Commercial Type has always made new typefaces for modern users and their needs. Some of them draw from the past, of course, but we have never allowed this to dominate the style of a face. Rather, these typefaces reinterpret the past through the prism of today. Lyon and Portrait, for example, owe something to the sixteenth century, but diverge from the originals and take their own paths. Marian is a kind of revival, with skeletal structures faithful to the original sources, yet completely new with its fine, monolinear form. But, we always saw this way of making typefaces as just one path. Another direction could be taking the past much more literally: recreating the old forms and making them useable for today, imagining how the original designers’ intentions would expand into creating new typefaces for the contemporary designer. This is our aim with Commercial Classics.
The first batch of faces from Commercial Classics are from a specific time and place: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the British Isles. The era of the Industrial Revolution was, as now, a time of enormous technological change with new commercial demands requiring maximum visual impact, which gave rise to innovative styles of text and display typography. It was the era of new types with the fat face, the sans, the slab or Egyptian, the Clarendon or Ionic, and the Italian styles all appearing for the first time created by many different foundries. Constant development saw previous ideas reworked to make them bolder, lighter, narrower, and wider, or with multiple effects layered as decoration, shadows, or inlines. Many of these ideas still influence and resonate with the design of forms today.
Yet, innovation of type in the age of metal was also hindered by technology. The style of letters was limited by what typefounding could achieve and letterpress processes could reproduce. Free from such mechanical limitations today, we are able to create typefaces with numerous weight variations, large character sets, and multiple layers. None of these would have been possible prior to twentieth-century advancements in lithographic printing, digital typesetting, and the emergence of the personal computer as a tool for designing type and the new possibilities this opened up.
Brunel, for example, is based on an original model of a roman and italic with the barest of character sets. The revival has everything the modern designer expects: a large range of weights made in a number of optical masters for multiple sizes from text to posters and beyond. All of these have hundreds of glyphs: small capitals, swash capitals, ligatures, currency, and multiple numeral styles. Imagine doing this all physically, at a time when a punchcutter might only cut two characters in a day. Today, a designer might be making tens of characters in the same time.
With Commercial Classics, we are trying to capture as much of the original designs as possible, to make new typefaces that retain the qualities of the originals with all of their charms and quirks, following a path of faithfulness to the ideas and forms of the past, even when the forms sometimes never existed. But we never want these designs to be used in the way they were used originally: we are not nostalgic for another time, nor the technology of the day. Rather, these faces are being recreated to live in the contemporary world. We realise that these new faces never can, nor should they be, completely accurate to the originals. We made judgements on what we believe were conscious design decisions and what might be construed as mistakes.
We have other reasons for focusing initially on one time and place. First, the resources to find these examples existed not just through the old specimens, but through the old materials of making type: punches, matrices, and proofs. All of these are in abundance at St Bride Library in London. We realised that the homogeny of one nation’s idea of a letterform would mean these designs fit in some way together, but also that the more we made, the more we understood of the original designs and how we could make convincing forms for shapes that didn’t exist then. As an Anglo-American company, these typefaces are part of our shared tradition and lineage, with the commonalities across the Atlantic outweighing the differences.
Within the confines of a place and time how did we choose what to bring back to life? Some of the designs are originals of a style and so might have some significance as a pioneer, but often it has simply been that we appreciate a particular design and believe that it still has some value today for designers. We feel that many of these designs are worthwhile (re)additions to the typographic landscape, and often from single weights we can create families that will be useful. These are forms that perhaps should have never stopped being produced or, in the case of others, tastes have changed and they again seem appealing and relevant.
Commercial Classics, like Commercial Type, is not just about the workhorse typefaces that have an easy charm and utility, like Brunel or Caslon Ionic, that can be relied upon every day. We wanted to remake those styles, such as the shaded faces or Caslon Italian, that can only be used from time to time, but which bring unique qualities to a design project. Our intention is for these historical forms to escape the past and come to life again. We think that they offer the contemporary designer a richer typographical palette to work with; a set of typefaces not tied to the past, simply informed by it.