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From Issue #44 June 5, 2014

Funny Face

A type designer makes his way across art and history to design his fonts.

By Kevin Purdy Twitter icon 

Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass

Richard Kegler grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, the fifth of nine children. That crowded household by the Thruway interchange encouraged a quiet, persistent ambition. His all-boys college prep high school, Bishop Timon Saint Jude, didn’t have art and design classes, but Kegler wanted them enough to walk half a mile every other day to an all-girls school. His hometown didn’t have a good-enough record store, so he started a modest one in a space his family was renting.

Most critically, his alma mater, Buffalo State College, didn’t offer the multi-discipline media study courses that were available at the University at Buffalo (UB). Kegler enrolled in transferable courses, but did not pin down the financial aid details. To save his degree, Kegler had to find a Buffalo State teacher who would grant him independent study hours. Lynne McElhaney and Frank Eckmair gave him the nod, and in doing so introduced him to bookbinding, page design, and hand printing.

Kegler stayed at UB for his master’s in media study. For his thesis, he turned to Marcel Duchamp. In seeking to represent and reinvent a portion of Duchamp’s unfinished The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (often called The Large Glass), Kegler sought out computer-generated video and randomized snippets of Duchamp quotations. Except there was no typeface that fit his needs.

With associate Michael Want, and the Macintosh program Fontographer, Kegler normalized Duchamp’s handwriting into a rough font. His master’s thesis showed for just one day, but it gave Kegler the chance to continue his studies and dig deeper into his paper and pixel obsessions.

A friend suggested Kegler tag along to the 1994 New York International Gift Fair to sell some of his handcrafted books. One day in, the sales hardly paid for lunch. But Kegler walked the floor and saw something new: computer software that incorporated artists’ work, such as a MOMA screensaver of Claes Oldenburg sculptures. Duchamp, he thought, should get his shot.

With the help of a friend who lived nearby — and who had a Mac with a laser printer — Kegler touched up his thesis font, printed a showpiece banner for “Duchamp,” added an asterisk for “PC version coming soon,” and collected a small stack of pre-orders. He boxed the floppy-disk copies in leftover seven-inch sleeves and wrappers from his ill-fated record store.

Suddenly, Kegler had a business. He named it P22, because that was what he had named all kinds of projects since the 1980s, and he had too many sleeves to fill to worry about branding.1

That face is familiar

P22 drew another arts-derived font from the lettering in the work of the surrealist Joan Miró i Ferrà. Except, as Kegler notes, “The difference between ‘based on’ and ‘informed by’ to lawyers is, well, vast.” A Miró descendant held closely to his ancestor’s potential in the computer age; the font was quietly dropped, the lesson learned; and it morphed years later into the broader “Catalan.”

It was easier-going with “Arts and Crafts,” based on the distinctive lettering of the Roycroft community, just miles from Kegler’s hometown. Next came the Frank Lloyd Wright-informed “Eaglefeather,” the Bauhaus-ian “Albers” (as in Josef), “DeStijl,” and eight more that first year. The fonts were commissioned by or sold in the Guggenheim, the Los Angeles MOCA, the San Francisco MOMA, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. These outlets were not where most fonts were sold.

“In the ’90s, it was common for software publishers, including some type foundries, to supply software on floppy diskettes in some medium-to-large-sized packaging format,” says Jimy Chambers, a longtime Kegler friend and intermittent P22 employee (and original drummer for Mercury Rev). P22’s record-style packaging and offerings “not only made sense (for) the museum gift shops, but also made a big artistic statement.”

The fonts sold not just to aficionados but also to people who otherwise might never have known they could install a non-standard font on their home computer.

P22 added staff, started selling in catalogs and via direct marketing, and expanded into type-based gift items. But its biggest hit, and most sustained success, came from a commission: the Philadelphia Museum of Art wanted a font to accompany its 1996 retrospective on Paul Cézanne. “Cezanne” (no accent) showed the growth of P22’s skills and identity: alternate characters and delicately balanced ligatures, but also some “bells and whistles,” Kegler says.

The timing was right, as brands seeking a mid-’90s sense of authenticity ushered in a “script craze.” But it has managed the neat trick of continuing to sell decades later. Kegler remains somewhat dumbstruck by its continued ubiquity.

Ubiquitous, once you see it

“Go to a wine shop and pick up any four bottles, and there’s a good chance one of them is using Cezanne,” Kegler says. “It’s astounding. I see it somewhere else all the time. It gets the jump on me.”

