortunately for Frere-Jones, Hoefler is now using that agreement and Frere-Jones’s employment contract to contend that Frere-Jones was always an employee, not a partner, even though Hoefler’s own statements give a different picture of the arrangement. For instance, in an email to an advertising agency in 2002, Hoefler wrote, “Since 1999, Tobias has been a partner at The Hoefler Type Foundry.” And here’s Hoefler writing to Frere-Jones about a brainstorm related to an exhibit of type-specimen books: “It’s possible that your partner is a genius.”

After Frere-Jones sold his fonts, Hoefler renamed the company. It was now Hoefler & Frere-Jones, H&FJ for short. They drew an elaborate custom ampersand and etched it above the door between their names.

[…]

GQ wanted a geometric sans-serif. Frere-Jones looked to the signage of New York for inspiration, particularly the letters that spelled out PORT AUTHORITY above the entrance to the Eighth Avenue bus terminal. He spent his weekends roaming Manhattan with a camera, photographing signs on buildings to get ideas for numerals, lowercase letters, and italics [ fig.
7 ]
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At his computer, he drew an uppercase H, O, and D, because they contained flat and round elements that would determine how other letters looked. When he moved on to the G, the R, and the S, he started to deviate from the mathematical grid, hoping to give the font a subliminal playfulness. As he filled out the alphabet, the letters revealed a promising flexibility; if Frere-Jones set text in caps and spread the spacing out, the words felt authoritarian, imposing, and if he set them in lowercase and pulled the spacing in, they felt fresh and young. He tried to think of a name for the font that would showcase some of the more distinctive letters: the stark, powerful G; the circular o; the strange-tasting a. For a name, he thought about Goats, and Gomorrah. He finally settled on Gotham.

[…]

Another early project was Retina [ fig. 8 ], commissioned by The Wall Street Journal for its stock listings. Because it had to be legible at very small sizes, Frere-Jones removed parts of Retina’s letterforms at strategic joints so that when the letters bled onto the newsprint, they filled themselves in. According to Journal senior designer David Pybas, Retina allowed the paper to print the same amount of information on eight fewer pages every issue, saving about $6 million to $7 million a year in printing costs.

[…]

In 2002, when they moved to a new office in the Cable Building, they combined their personal collections of type books into a majestic double-sided set of bookcases. Says Ragan, “They’d constantly call out references: ‘Oh, this could be more of a Clarendon a, or a Bodoni a.’ They would pull books down from the library and say, ‘No, this is more what I mean, something more like this, something that has this personality.’ ” From time to time they’d take a break to play a first-person-shooter video game called Marathon, blasting each other to bits over the network. One afternoon, Hoefler sent Frere-Jones an email: “are you around later for a game of Immolate-Your-Business-Partner?” Frere-Jones replied, “YES.”

[…]

…according to Frere-Jones and multiple former H&FJ employees, Hoefler left the vast majority of the type-design work to Frere-Jones, who ran the type department from his office way off in the corner. He listened to abstract electronic music and jazz in an enormous pair of headphones that blotted out the noise of Broadway and Houston and crafted a series of hit fonts with his team. Meanwhile, Hoefler and his people did everything else. They pitched clients, negotiated prices, designed the website, designed the type catalogues, wrote the sales copy. The arrangement seems to have been fairly explicit: As Hoefler would put it later, in a brief documentary about H&FJ, “Tobias and his group are more heavily weighted on the ‘making the fonts’ side, and me and my group are on the ‘using the fonts’ side.”

[…]

They had some very good years. The best thing that happened to them was undoubtedly Gotham; most type foundries rely on one or two blockbuster sellers to generate the majority of revenue, and Gotham soon became that for H&FJ. They were making a lot of money. But another way to measure their success was in the rising social status of type designers as a class. More and more, design magazines and websites and even art museums were recognizing digital type as a true and important art form, seeking out its leading practitioners—people like Spiekermann in Germany, Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in Berkeley, and Neville Brody in London—and exalting them as icons.

[…]

Starting in 2010, Frere-Jones worked to create 120 special versions of fonts for the cloud, inspecting every glyph in every size across 15 different families. He enjoyed the challenge of solving a problem, but it was also a brutal slog, trying to get the fonts to look good across all web browsers and operating systems.

[…]

Several times over the years, Frere-Jones had asked Hoefler to put their partnership in writing, but there was always some pressing deadline, some crisis that had to be handled, and Frere-Jones let it slide. Early last year, though, he became more insistent, and Hoefler said they’d get to it after they launched the cloud. But when the cloud finally debuted in July, and Frere-Jones brought up the paperwork later that month, Hoefler got angry, according to Frere-Jones’s legal complaint. “Stop it,” Hoefler said. “I’m working on it. Stop harassing me.” When I ask him about the piece of paper Frere-Jones was requesting, Hoefler stiffens: “Piece of paper? What piece of paper? Oh, a new piece of paper that he wanted, you mean.”

Three months later, in October, Frere-Jones again approached Hoefler, who told him to forget it. “Jonathan now had a different idea about what this company was and who I was,” says Frere-Jones. “I was just stunned.” Frere-Jones alleges in his complaint that around this time, Hoefler transferred the shares Frere-Jones believed were his to Borsella. Hoefler says flatly that this isn’t true. “Carleen doesn’t own any part of the company and never has.”

Frere-Jones continued to try to speak to Hoefler until January. He got nowhere. So he walked out the door beneath the big ampersand. “I can’t even describe what it was like to do that,” Frere-Jones says. “To have built this place—” he stops. “To have built my company over 15 years and then just walk out … and close the door behind me.” He stops again. “It had my name on it. And. But. I tried everything else.”

[…]

At his lawyer’s office, Frere-Jones blinks behind his thick glasses, his voice remaining soft. “I think the design community would disagree about this being undeserved,” he says. “Because they know where the stuff came from.” He ran the type department at a company whose only product was type. He was the auteur responsible for the firm’s auteurish reputation. The pipes for the fonts may have changed, but without him, “all those beautiful pipes would be empty.” He says he hopes to gain custody of the fonts that he drew at H&FJ, including Gotham, and bring them to a new business he’s starting—a one-man type foundry. “I made these, I drew these,” he says. “Everyone in the community knows where these faces came from.”

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