In 1962, Eero Saarinen designed a building that looked like flight itself. The shell roof of the Trans World Flight Center (TWA Center) swooped downward in angled pieces; its shape echoed the outline of a fighter jet seen from head-on.
Inside, Saarinen’s team had crafted a typographic system that looked like flight, too. The hand-drawn signs scattered throughout the building featured a bold sans serif that tilted forward in an exaggerated italic. It was designed to look fast, like a technological marvel. “Of course a bold italic would be perfect for the jet age, wouldn’t it?” says Michael Bierut.
After remaining closed for decades, Saarinen’s terminal recently reopened as the TWA Hotel, a sleek homage to the architect’s midcentury design. Bierut and his team worked with type designer Nick Sherman to craft Flight Center Gothic, a faithful, but modern version of the hand-lettered type that was found throughout Saarinen’s building.
Before drawing a letter, Bierut and Sherman visited the TWA terminal at JFK where many of the original signs were still hanging. “I immediately—and sort of incorrectly, as it turned out—identified the lettering style as a typeface called Derek,” Bierut says. Derek, a bold, italic typeface designed in the late 19th century, had echoes of the slanting letters found in Raymond Lowry’s TWA logo, but as Bierut hinted, he and Sherman soon learned that while Saarinen might have been influenced by Derek, it wasn’t the exact lettering that was used throughout the terminal.
While studying Saarinen’s papers at Yale’s archive, Bierut and team found photostats of the lettering that had been pulled from various books. Saarinen and his team of architects had made edits to the letters, indicating where they wanted things changed. “These images are annotated here and there—by whom, I don’t know—indicating modifications the architects wanted to do: extending the center crossbars in the ‘e’ and ‘f,’ for instance, or cutting back the base of the capital ‘L,’” Bierut explains. The slightly tweaked letterforms were then sent on to draftsmen who likely traced the edited letters from the photostats. From there, craftspeople lettered the terminal’s signs by hand. It was up to Sherman and his team to incorporate all of Saarinen’s typographic idiosyncrasies into an “authoritative” typeface that would be consistent but faithful to the letterforms’ quirks.
Why’s it called Flight Center Gothic?
Easy. The name is an homage to Saarinen’s original Flight Center building.
What are its distinguishing characteristics?
The sans serif typeface has thick strokes that lean forward as if someone suddenly slammed on the breaks. It’s declarative and geometric, yet shapely and warm. Bierut describes it as “bold, fast, and optimistic, just like Saarinen’s building.” Sherman created a bolded italic for the TWA hotel, but he also made a Roman and thin version, too.
What should I use it for?
“It’s a really great contemporary sans with those hints of imperfection that make it a good alternative to more ‘perfect’ typefaces like Helvetica and Universe,” says Bierut.
What should I pair it with?
“I think it would work well with a Scotch Roman like Century, or even a modified slab serif like Clarendon,” Bierut says. “It really has a bit of a Mad Men feel, so all of those typefaces that were popular in early ’60s advertising would work well with it.”