Co.Design

Hoefler & Frere-Jones, The Beatles Of The Type World, Are Breaking Up

Tobias Frere-Jones says "treacherous" Jonathan Hoefler cheated him of his half of one of the world's most famous type foundries--a company that has worked for everyone from Nike to the New York Times.

Hoefler & Frere-Jones--perhaps the world's most renowned type foundry whose fonts have been seen everywhere from the pages of GQ to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign--is splitting up. And it's a nasty parting--the legal equivalent of a knife fight in the street.

Founded in the early 1990s by now legendary type designers Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler & Frere-Jones has developed a number of the most popular new fonts to come out in the last 20 years. The company's body of almost 800 fonts includes the architecture-inspired Gotham and the eponymous Hoefler Text, a font developed for Apple to demonstrate advanced type technologies. The type foundry boasts a list of famous clients as long as your arm, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Tiffany, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, and many, many more.

But all is not well at Hoefler & Frere-Jones. In a lawsuit filed yesterday in New York--the paperwork of which is somewhat ironically set in Arial--Frere-Jones claims that his partner has cheated him out of half the $3 million company.

According to the suit, Frere-Jones believes that Hoefler tricked him into transferring ownership of several fonts, including Whitney, to Hoefler & Frere-Jones in exchange for 50% equity of the company. But this agreement was never formalized in writing, and on October 21, 2013, Hoefler--who had previously told Frere-Jones that he was "working on it" and to "stop harassing him" about his equity--formally reneged on the deal.

“In the most profound treachery and sustained exploitation of friendship, trust and confidence, Hoefler accepted all of the benefits provided by Frere-Jones while repeatedly promising Frere-Jones that he would give him the agreed equity, only to refuse to do so when finally demanded,” the suit says.

Profound treachery! Those aren't words bandied around by someone who thinks this can be resolved with a hug. For type lovers, though, watching two of the world's most famous type designers going for each other's throats this way after such a productive partnership must seem like the Beatles breaking up.

You can read the full complaint here. And stay tuned to Co.Design for more.

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30 Comments

  • The H&FJ twitter account tweeted this on Jan 17th:

    "We're disapointed, but the show goes on. typography.com/press/20140117"

    This is all they have to say about losing a key business partner of 10 years?

  • Frere-Jones isn't the first and won't be the last to get kicked to the kerb by the disappointing behaviour of once trusted colleagues.

    Sadly Hoefler probably imagines he is in the right and attempts to take the upperhand in an arrogant statement designed to suit a one-sided view.

    Just because the agreement was not finalised does not make the u-turn justifiable.

    If Frere-Jones has the stomach and finances for the legal battle the truth will hopefully emerge and a settlement agreed but they'll never restore friendship.

    Frere-Jones should have retained his IP and licensed it to the business imperpetuity for an exchange of the equity.

    Hindsight is a valuable thing. And perhaps Hoefler would have denied the terms of the license agreement even if staring him in the face.

    Some designers have a habit of doing that through self-dillusional arrogance, greed and bullying

  • I agree, and have seen it many times on a smaller scale. There's one partner who's more genius at the design side and one who's more genius at the business side. Every once in a while, the business partner forgets who is the one actually producing what is sold, and thinks their business genius is worth 99% of the value or even 100%. It's certainly worth a lot. But not that much. It's the lies that are infuriating I would imagine, being strung along for 15 years. Frère-Jones shouldn't have let it get to the boil-over point though. The fact is, the law will probably be pretty clear on this, contract law is pretty well-populated -- maybe somebody could get an attorney friend to weigh in --? We look forward to further reporting on the situation.

  • Attorney here. Supposing there are no written contracts in effect here or memorandums of understanding (MOUs) or emails that look like contracts or anything like that, most courts will look to a couple of things. First, did Frere Jones confer a benefit on Hoeffler for which he was not compensated fairly. Hence, FJ has raised "unjust enrichment" and "promissory estoppel" claims. These are claims as party raises when it is cheated in a deal for which there is no contact.

    Suppose I agree to paint your house for $1000, and we shake on it. I go ahead and paint and then you reneg and say "no contract, have a nice day." I could sue on "unjust enrichment." You have been enriched by my performance and I am owed compensation. I also relied on your promise to pay - so you are "estopped" - meaning barred from reneging. Finally, the court will look at "course of performance" - did they act like partners, hold themselves out this way, etc. Looks like it since FJ's name is on the door.

  • Allan Song

    Font design is important in facilitating communication. This is a design news site, so design news should be reported.

  • Sounds like you should re-read the legal doc. Frere-Jones is looking for at least 20 million in damages. 3 Million the the value of his original type assets signed over to the new company.

  • Quote from “About Us” from 8 Dez 13:

    – “Since 1989, Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones have helped some of the world's foremost publications, corporations, and institutions develop their unique voice through typography. Their body of work includes some of the world's most famous designs, typefaces marked by both high performance and high style. In 2004, The Hoefler Type Foundry entered its sixteenth year as Hoefler & Frere-Jones. […]."

    And this is what’s written there today:

    – “For 25 years, we’ve helped the world’s foremost publications, corporations, and institutions develop unique voices through typography. Our body of work includes some of the world’s most famous designs, typefaces marked by both high performance and high style. We work with brand leaders in every sector, developing original typefaces for print, web, and mobile environments, and licensing fonts from our library of more than one thousand designs.”