Tuesday, 7:06am
12 April 2011

Type Tuesday

Matthew Carter explains how he came to design his first wood type

The positive / negative aspect of type is always in a type designer’s mind, writes Matthew Carter in Eye 76. This may be particularly true for a designer who has been trained, as I was, in punchcutting, a technique that works on the space – the letter is what is left over at the end.

When I spent time at the Deberny Peignot foundry in the early 1960s, Adrian Frutiger showed me that he sometimes began a design by drawing with white paint on black paper: drawing the space, in other words, not the letter.

I followed Adrian’s example and enjoyed the obvious affinity with punchcutting. From those days I also remember buying Willem Sandberg’s Experimenta Typographica 11 (see ‘Warm printing’ in Eye 25) and loving the page of ‘the inner LIFE principle’, in which the word LIFE is turned inside out to show its inner forms. ‘Glyph space,’ as Cyrus Highsmith says, ‘is the mechanism that makes movable type possible.’


Above and below: Letterpress posters showing specimens of Matthew Carter's wood type commissioned by the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, Wisconsin, United States.

I’m not a printer, least of all a letterpress printer, but I have tried to think like one. So when the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Wisconsin commissioned me to design a new wood face earlier this decade, I could imagine that the interaction of dual forms might provide interesting effects at the poster sizes typical of wood type.

First I made a titling font of Latin capitals and figures (no lowercase) in PostScript, then duplicated it and reversed all the characters to make a pair of fonts, positive and negative, night and day, yin and yang. The set-widths are exactly the same in both fonts. I had no specific models for my Latin letters, except for the ampersand, which occurs on gravestones around Boston.


I sent my digital fonts and proofs to the Hamilton museum, which cut a few trial characters by the traditional method: Norb Brylski used a fretsaw to cut enlarged plywood pattern letters to guide a pantographic router that cut the face in type-high maplewood blanks.

Norb then hand-finished them, using a knife to sharpen corners rounded by the router bit. We took them to TypeCon in Minneapolis in 2003, where Richard Zauft and I gave a talk about the project that got an encouraging response from letterpress printers in the audience.


Above and top: The wood font shown on press at letterpress printers Hand & Eye, London. Photograph by John Bodkin.

Despite this promising beginning, the project languished until 2009, when Jim Moran and his brother Bill joined the museum. They found a local sign-manufacturer with a CNC router that could work directly from my digital data, and produce razor-sharp corners.


Above: A computer-controlled router cuts positive and negative versions of the wood font from Wisconsin maple.

By November 2009, when the Morans organised their Weekend Wayzgoose at the Hamilton museum, we had wooden fonts of both the positive and negative versions of the type at 12-line (2in) size. When the printers arrived, we had alphabets of both versions set up on Vandercook presses, with the positive letters inked in red and the negative in black, for them to try printing from.

I was quite unprepared for the inventiveness of the first results with this two-faced type (which was then provisionally named Carter Latin). All manner of pages emerged from the presses: one-colour, two-colour, multiple impressions, in register, out of register, right way up, sideways and upside down …


The new typeface has now been named after Jim Van Lanen, the driving force behind the museum for a long time. Both wood fonts, Van Lanen and Van Lanen Streamer (the reversed version), can be bought from the museum, which also licenses digital versions to help plan work to be printed from the wood type. At 144pt, the digital letterforms should exactly match their wooden counterparts.

It was a pleasure and privilege to see my design come to fruition under the same roof as the astonishing collection of historical wood types that Hamilton possesses. On the day I arrived at Hamilton I picked up a piece of maplewood type and realised that it was exactly 50 years since a type of my design had been in a physical form that I could hold in my hand.


Type Tuesday is our new weekly column on typography and type design, featuring a mixture of brand new articles and material from the extensive Eye archive. For more Type Tuesday articles, click here.

Yin and yang’ by Matthew Carter was commissioned for Eye 76, Summer 2010.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It’s available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. For a visual sample of Eye 76, see Eye before you buy on Issuu. The latest issue is Eye 79, a type special.