When we heard last fall that Monotype was now operating out of modern digs in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood we asked ourselves, “Hadn’t they always?” Monotype is, of course, the century-old type design and branding agency, founded in Boston with locations in 15 cities worldwide. It seemed like a given for it to have a major presence in central London, yet ever since the mid 1970s, when the company moved out of a Holborn studio that was badly bombed during WWII, Monotype has been more or less couchsurfing.
“We were working out of coffee shops four years ago, off someone else’s WiFi, acting like a start-up within this established company,” says creative director James Fooks-Bale. “It was all in order to get this belief from the executives for us to have a space here.”
Though today you’ll find plenty of people in London and beyond tweeting and gramming about fonts, writing about fonts, basically praying at the altar of the typeface, Fooks-Bale says the city’s got nothing on other design centers. “Berlin has become a type capital fighting against New York,” he says. “But London didn’t speak up enough. There weren’t as many talks or exhibitions here. There are starting to be those things, but we didn’t wake up in time to level ourselves there.” With Monotype’s new Shoreditch headquarters, Fooks-Bale aims to change that.
Outfitted by small London practice Ben Adams Architects, the 3,500-square-foot space is slightly larger than is needed for the dozen or so full-timers, but that means there’s room to accommodate visiting colleagues and clients, as well as extra staffers as the office scales up over time. Two wings delineate the creative and accounts sides, separated by a smart, spare kitchen and phone rooms to buffer the quiet clicking of the three type designers and one graphic designer from the steady dialogue between the sales and marketing teams.
However, the selling point of the interior design was not the reductive black-and-white palette, even though it allows the text-based art hanging on the wall to “do the talking.” It’s the rotating exhibition space extending from the foyer deep into the office. Artwork propped up against the walls and spread out in vitrine tables demystifies the art of type design and contextualizes some of the best work.
“More often than not, people’s view of type is a tick-down menu in Word,” says Fooks-Bale. “Fonts just fall out of the sky. People don’t think about the thousands of hours of craftsmanship that go into building them. We’d like to make that more accessible to the clients and students who come here. The type industry shouldn’t be a closed door.”
The archival brochures, book covers, and photographs on display will change monthly, and a series of talks and events is in the works. At the end of a five-year push to reinvigorate Monotype in London, with gallery shows like Pencil to Pixel, Fooks-Bale is relieved, finally, “to be inside that space and live and breathe the brand a bit more.”
Company-wide, Monotype has about 150 creative projects on the go. “That’s us looking after a brand, some for two years, others for 10 minutes,” says Fooks-Bale. It oversees roughly the same number of type design projects at a given time, whether managing its own library of typefaces or designing custom fonts.
But at 10:30 a.m. on the morning of this interview, no one seemed to be doing much of anything on the creative side, two designers having worked into the night hand-lettering an Arabic text. “It’s quite fluid, in that we allow everyone some flexibility with deadlines,” says Fooks-Bale.
Today employees are excited about the newest artwork in the office: a chunky 1930s-era sign overlaid in the 1960s with blue monotype, which movers lifted from the wall of the former office in Salfords, 50 miles south, and mounted here just yesterday. It joins a selection of permanent in-house artworks (a handful of Alan Kitching prints adorn meeting rooms named for Stanley Morison and John Dreyfus, late veterans of Monotype’s British arm). But it does the job of broadening the “lens” through which employees see and experience type.
“Being able to study type in more of an emotional way, that’s the key, really,” says Fooks-Bale. “You can view it scientifically, historically, or psychologically, but studying the letterform as a silhouette is a really interesting approach, seeing it as an object of beauty in the same way you see architecture, lighting, or cars. That will continue if we put it more in the foreground like this.”
The typeface game is a fairly isolated, esoteric discipline on its own, but pairing it with other fields can bring it to life in infinite ways. Consider the Monotype’s work for Nike, or for Transport for London, seen across the massive tube and rail network. It’s as important for employees to remember that as it is for potential clients.
“A lot of us see London as punching above its weight, or at least it used to. But we didn’t show that in any way,” says Fooks-Bale. “By having a space here to make our mark and celebrate type… well, if we can elevate the type industry, it’s good for all of us.”