Autumn 2023

Mutant letters trickle down

Heated Words: Searching for a Mysterious Typeface

Rizzoli, $65, designed by Modern Construct

An iron-on flock typeface, primarily available to buy from a few shops in New York between the early 1970s and late 80s, is the focus of this fascinating study of the evolution of a very particular set of letters. Authors Rory McCartney and Charlie Morgan’s search for the story of this lettering becomes a study of DIY aesthetics, clothing customisation, music and fashion subcultures, as well as the way a typeface evolves and mutates in the wild.

The research in Heated Words: Searching for a Mysterious Typeface is impressive. Hundreds of archive photographs and masses of information take the book beyond a purely typographic study and into a social history of the motorcycle and street gangs, hip-hop artists, b-boy crews and punks who wore the ‘HW’ letters (so called by the authors because the typeface has no official name and was referred to as Old English, Gothic or Blackletter).

Grandmaster Flash ‘It’s Nasty’ T-shirt.
Top. Brooklyn portraits by Jamel Shabazz.

The typeface itself is slippery, bootlegged and bastardised since it first emerged heat-pressed on to workwear and die-cut by a range of different companies producing different letters with every batch.

While the book charts the presumed roots of the type design, from the influence of Textura Quadrata and Manuskript Gotisch to Cooper Black, it is the period in which HW took on a life of its own, before eventually moving beyond its NYC birthplace, that is most rewarding. The cast of characters is therefore as eclectic as the letters – from Grandmaster Flash to Joe Strummer. ‘These letters … were crafted by someone outside of traditional typography – someone who knew the feeling but not the form,’ write the authors, admitting that the type’s analogue inconsistency is part of its draw. HW’s history is really one of subversion, or as they put it, evocatively, when ‘the letters trickled down from outlaws.’

Mark Sinclair, freelance writer, editor, Stroud

First published in Eye no. 105 vol. 27, 2023

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.