If you look for it, you will see Cezanne too. You know it by the multi-character-spanning swash of the t, sure, but also by the embellishments on capital letters and by the seemingly organic differences in ink weight from letter to letter. Look closely at a bottle of Founders’ Dirty Bastard Scotch ale, older labels for Bolthouse Farms juice, Newman’s Own chocolate, Trader Joe’s pumpkin muffin mix, Sting box sets, and movie posters and credits: it’s all Cezanne. If you get invited to an upscale wedding, Cezanne might just come to your door.

Trouble brewing

Cezanne was profitable, but it brought Kegler into the murky area of licensing and usage rights, which became relevant as file-trading via the growing Internet accelerated piracy. For a few years, Starbucks’ design team used Cezanne on many things, which made Kegler smile; then it used Cezanne on everything, including wallpapers.

While a font’s appearance cannot be copyrighted, the software that makes up a font has full protection. That is, it can be digitally traced and released under a non-trademarked name, but the underlying files cannot simply be copied.

Kegler pressed a lawsuit against Starbucks. Starbucks’ response in the matter was, as Kegler recalls, “You can’t really prove that’s Cezanne.” Holding one of the merchandise bags that distinctly made use of Cezanne, Kegler chalks it up to a kind of rite of initiation for typographers. The case was settled out of court.

Another licensing suit drew far more attention in 2011. The publishers of the Harry Potter books properly paid for the rights to P22’s Cezanne and its “Constructivist” face (styled after early Soviet art), but Kegler alleged that Universal Studios’ Harry Potter theme parks and Web sites were selling pillows, T-shirts, caps, and other goods plastered with Cezanne type without a license. This suit, also settled out of court for what was reported as $1.5 million (neither party has confirmed this amount), gave P22 more exposure and showed that it was willing to fight for its rights, but Kegler had to put up with a lot of “dark one” jokes from industry friends.

Cezanne is almost a bit too ubiquitous for Kegler’s liking. (And too many signs and sites use the default, non-alternating letter sets, he says.) But without Cezanne, and the reputation it brought, P22 likely could not have acquired the cachet — and bank loan — necessary to rescue and revive a key piece of type history.

A set of Monotype matrices at the C.C. Stern Type Foundry in Portland, Oregon

A dark and stormy night

Tolbert Lanston patented and commercialized the Monotype hot-metal typesetting system in the late 19th century. Along with the Linotype and other, similar firms’ gear, this kind of typesetting represented the first major advancement in composition since the prolific period after Gutenberg. Monotype rose and plateaued as 20th-century printing technology moved forward.

Lanston Monotype spun off a British division in the 1920s, but the original firm remained in business in America for decades. After passing through several other hands, Lanston Monotype was purchased by Gerald Giampa, who relocated everything to Prince Edward Island.2 Giampa was already at work digitizing the brass and lead styles in his collection when the majority of the material was destroyed by a tidal wave in 2000. (Giampa died in 2009.)

P22 bought the remaining assets in 2004 and hunted down original letters, specimens, and patterns to expand and modernize the offerings. In doing so, P22 has given the type world one of the most faithful renderings of Frederic Goudy’s “Californian”, the nearly lost to time “Athena”, and a more historically accurate “Garamont”, among other endangered typefaces.

Similarly, P22 teamed with the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in 2012 to digitize select fonts from the more than 1,000 styles and sizes in the museum’s archives. Hamilton was, as Kegler describes it, “the Microsoft of its day: capitalism run amok.”

The firm had, by 1900, swallowed up the vast majority of wood-based foundries in the United States, and held its assets under tight control. Hamilton’s specimen books (or catalogs) never contained a font’s full character set, to prevent copying by rival firms and save space. It made some odd products on strange market assumptions. And it did a rather poor job of version control, as each worker, saw blade, and factory shift added its own variances and faults to the faces.3

Indeed, some of the Hamilton Wood Type fonts are hard to picture on any modern product. “But that’s part of the excitement, part of the challenge,” Kegler says. The wood type revival attracted some notable minds too, including the famed typographer Matthew Carter — who created “Van Lanen” for Hamilton in digital and wood editions — and the Adobe Type team.

P22 grew some other labels along the way: the International House of Fonts, launched in 2001 as the first online-only sales channel for the work of its freelancers; a collaboration with font designer Ted Staunton; and “Stern Pro,” the first typeface created and marketed simultaneously as a digital and metal work, by the late Jim Rimmer.

