Commercial Classics revives a host of British typefaces from the turn of the industrial revolution
Taking advantage of today's advancements in technology, the London and New York-based type foundry has brought a myriad of neglected typefaces back to life.
- Jyni Ong
- 24 February 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Since 2004, Paul Barnes and Christian Shwartz have collaborated between New York and London on a myriad of typeface projects for all purposes. Their typographic venture, Commercial Type, publishes retail fonts, most notably, the award-winning Guardian Egyptian. While its catalogue boasts a number of versatile classics – Caslon Ionic, Chiswick Sans, Druk, Graphik and Giorgio – being just a handful of examples, in its latest endeavour, the renowned type foundry has recently launched a new venture.
The new type foundry, titled Commercial Classics, revives long lost typefaces. So far, it has brought the likes of Caslon Rounded, Thorowgood Egyptian and Brunel back to life. “What is important to us,” explains Paul, “is that we don’t bring these old forms back so they can be used in exactly the same way as they were originally”. Instead, the founding designers highlight the modernity of the letterforms, drawing out these contemporary elements for today’s industry. Paul and Christian have always been interested and inspired by the history of graphic design. In their careers thus far, the pair have often studied old pieces of print or type specimens, and yearned for a design that was no longer available for use.
Designers have been reviving old typefaces since the 19th century, and for many of the designs, its iterations can be straightforwardly tracked through time or place. For Paul and Christian however, the designs are more like musical scores, scripts or plays. “They are open to interpretation,” continues the founding designer, “and each revival of them is different.” Together, they decided that Commercial Classics would try to remain “as faithful to the originals as we could.” And as a result, their task became more about careful selection, curation and restoration, as opposed to interpretation.
With a focus on typefaces from the British Isles, designed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, Paul and Christian centred their attentions on a period they felt was “familiar, but often neglected.” It was a time of great social and economic upheaval, sparked by the industrial revolution. Typography went from being dominated by book and serif fonts, to display. Tremendous innovations in typography leapt forward as the revolution unfolded. As railway lines expanded for example, railway timetables required new design approaches, and in turn, new weights such as slab serifs and fat faces were developed.
“When we launched Commercial Classics,” Paul goes on to tell us, “we felt it was important that we released enough designs so that people got a real sense of the breadth of the venture, which is why it’s taken so long to do!” Looking back on the typefaces with technological retrospect, Paul and Christian were drawn to reviving faces that were the first of their kind. Thorowgood Grotesque and Caslon Rounded are examples of this. “Christian and I still find ourselves amazed at how radical some of these faces were and we wanted to bring them back to life for designers today,” he continues. “Peter Saville was looking at them, and couldn’t believe how early some of these designs were, he said: ‘This goes from the sublime to the ridiculous’, which I think is a nice summation of the period.”
Often, with only a few characters to go off, Paul and Christian used their knowledge of the common skeletal structures of the time to draw a modern set of glyphs. On both sides of the Atlantic, the revived classics have taken off. On one hand, Fraser Muggeridge used Caslon Ionic for his design of AOC Architecture. On the other, Richard Turley is using it “in a completely different way” for Interview magazine; an example of the extensive adaptability. With the help of Tim Ripper, Greg Gazdowicz and Frederik Berlaen along the way amongst others, the group of talented type designers utilised modern technological advancements to solve a host of design problems that came with perfecting the new type families.
Paul proceeds to talk us through an example of this. “Tim also made an Ornamented version of Caslon Rounded,” he explains. “The original design was made in the 1840s in a 48 point size and just a single colour.” A popular design, it made its way over to America where it can be evidenced throughout the 60s and 70s. “What did Tim did was amazing,” says Paul, “because he separated the face into multiple layers so it can still be a simple one-colour face, or it can be multiple colours. Sometimes, with this, you can get unexpected results that the original punch cutter could not imagine. We wanted to take advantage of what technology can offer us, not the restrictions of letterpress.”
With this in mind, Commercial Classics offers something unique to the type world at present. Though the industry is arguably oversaturated with a hoard of variations stemming from the classics, Commercial Classics is shining a light of designs which have been forgotten and neglected today. “We certainly don’t feel that bringing these back will stifle new creativity,” Paul ends by saying, “they aren’t a new replacement for new designs, just alternatives to designs that exist today.”
Commercial Classics: Caslon Rounded, designed by David Pearson
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.