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Seven Questions for Chester Jenkins, Designer of New Cooper Hewitt Typeface

(Kirstin McKee)
(Photo: Kirstin McKee)

Come December, the renovated and expanded Cooper Hewitt will welcome back visitors with a bold new look. The tricky task of reimagining the graphic identity of the Smithsonian Design Museum was taken on by Pentagram’s Eddie Opara, who tapped Chester Jenkins to work his typographical magic. Jenkins, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Village, created a custom typeface—Cooper Hewitt—that the museum has released into the digital wild: the bold sans serif can be downloaded free of charge as installable fonts, Web font files, and open-source code. Having taken the recent press preview of the museum as an excuse to follow Jenkins around and ask him his views on the various typefaces that were revealed by the painstaking restoration of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, we agreed to relent if he would answer just seven more questions. He graciously agreed.

c h logotypeWhat three words best describe the Cooper Hewitt typeface?
Objective. Accessible. Spirited.

How does Cooper Hewitt differ from your Polaris Condensed?
The width of Cooper Hewitt is based on the Semicondensed version of Polaris, which only exists as beta fonts on the computers at Pentagram and UFOs on my hard drive. When I drew the Cooper Hewitt types, I didn’t recycle the outlines of Polaris, but instead drew everything from scratch, referring to Polaris Semicondensed, not simply tweaking it.

The range of weights is greater in Cooper Hewitt; while a couple of the master weights were based on Polaris, the family of fonts has a different internal structure. A significant stylistic difference is in the hewing to horizontal and vertical stroke endings, as opposed to the angled terminal strokes which are a touchstone of Polaris. Then there are the “plateaus”—or “plateaux” for the linguistic sticklers—within most of the curves in round glyphs. You can’t really see them at anything less than a million points, but they separate the two designs. And the numerals and currency glyphs depart significantly from Polaris.

Village is a type co-op—what is that exactly and who are the members?
Village is a group of a dozen small foundries from around the world. While not technically organized as a co-operative, our model was the first of its kind in the digital era, as far as we are aware. We contact our members to discuss important decisions, such as adding new members to the group. The members sometimes collaborate with each other, and often pass along custom projects where one member is more suited than another. We also avoid stepping on each others’ toes; one member will not publish a design if it’s stylistically close to another member’s design. We distribute the work of our members: A2-Type, Blackletra, Feliciano Type Foundry, Klim, LuxTypo., MCKL, Schwartzco, Type Supply, and Urtd. We publish work through two foundries: Constellation and Incubator.

ugly ampersandWhat is your typographical pet peeve?
I had to think really hard about this. Because there are so many approaches to type design, there are pretty much endless solutions to any design challenge. One thing that I’m not wild about is one particular form of the ampersand, the “flopped-3-plus-t” (pictured). I blame Rotis, which was ubiquitous in the early ’90s. Another peeve is badly-made lowercase eths: ð. And primes used instead of apostrophes, but that goes without saying.

What is the most unusual or meaningful object currently on your desk?
A book printed in 1607 in Lyon by Paul Frellon. It’s in pretty great shape for being four centuries old, although it’s not by a “great” printer—Garamond, Grandjon, Plantin, etc—it is printed with representative type, and features a terrific italic ampersand. I recently purchased this book, and three sets of French and Belgian law reference books printed between 1781 and 1841, and “my new old book” from 1607. It’s inspirational to see how much care was taken in cutting the type and laying out the pages. While I studied typographic history more than twenty years ago, I’ve never really been interested in straightforward revival of old typefaces; there are plenty of very talented designers who do this extremely well. But looking through these books has given me clues I can use in making my work.

What is on your summer reading list?
Design-wise, I’ve started Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston, and I’m enjoying it. I’m finally going to read John Maeda‘s The Laws of Simplicity. And I bought the e-book version of Fiona MacCarthy‘s biography of Eric Gill, having read it as a design student.

Otherwise, I’m intrigued by Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s My Struggle. I have a couple of books by Ben Greenman on my phone; I have always enjoyed his New Yorker pieces and Twitterings. But before any of those, I have to read my friend Tom Standage‘s latest, Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years.

What do you consider your proudest design moment?
The Cooper Hewitt typeface may well be it! I don’t dwell too much on my own work and where it ends up. I make it, release it, and move on to the next one. But it is gratifying to see the Cooper Hewitt typeface live, and I’m excited to see what other designers do with the typeface via the Open Font license.

I am incredibly fortunate to be able to make my living as a type designer; this is what I enjoy doing, and I have collaborated with some wonderful designers. I am very proud that Village has introduced and promoted so many talented type designers to the world. I’m always proud when I see a typeface from our library being used.

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