Helen Rosner on the Banal and the Beautiful
The cliff of connoisseurship.
Becoming a Regular
Converting emotions into geography.
Harriet Amber in the Conan Arcade
It was ending, all of it.
This Is Love: A Riff on the Jamaican Patty
Then the internet changed everything.
Food as Resistance at La Morada
Community care in the Bronx.
A Beginner’s Guide to Kuih
Savory and sweet on Eldridge Street.
From the Editor
This is a type specimen. Sort of.
Unless you’re a type designer, you likely felt flummoxed the first time you cast your eyes on a conventional type specimen. Your brain probably tried to cull meaning from seemingly endless strings of glyphs, which pushed you to focus on form, not sense. “Type specimen language,” quipped artist Kelli Anderson, “is so! Very colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
There’s a reason for that. By design, these artifacts of Western print capitalism “almost incidentally have textual content.”1 Since emerging in Europe in the sixteenth century, their primary purpose has been to sell, and their lifespans have tended to be short. They were never meant to be great works of literature (although historians like Alastair Johnston have persuasively chronicled their art).
Specimens have largely been solipsistic and unidirectional as a genre, broadcasting their “mindless maundering” outward rather than inviting readers in.2 That’s because for most of their history, they’ve been confined to print and wedged into a narrow professional niche geared toward printers and their customers — meant to be looked at rather than read.
That insular status began to change with industrialization and then sped up with the advent of phototype. The history of specimens is one of increasing mobility and popular appeal; once they could be (relatively) cheaply mass-produced, folded, and sent through the mail, they became less rarefied. With the ascendancy of the commercial web and the development of webfonts, type specimens finally became completely “dematerialized” and “democratized.”3
Commercial Type’s Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes have always joyfully engaged with the history of specimens while putting pressure on that history to ask why specimens are the way they are, and how they might be different. There is a deliberate shift from a unidirectional broadcasting model to a more inclusive, dialogic model: Schwartz and Barnes want people to participate in their work. Think of the Graphik specimen, which included a sheet of dry-transfer lettering. Or the type specimen as newspaper: a pulpy, non-precious, workaday object. Or the three-dimensional specimen for Barnes’s Marian typeface, built in collaboration with Dino Sanchez and mounted in a storefront on the corner of Kenmare and Elizabeth Streets in Lower Manhattan.4 Or Commercial Type’s wheat-paste approach to specimens, plastered liberally over the hunter-green sidewalk sheds so ubiquitous in New York. Or the stencils. Or the guerrilla subway ads.
The catalyst for the present specimen was a volume published in 1958: Linotype-Schriftenreigen, a title one might loosely translate as A Roundelay of Linotype Typefaces. It’s a diminutive hardcover that fits comfortably in the hand and shows all of German Linotype’s text faces in roughly equivalent settings as text for books. Lighthearted illustrations by Harald Bukor tie the whole together.
Schwartz and Barnes wondered if they could do something like that, but make it a website and make it mobile-first, since most people access the internet on their phones. They envisioned a type specimen that, like Linotype-Schriftenreigen, would sit comfortably in readers’ hands. It would be disguised as a single-issue magazine that would show Commercial Type’s text faces at work — a specimen meant to be looked at and read. They decided to commission original writing for it and to encourage readers to choose different typeface combinations for the various texts. When they asked me if I would edit this hypothetical magazine, I enthusiastically said yes.
We reached out to a handful of writers. To structure the project, we introduced a few thematic constraints that are near and dear to us: food, eating, and New York City. Aside from that, the writers who bravely joined us in this venture had free reign to do whatever they wanted. The result is six previously unpublished articles of different genres.
Navneet Alang sets out to interview Helen Rosner about food writing, but the ensuing conversation heads in myriad directions. Helena Fitzgerald contributes an essay about what makes a place a place. Robin Sloan treats us to a suspenseful work of fiction set in the Flatiron District. Diane Chang weaves her Los Angeles upbringing and New York adulthood into her personal variation on the Jamaican patty. Dan Fethke writes a local news story about mutual aid and the Bronx’s La Morada. And Christian Schwartz, with help from Veronica Gan and Barnny Lim, offers up a listicle about the Malaysian snacks known as kuih. Abstract illustrations by Derrick Schultz and Di-Andre Caprice Davis thread through the pieces, stylistically concatenating disparate kinds of content.
Get lost in the articles. Play with the type. Stick with the recommended pairings or come up with your own. Mess with the leading. Change the point size. Experiment with this curious hybrid: a type specimen that is also a magazine — something in between the two, or a little bit of both.
Schwartz and Barnes have always wanted to put out a magazine, but joke that they lack the focus to sustain a publication beyond a single issue. This is the issue. —Caren Litherland