Shortly after launching his independent foundry in 2015, Tobias Frere-Jones released Mallory, a typeface meant as a personal experiment reflecting his dual British-American identity. Like a child whose features echo those of generations of ancestors, Mallory combines elements of 1928’s very-British Gill Sans and London’s subdued vernacular typography with the muscular shapes of New York City signage, plus a dash of American Mergenthaler Linotype Company’s 1929 typeface Metro. While its allusions are many, the end result was a typeface that is very much its own thing.
The font lends a relaxed feeling to text thanks to the letterforms’ soft geometric proportions, offset here and there with a dash of robust individualism. A MicroPlus style represents a fresh approach to the centuries-old practice of designing optical sizes, ensuring legibility down to the smallest imaginable sizes on both screen and page. Since its release, Mallory has proven to be a popular workhorse for projects around the world, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Mother Jones magazine, the Julián Castro presidential campaign, and identity and collateral systems for the 2016 Typographics festival. Its wide usage also meant it received a fair amount of user feedback, and in June Frere-Jones released an expanded family that addressed much of what he’d heard, and added 84 styles.
“It was the ideal circumstance for typeface development: to play matchmaker between something I’d like to do and something that somebody needs.”
Frere-Jones began working on the update in 2017 after hearing from designers who wished for something narrower than the standard weights: a subtly compact version that could be used as an alternate text default width. (Many typeface families now include a slightly condensed version of the text weights, as it provides graphic designers the flexibility to work with copy meant for both print and screen use without having to mess around with the word count.) This was something Frere-Jones intended to provide from the start, but had to postpone to focus on the launch of his new foundry. Fortunately, a serendipitous request came along shortly after Mallory was released.
“A client asked us to create a condensed version of Mallory with a very specific rate of copyfit to match something they were already using,” he says. “That custom work opened up the whole design space. It was the ideal circumstance for typeface development: to play matchmaker between something I’d like to do and something that somebody needs.”
Frere-Jones repurposed some of that work to generate this latest commercially-available upgrade. Besides four new widths (including the Compact requested by users) that can fill out a much larger palette, new behind-the-scenes features such as improved programming and coding reduce the font file sizes and allow them to run faster on the web. A reallocation of vertical space supports improved screen media performance as well.
The late Gerard Unger pointed out that somehow, a typeface will always be a kind of self-portrait of its designer, and Mallory is no exception: it contains a great deal of Frere-Jones’s personal history embedded its characters. “I’ve come to believe that typefaces carry stories best when they have stories of their own,” he says in a blog post on his website. Mallory was a story carefully archived in the back of his mind for years, accumulating details and gaining in clarity, until the time felt right to tell it.
“Matthew Carter remarked once that he never regretted putting something in a drawer and coming back to it later.”
From a young age, Frere-Jones was sensitive to the emotional cues embedded in the shapes of letterforms, particularly as seen in vernacular city signage. On childhood visits to his British grandparents, he noticed that signs around London’s streets felt quiet, authoritative, and assured. Meanwhile, signs for places like Pintchik Paints on Flatbush Avenue in his native Brooklyn were shouty, brazen, and exuberant. Reflecting on how these clashing nationalistic qualities from disparate environments played out in his own life led him to another question: How might these opposing forces find expression as a typeface?
For Frere-Jones, letting a project marinate untouched for a while is a deliberate part of his design process. “You’ll always see something that you didn’t see before, sometimes because you’d been looking at it for so long that you became kind of numb,” he says, “or you made an initial decision based on something that was no longer relevant, or you revised your criteria over time. Matthew Carter remarked once that he never regretted putting something in a drawer and coming back to it later. There would always be a way to benefit from a refreshed perspective.”
“Typefaces are never really done, they’re just released.”
So is Mallory finished? How does a designer know when to stick a fork in it? Frere-Jones doesn’t have any explicit plans to keep going at this point. “David Berlow of Font Bureau liked to say typefaces are never really done, they’re just released. There’s always something to go back to, revise, adjust, add, or expand,” he says. “Every foundry periodically issues updates to their families, the same as software companies release new versions. Typefaces are similar in that there’s always the potential to do more, or polish things a bit further.”
Plus, it’s difficult to pinpoint the starting and ending points of a project so closely linked to personal identity. Perhaps one day Frere-Jones will recall additional typographic memories from his formative years, or maybe he’ll find inspiration in something new he hasn’t yet seen, which will spark additional updates to Mallory. Might the future might bring new iterations of this typeface? Never say never.