Co.Design

Hoefler & Frere-Jones: The Final Interview

Filmed months before their split, Font Men isn't just a captivating exploration of font design. It's a poignant reminder of what the type world has lost.

When Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler, the Beatles of the typography world, dramatically broke up their famous partnership in January, what was perhaps most shocking was the bitterness that seemed to exist between them. According to Frere-Jones, Hoefler had exhibited the "most profound treachery" and "sustained exploitation of friendship" in cheating him out of his half of the world-famous type foundry.

In the final recorded interview with Hoefler and Frere-Jones, there is not a single glimpse of the enmity that has come to exist (and must have been festering even at the time) between the two font masters. Called Font Men, the short documentary freezes in time one of the last moments the partners could be in the same room together without rancor, a video memento of what the type world has lost.

Filmed by New York–based video production studio Dress Code for the American Institute of Graphic Arts late last year, Font Men is a six-minute exploration of what made Hoefler and Frere-Jones unique during their 10-year partnership.

"What separates Hoefler & Frere-Jones from other type foundries is how attuned they are to what the public wants," says Dress Code's Creative Director Dan Covert. "They've been incredibly influential in making the transition from fonts in person to fonts on the web. Lots of foundries make display fonts, but it's stuff you can't use, say, in magazine body copy. Hoefler & Frere-Jones, on the other hand, are good at making families of fonts that can work in an entire body of mediums. It's a very niche thing."

While Font Men shows Hoefler and Frere-Jones in the same room discussing their work, there isn't a whiff of the animus which has come to exist between the two men. Rather, Hoefler and Frere-Jones have nothing but nice things to say about each other: Hoefler says that there is "no one who's opinion [he] values more than Tobias's," while Frere-Jones says "we've always been friends." In fact, the only visible disagreement between the two men in the video seems to be an amusing tiff about the proper height of a lowercase "t."

According to Covert, who recorded three hours of interviews for Font Men, this wasn't a mere facade: The relationship between Hoefler and Frere-Jones seemed equally warm even off-camera, without a hint of the dispute that would ultimately fracture their business. Which makes it all the sadder that the partnership between the two seems, at this point, to be irrevocably shattered.

"Obviously, we're well aware that Font Men might well be the last interview that Hoefler and Frere-Jones do together," Covert says. "It's sad. Most graphic design is ultimately ephemera, which gets forgotten almost as soon as it is made, but it's obvious that people will use Hoefler & Frere-Jones typefaces for the next hundred years. Their ability to explain in simple terms what they do is why the video comes across as it does. It's obvious that these two were just the cream of the crop. They're the pinnacle of what this field is. "

Font Men was an official selection at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. You can read our previous coverage of the Hoefler & Frere-Jones split here, and what designers can learn from it here.

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