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Back story: The origins of this font might just have you flipping back to your old college work for inspiration. A quarter century ago, as a young art student in the UK, Jason Smith sketched out some preliminary letterforms inspired by Hermann Zapf’s Optima. “I studied calligraphy and signwriting at college, and I did a work placement at Monotype, just down the road from my hometown,” says Smith, who went on to found Fontsmith. “This was my first introduction into the fascinating career of a typeface designer. When I went back to college, I started drawing ‘iasonas,’ my name in Greek, because I liked the lowercase proportions and how the Romans took the Greek lowercase alphabet as their own. I hand drew a new alphabet and inked it in using a Rotring pen in time for my diploma show.”
With the help of Krista Radoeva, Siena finally made its debut this summer as a new contrasted sans serif, a relatively rare bird in the world of Modernist type. Based on the variations within strokes first seen in Roman stonecut lettering, contrasted sans faces were prominent during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. They grew in popularity during the 1950’s, when Zapf and other type designers began blending classical proportions with Modernist principles.
Why’s it called FS Siena? Smith named his typeface after the Italian city in homage to the Roman inscriptions that inspired Siena’s style and proportions. Fun fact: Herman Zapf sketched his first designs for Optima while visiting Italy in 1950 and examining inscriptions there. “We wanted a name that referenced the history and classicism, but wasn’t too obvious,” Smith says.
What are its distinguishing characteristics? You want distinguished? How ’bout a double-story ‘a’ that contrasts with the single-story ‘g’ and the nearly cursive ‘y?’ Siena’s forms strike a balance between classical broad-nib calligraphy, humanist typefaces, and the vertical angles of contrast more typically found in pointed-nib calligraphy and Modernist typefaces. Radoeva developed the italics with some independence from the roman counterparts drawn by Smith: the italic ‘a’ is single tier, the ‘k’ is nicely looped, and connections in the ‘m’, ‘n,’ and ‘u’ hit more towards the middle of stems. These distinctions, along with much narrower forms, give the italics extra kick within roman body copy. Aired-out letterspacing between the upper-case characters maximizes legibility in caps-only situations, which also uses case punctuation to adapt hyphens, brackets, and other punctuation to best suit all-caps text.
What should I use it for? Its elegant yet eclectic personality speaks to a range of media, design, and advertising uses, particularly for high-end brands in fashion, cosmetics, and hospitality. FS Siena’s Thin to Light weights are great for headline and display , while weights from Regular through Bold work nicely as body copy since the thick/thin contrast is more subdued.
Who’s it friends with? Smith likes to pair FS Siena’s elegant curves, generous proportions, and humanist character with the clean geometric shapes and sharp corners of FS Lucas, for contrast. For a serif partner, try Trajan, whose forms also draw upon Roman stone carvings, or FS Brabo.