The Stern font, Rimmer’s last, had such significance to Kegler that he filmed it in a short documentary, Making Faces. It may well capture the very last metal typeface created from scratch on classic equipment.4

The intense focus on historical fonts and their lineage makes sense to the German typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann. Spiekermann regards Kegler as “well connected, but modest and what you call a really nice guy.” He believes that P22’s showing of its roots is a tradition as old as the trade — just maybe a bit more clearly than most.

“All successful type designers are aware of historical precedents and the fact that all they ever do is re-interpret well-known models,” Spiekermann writes via email. “Type designers without this awareness may from time to time produce unusual and original work, but I am not aware of one successful typeface that has become a standard or a modern classic that has not been designed within these constraints and with full awareness of them.”


The printer’s devil, you say?

Back in the present day, on a sunny Thursday afternoon in spring, the work happens in Kegler’s garage office on Cinema Display screens.

There is an apron Kegler needs to finish designing, one with a typesetters’ California Job Case displayed upside-down, sold in support of the Western New York Book Arts Center, which Kegler founded in 2008 and later handed off. At another desk, “Dearest” is expanding to “Dearest Pro,” and “Amelia” is being updated to “Amelia Jayne” because the original ornamental designs are showing their digital age on large, higher-pitch monitors.5

There are prototypes of “Goudy Initials,” metal letters to be sold to modern-day letterpress enthusiasts. And there are two significant bits of client work: one is based on a historic local architect’s handwriting; the other a creation from whole cloth based on incomplete logo letters.

Kepler has four employees, a mix of part-time and full-time, and hires freelance designers. They meet in Kegler’s converted garage, stuffed full of mementos, product examples, books, books about books, books about book makers, folders, letterpress trays, posters, catalogs, and coffee mugs.

He understands the irony that his firm remains as vulnerable to loss, changing business, and the rest as preceding generations of type foundries. On one day I visited, Kegler was trying, in spare moments, to prepare a collection of P22 specimen books to ship out to trusted universities and public libraries.

“I’m convinced that the only way something gets saved is in printed archive,” Kegler says. “It sounds paranoid, or Luddite, but look at the Gutenberg Bible: you can still read it. But just as importantly, you can still intuit things about how it was made. You could re-create that typeface.”

Most of P22’s original work would be impossible if people did not commit their work to paper. Had the French prisoner of war Marcel Heuzé not written to his wife and daughter about life in German prison camps during World War II, those letters would never have been found in a Minnesota flea market and “Marcel” never created.

The same goes for the decades of work documented by New Zealand architect Bruce Rotherham in his attempt to perfect and sell the Wedge Alphabet, an almost obsessive revision of Bauhaus type. That work became “Wedge.” Rotherham’s journals and notebooks show not just complete letter sets, but the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci fundamentals at the heart of every Wedge character, which helped P22 expand the set to modern international standards.

Meanwhile, the video files that contain pieces of Kegler’s original Large Glass presentation exist only as tiny non-linear video snippets on his Mac, which he wasn’t certain QuickTime could still play. Kegler’s own sons, 17 and 14, are very much digital natives, with obsessions for Minecraft and coding, respectively. Kegler is by no means a technologist. Still, he owes his livelihood to Amigas, Macs, and other machines that helped him bring very old paper to a much larger audience.

His hope is that P22 has documented its sources well enough that future users of “Underground,” “Dearest,” or “Cezanne” will do some tracing back before they start typing.

“There is so much pastiche and faux-historicism out there,” Kegler says. “It’s good to know where the real thing comes from.”

Photo of The Large Glass by Richard Winchell. Photo of Monotype matrices by Glenn Fleishman.

Note: A few minor corrections to names and places were made after the original publication. Worth noting is that the Lanston Monotype and the England-based Monotype firm split in the 1920s; later, both companies went through many hands, and British Monotype had many name changes.

  1. “Duchamp” is no longer sold by P22, but you can see it on a Michael Jordan’s Steak House banner

  2. The British Monotype also went through a long and complicated series of ownership shifts, eventually culminating with a company named Monotype Imaging that bought the remains of its former archrival Linotype. 

  3. Jacqui Cheng visited the Hamilton museum for The Magazine in 2013 and brought back the story “Wood Stock.” 

  4. As Fritz Swanson movingly told in the 2011 story for The Believer, “The Last Man for the Job,” the equipment and expertise is mostly gone. Since his article, things have gotten even worse. 

  5. Newer monitors and so-called Retina devices pack many more pixels into the same area, so that even a monitor of the same size but with a higher pitch, or number of pixels per inch, shows any imperfection more clearly. 

Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer who lives in Buffalo, New York. He writes for Fortune, The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, ITworld, and Buffalo Spree, among others. He is a former contributing editor at Lifehacker.

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