Sharp Type is a typeface foundry based in New York founded by designers Lucas Sharp and Chantra Malee. The foundry creates custom and retail typefaces for print, digital, environmental design, brands, corporations and publications aiming to create “utility and beauty for the modern era”. Its latest specimen, Sharp Grotesk, combines Swiss styling with the “wonky imperfectionism of 19th Century American woodtype”.
For Sharp Grotesk, Sharp Type has been inspired by Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger, who influenced the direction of type design during the late 20th Century and early 21st Century. Sharp Grotesk is a “brand new and uniquely American perspective on the genre of the multi-width neo-grotesk”, and demonstrates this through its “exuberant personality, ink traps and range of moods,” according to Sharp Type.
The typeface originally started life as hand-drawn poster lettering in 2010: “The poster lettering was amateurish and probably didn’t warrant further exploration but the uppercase ‘G’ I drew got me excited and I started drawing the very first iterations of what became the Bold 20 based on it,” explains Lucas. “Funnily enough the ‘G’ form ended up being demoted to a stylistic alternate in favour of a more traditional form.” Sharp Grotesk now encompasses 21 widths in seven weights of Roman and italic, adding up to a total of 249 fonts.
“At the time I was a bit obsessed with über-complete type systems. As a result the scope of the project kept growing and growing,” says Lucas. “First I needed two more master weights with all the widths to fill out the weight spectrum (Semi-bold, Medium, Book, Light, Thin), then I wanted to go even wider adding an additional width master (25s), then I wanted to go even narrower than my narrowest width to get that crazy cool barcode vibe (05s). Finally I wanted to go even darker than the bolds (Black).” This exhaustive approach has allowed Sharp Grotesk to become an exercise in combining intense extremes with narrow, bold and wide elements coming together to create something communicative and impactful.
Within Sharp Type there’s a clear division of labour between Lucas and Chantra. Lucas designs the typefaces and Chantra “does everything else” like licensing, marketing, brand strategy as well as design. “We don’t design anything based on what’s ‘in vogue’ because good design is timeless and the best work happens as an organic artistic process,” explain the designers. “Type is just as much a highly refined craft as it is an art form; one cannot make something eminently utilitarian and also completely escape an established stylistic convention. So we embrace the history and lineage but also do our part to bring the baton as far down the track as we can during our limited time practicing this craft.”
The ink traps are a prominent feature of Sharp Grotesk and facilitate these extremes, while forming the basis for defining diagonal strokes in the Blacks. “The Blacks have this great ‘kapow’ effect that just smashes in editorial. And the 20 width is designed to function in place of a standard grotesque typeface – something that could replace Helvetica,” says the foundry.
“Sharp Grotesk has a fair amount of personality but could still easily function as a work-horse. The system of letter widths (05-25) is designed as a kind of inside design software hack that allows the designer to interpolate widths on the fly to get that perfectly justified block text for posters, album covers, anything big and graphic.” With capabilities to meet print and digital needs, already the font has been adopted by designer Francesco Franchi, in his new design of Italian La Repubblica’s magazine, Robinson. Here Sharp Grotesk is used to create a bold and confident identity for the supplement.