Metal magic

Stern is not your average 21st-century font – it comes as metal movable type as well as in a digital edition. Simon Loxley describes the retro appeal of a niche technology that many assumed had disappeared

This summer P22 Type Foundry, the eclectic font company in Buffalo, New York, announced its latest release, Stern, the work of Canadian designer, illustrator and type designer Jim Rimmer. What makes Stern’s appearance remarkable is that it marks the first time that a font has been simultaneously released in both digital form and as metal type for hand-setting.

With a CV that sets him out as a Renaissance man of printed graphics, Rimmer’s considerable portfolio of type designs includes ten previously cast in metal and many created digitally. But this is the first time he has approached both incarnations at the same time, using production methods involving an appealing mix of the digital and manual.

The designs for the characters are drawn by hand and then turned into digital forms using Ikarus, a veteran editing program that dates from 1973. While Colin Kahn expanded Rimmer’s basic set of Stern characters in Fontlab to a total of nearly 1000 glyphs, Rimmer produced metal patterns of the characters from which brass matrices – the moulds from which the individual letters are cast – could be scaled using a pantograph and then cut. Stern’s promotional booklet includes a sample of the metal type; cast as they are one at a time, that single character represents a considerable piece of labour in itself.

It’s an impressive production feat, but who wants a metal version of a new font these days? Rimmer’s own alter-ego as publisher of limited-edition books provides the clue, as does his description of Stern: ‘An upright italic type designed for hand-set poetry and diverse digital use’. Metal Stern has only been produced in one size, 16 point, a size and style that recalls Times New Roman creator Stanley Morison and his partner Frederic Warde’s Arrighi, a 16-point italic first used for a 1925 self-published slim volume by poet laureate Robert Bridges.

That’s the world metal type seems to inhabit these days, one of enthusiasts with hand-printing presses, producing lovingly crafted small runs of personally selected texts, to be snapped up by collectors of fine press editions. The photographs that accompany Stern’s release reinforce this craftsman image – aged wood and metal seductively lit by light filtering through workshop windows, Rimmer snowy-bearded, avuncular, eyes twinkling over half spectacles, posed against a background of type trays, workbenches and cans of printing ink.

Metal type’s survival into the 21st century is remarkable. Apparently six feet under by the mid-1980s, it has defied all logic and expectations to find a niche for itself, begging comparisons with another technology that refused to die, the vinyl record. Like vinyl, metal type has both tactile and retro appeal. As has been observed, when a technology becomes obsolete it is free to become an art form, and metal type has seized this opportunity, even re-entering the education system. Many colleges whose metal type and printing equipment were thrown into skips must now mourn the loss. As Central St Martins College of Art and Design tutor Catherine Dixon says, ‘Letterpress still serves as one of the most effective vehicles for communicating two essential typographic ideas: the physicality of space and the modularity of type.’

We can all be thankful for the way digital design has revolutionised the way we use type – it’s a darn sight easier, for a start. But metal type, in its end product, has a magic and an aura; it both looks, feels and smells different. Eyes shut, you can run your finger over the page and know it’s there – physicality indeed. Stern, while fully exploiting the possibilities of on-screen design, also reminds us that other options still remain. In the digital age it’s good for designers to remember that making something by hand, whether with a pencil or a piece of Plasticine, is what got us all excited and started in the first place, and if we lose that connection, then we lose a big part of what makes us different and special. Rimmer’s latest offering gives a timely reminder that there is always more than one way to skin that proverbial moggy.

Simon Loxley is a freelance designer and writer, and editor of the St Bride Library journal Ultrabold

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