Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler & Frere-Jones designed Gotham in 2000. I always thought of Broadway as the typeface of New York City — until Frere-Jones (a native of NYC) designed Gotham, which is based on lettering and signs around the city.
Gotham Medium, designed by Tobias Frere-Jones in 2000. Based on lettering from buildings and signs around the city, Gotham represents a style of lettering done by draftsman from 1930 to 1960. Screen shot from the testdriver at www.typography.com.
I love what Gotham represents: a slice of history in the U.S. from the start of the Depression to the 1960s.
The stock market crashed on Tuesday, October 29, 1929. Throughout the 1930s, the U.S. was torn between the need to simplify and survive — and the need to escape (it’s no surprise the entertainment industry continued to boom). So while Art Deco fonts continued to be used to portray quality, excitement, and entertainment, Art Deco in general was losing favor — criticized because it represented a luxury unavailable to the average person.
At the same time (1930s) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were established to provide relief, reform, and recovery. According to Frere-Jones, many of the signs/letters that inspired Gotham date back to the Work Projects Administration of the 1930s. I’ve started researching documented WPA buildings, and haven’t found an abundance of this kind of “New Deal Gothic” lettering. Why?
According to Gabrielle Esperdy in Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal, one of the New Deal financial programs — the Modernization Credit Plan (MCP) — enabled small business owners to update their storefronts. Intended to help prime the pump of the economy, the plan impacted storefront facades all over the country.
If we don’t see New Deal Gothic lettering on stadiums, government buildings, and other big (well-documented) construction projects of the New Deal, could they be on the facades of 1930s Main Street? Gabrielle Esperdy suggests “business conditions and political programs during the Great Depression intersected and produced a new retail landscape in Main Street America.”
These facades may be documented, but I haven’t found them yet. I’ve read excerpts of Esperdy’s book online, which had all images blocked out for copyright purposes. I am awaiting a hard copy from my public library, and will post an update when and if I find out more.
STYLES AND “ISMS”
Design styles co-exist — there are no lines of demarcation. While Art Deco architecture had it’s high point between the World Wars (roughly 1920-1939), and the New Deal lasted roughly from 1933-1936, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is an “Art Deco” building with “New Deal Gothic” lettering built in 1950.
The sign for the Port Authority Bus Terminal is also the main inspiration for Gotham.
Gotham continues to gain a reputation as the typeface of New York City. It is the typeface engraved on the cornerstone of the new Freedom Tower currently under construction.
Paul T. Werner compared Gotham to Paul Renner’s Futura in Freedom Tower Type (AIGA Voice, July 16, 2004). In the article, Werner questions the decision to use Gotham, writing, “The irony is, that New Deal American Gothics had much in common with Futura and other sans-serifs of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties: all were conscious attempts at what the Nazis were to call Gleichschaltung, “planification.”
Top: Adobe's Futura, designed by Paul Renner. Screenshot from myfonts.com. Bottom: Gotham Book, screenshot from the typedriver at www.typography.com. While both have geometric elements, Futura was designed by a typedesigner and follows a pre-conceived geometric ideal. Gotham was based on lettering done by engineers and draftsman. Notice the differences between the G, M, and R. Futura is more idealized.
Werner missed the point. Yes, both typefaces have an element of geometry. But Futura was designed by a type designer with a pre-conceived ideal. In “A Natural History of Typography” (1992), J Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton write that in the early 20th century, “Modernism invested this mode of formal manipulation with ideological significance. … Structuralist typography rejects the ideal of an essential, core letterform. By shifting the emphasis from the individual letter to the overall series of characters, structuralist typography exchanges the fixed identity of the letter for the relational system of the font.”
Gotham, on the other hand, is based on letters made by engineers and draftsman, people who were often working outside the realm of typographic theory. In fact, Tobias Frere-Jones calls Gotham a “working-class typeface.” These letters were not intended for print, but to be used on buildings. Unlike Futura, Gotham is based on physical lettering reflecting how people (shop owners, building owners, consumers) lived at the time. Unlike Futura, these New Deal Gothics did not invest in “formal manipulation with ideological significance.”
According to Frere-Jones, “Although there is nothing to suggest that the makers of these different kinds of signs ever consciously followed the same models, the consistency with which this style of letter appears in the American urban landscape suggests that these forms were once considered in some way elemental. But with the arrival of mechanical signmaking in the 1960s, these letters died out, completely vanishing from production.”
TYPEFACE AS SIGNIFIER
President Obama used Gotham in his presidential campaign.
His designers chose a ubiquitous, working-class typeface, supposedly found in cities all over the United States. A typeface that represents a time of rebuilding, a time of surviving economic hardship after years spent “spending on the margin.”
I don’t think the Obama campaign designers consciously made the connection between Gotham and the New Deal. I don’t think they knew about it.
All the news I’ve read about Gotham describe it as “the typeface designed for GQ.” In fact, Microsoft Typography posted on February 19, 2008, “Gary Hustwit posts a Helvetica movie outtake on Gotham. ‘GQ had a dual agenda of wanting something that would look very fresh, yet very established, to have a credible voice to it,’ a good choice for the Obama campaign.”
But there’s more to it than that.
Gotham seemed to “speak” to people across the country. Could it be because Gotham has roots in cities and towns all across the country? Was it familiar to us, did it create a sense of connection?
Could words like “hope” and “change” feel stronger when set in a typeface based on lettering by draftsmen (not ideological type designers) — people who made their letters out of physical materials?
Could it be Obama’s message was simply, perfectly paired with a typeface that references a time when industry was for the sake of rebuilding and strengthening the country — not for the sake of consumerism?
I’m not trying to spin a fairy tale here. I’m not saying a typeface has the power to get a president elected.
But it opens up so many questions for me: how do we read lettering? Is the history of our country — different parts of the country — connected via history of typography? I wonder: if I’d paid attention in Detroit, would I have seen similar New Deal Gothic lettering?
Could there be a part in each us that recognized the Gotham letterforms, connected them with a certain period in our collective history, then connected them to the kind of work the new president was going to have to do? (Obama has, after all, been called a socialist, which is reminiscent of the criticism against FDR…)
I don’t know. It seems too simple. Intriguing, exciting, a little scary… but too simple.
Then I go back and remember that day Claire saw the OfficeMax logo and read it as “Clifford. The. Big. Red. Dog.”
And I just don’t know.