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What Went Wrong Between Type Legends Hoefler And Frere-Jones?

New court documents shed light upon the rift between two of the world’s greatest living type designers.

What Went Wrong Between Type Legends Hoefler And Frere-Jones?
[Image: Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler, stills from Font Men]

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones were the Beatles of the type world. Then they broke up earlier this year in what we described as “the legal equivalent of a knife fight in the street.” Now, new court documents are shedding light on what went wrong between with them.

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Here’s what we know. According to Tobias Frere-Jones, one-time competitor Jonathan Hoefler approached him in 1999 to become a formal 50-50 partner in the Hoefler Type Foundry, subsequently renamed Hoefler & Frere-Jones. According to Frere-Jones, Hoefler stalled him for years in actually granting equity, then finally denied him all shares in the company that bore his name on October 21, 2013. Frere-Jones turned around and filed a lawsuit against Hoefler, describing his former partner’s behavior in court documents as “the most profound treachery.”

Hoefler has denied the charges. In a press release following Frere-Jones’ exit from the company, Hoefler & Co. general counsel Michael Burke said that the lawsuit “profoundly misrepresented Tobias’s relationship with both the company and Jonathan” and that the allegations are “false and without legal merit.” According to Burke, Frere-Jones was never anything besides a “longtime employee.”

Frere-Jones’ lawyers are trying to prove otherwise. In 13 separate documents submitted late last week, Frere-Jones shows that Hoefler called him his “partner” in H&FJ as early as 2000, when Hoefler wrote that he would be kicking off a “new (and still as-yet-unannounced) partnership with Tobias Frere-Jones [which] has opened the floodgates for new work.” In multiple emails afterward–both to Frere-Jones, and outside clients–Hoefler continued to reference Frere-Jones as his business partner.

“The essence of Hoefler’s denial is that Frere-Jones was merely an employee and not an owner of the business that bore his name,” Frere-Jones’s lawyers write in the documents. “How can he possibly make that assertion… in the face of his own representations to the public and to Frere-Jones that they were ‘partners?'”

From a legal perspective, of course, there are many levels of partnership: being a partner does not necessarily mean being a 50% owner.

Frere-Jones’ lawyers point out that their client would not have transferred millions of dollars worth of rights to his Dowry Fonts (the biggest of which is the popular Whitney family) to H&FJ in 2004 for the nominal fee of $10 if he didn’t expect that he would own 50% equity in the new organization. “I never would have left Font Bureau and Boston, where I was well-established, merely to work for HTF as an employee,” says Frere-Jones in his affidavit.

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According to arguments filed in court by Hoefler’s attorneys (who have not yet responded to our requests for comment), the fact that Frere-Jones did transfer the Dowry Fonts in 2004 should be enough to get his lawsuit thrown out of court. While denying that Frere-Jones was anything besides an employee of the Hoefler type foundry, they say that even if co-ownership of the company was due to him, it would have had to happen within the statute of limitations of the 2004 deal, which they claim is six years. So even if Frere-Jones is right, his point is moot, they say. He simply waited too long to enforce his rights.

There may very well be more to this case than we’ve seen so far, but as it looks now, Tobias Frere-Jones appears to be a victim of his own trusting nature and naiveté. What hay the courts make of this, though, is still very much up in the air.

Here’s more information about the lawsuit and what designers can learn from it. As for what the type world has lost? More than a foundry, but a classic creative friendship, which you can see for yourself in Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s final interview.