Foundry: House Industries
Designer: Typeface design by Ken Barber, Quentin Schmerber of Production Type, Teja Smrekar, and Ben Kiel; typeface production by Ben Kiel and Jason Campbell; art direction and design by Andy Cruz and Bondé Angeline
Release Date: August 2020
Back Story: Municipal could be said to have been conceived on the sidewalk. Its designer Ken Barber admits to a habit of almost compulsively photographing interesting letterforms he encounters—“posters, packaging, signs, you name it”—and he hit type-inspo gold in New Bedford, MA, in 2010. Said gold was in the form of a utility cover: “What caught my eye were the iron lid’s beefy letterforms, an offbeat mixture of slab serif styles punctuated by sizable triangular serifs,” says Barber. “The ampersand added even more twists, with an unusual circular serif at one end of the mark, and a backward-curling foot finishing off the other. The result was a charming collection of forms that filtered conventional type through a vernacular lens.”
Inspired by those letterforms, Barber created Municipal Cast which he describes as a “one-off tribute to the humble manhole cover” and released it in 2015. But Municipal was far from complete: Barber assembled a team of other type designers and producers to set about evolving this initial idea into a fully-fledged family of 15 fonts across multiple weights and styles.
Barber says he wanted Municipal’s fonts to be “functional, while retaining a unique personality beyond simply being readable.” They draw influence from both traditional typographic contexts (namely the work of English foundries Stevens, Shanks & Sons and Figgins). “It was common for the letterforms to appear different from size to size during this period,” says Barber, who adds that he’s a sucker for such fonts’ “sturdy proportions and simple lowercase terminals.”
In addition to referencing 19th-century type specimens and vintage hand-lettering, the designers also investigated iron foundries to see how manufacturing methods influenced their final products—works of art that double as pieces of everyday industrial design.
Why’s it called Municipal? Quite simply, says Barber, the name Municipal “spoke perfectly to the industrial origins of my beefy slab-serif inspired by American utility cover lettering.”
What are its distinguishing characters? As with many American commercial iron castings of the past 150 years, Municipal boasts prominent wedge-shaped vertical serifs. These are contrasted by softer elements like generous round strokes and recurring nods to 19th-century font specimens, such as the plain endings for lowercase letters (‘a’ and ‘c,’ among others) rather than the ball terminals found on other similar fonts, as well as the italic lowercase forms that begin with horizontal entry strokes and finish with contrasting curved exit strokes.
Municipal’s “clear, crisp” lighter weights “appear to be almost mono-weight, reminiscent of typewritten forms,” says Barber. The low contrast of Municipal’s fonts ensures the middle weights are comfortably legible for running text, small sizes, and in “elaborate multi-font settings.” Its heavier weights look to be “eye-catching without being clumsy or overpowering.” Meanwhile, Municipal Patterns, the iteration most flagrantly adapted from everyday utility cover designs, allows designers to use the font itself for repeating decorative elements.
What might it be used it for? As its name suggests, Municipal was created to be utilitarian, yet full of character. The designs—even in the more “brawny,” bolder weights—avoid being clumsy, meaning that each of the 15 fonts is pretty versatile. At the heavier end of the weights, Municipal really comes to life on applications where type can be brought to the fore such as posters, book jackets, packaging, and signage—“anything that requires a strong and direct tone,” says Barber.
“Municipal’s lighter offerings have a remarkably lithe frame that makes them equally striking in large-scale applications. Put these fonts to work in advertising, editorials, or package design.” He adds that a dream application would be Municipal returning to its origins by being cast in metal.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? Barber says he likes to pair it with another of his designs, Chalet Comprimé, a flat-sided sans which also harkens back to 19th-century type design. Municipal also contrasts pretty nicely with Neutraface No.2, as despite the fonts hailing from different eras, they share a low contrast, simple construction, and clean silhouette. “To create a 19th-century poster vibe, try Municipal with a fat face such as Montage, or pile on novelty fonts like Carnival and Benguiat Buffalo,” says Barber. “If a more sophisticated look is in order, contrast Municipal with an elegant roundhand script like Davison Spencerian.”