Back Story: It all started 25 years ago, with a commission for Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. In looking for inspiration for the magazine’s new display typeface, Tobias Frere-Jones found it in the monumental letters chiseled in stone upon Trajan’s Column, a remnant of the Roman Empire still standing proudly in Italy’s capital city.
Over two decades later, the nagging feeling of unfinished business finally prompted him to revisit the classic Roman typographic language and turn it into a more fully realized type system. For Empirica, Frere-Jones and his colleague Nina Stössinger reinterpreted his original 1994 design as a headline font, amplifying and expanding the original character set over a range of weights, adding in a lowercase and italics (which the Romans never had), and including two sets of figures and support for hundreds of languages.
Why’s it called Empirica? “We wanted a name derived from Latin, which could hint at the Roman Empire,” Frere-Jones says. “But this name also acknowledges the experiments we made to ‘extrapolate’ what lowercase, italic, and heavier weights should look like.”
What are its distinguishing characteristics? The design team’s formidable knowledge of typographic history, coupled with an intense research process, yielded a typeface that adheres to the classic proportions of Roman inscriptional capitals and extrapolates from them, taking off in informed yet novel directions. By keeping in mind the physical requirements and restrictions of carving letters in stone, Frere-Jones and Stössinger devised a strategy for crafting lower case letters consistent with their upper-case family members.
That materials-based approach also paid off in imagining what the bold weight would look like. The team tried to envision those letters as real-world objects cast in metal, carved from wood, or even fashioned from glass. Empirica’s stroke contrast drops in the heavier weights, an unusual and counter-intuitive move lending the letterforms unusual volume and heft. Some of the typeface’s most memorable glyphs, such as the capital R and G, draw upon early 19th-century interpretations of the Roman lettering, building on the type style’s progression throughout the centuries.
What should I use it for? It began as a magazine commission, so it has a natural affinity for editorial content, but its personality and presence also translate to branding and advertising.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? “Our favorite companion is Mallory, but Empirica gets along well with most any low-contrast sans, especially humanist or geometric ones, whose capitals echo the same classic width modulation,” Stössinger says. Try General Type Studio’s Pilat, also loosely based on classic Roman letterforms, and YSans, with its echoes of various historical geometric typefaces, from Typofonderie.