Foundation Grotesque is a type design conceived at Type@Cooper, the typeface design program at The Cooper Union. It is still in development.

Background: In my preparations for the summer 2011 term of Type@Cooper, one of the first things I did was I went to the (admittedly modest) Typography & Printing section of CSULB’s library and did some basic research to get an idea for what I might draw. Through the process of plowing through several specimen books, I came upon an old Linotype face named Philadelphia Gothic, which was an early 20th century (pre-1920) American sans serif grotesque. While in some places it’s not a terribly graceful typeface, it is extremely charming and personable.

Upon arriving at Cooper, we spent the first and second weeks doing exercises in the construction of the Roman capital, and the evolution of the Carolingian minuscule, respectively. During this time I wanted to keep my mind open as much as possible to the exercises; perhaps they would yield an interesting avenue for me to explore for the typeface that I would develop in the final four weeks. Alas, Philadelphia Gothic managed to stick in the back of my head. Couple that with further reading on the evolution of the sans serif grotesque (courtesy of Sara Soskolne), I decided that a grot would be something that I would want to tackle.

Not desiring to do a straight revival, I took only a couple visual cues from the source material (mostly the construction of the ‘R’), and promptly put the specimen sheet away, lest I begin taking too much from it.

Concept: The sans serif grotesque has always had an air of seriousness about it; its forms are sober and dependable. However, after looking through a brief history of the grot, I got a sense of whimsy—maybe even playfulness—from the forms. The overall shapes are very no-nonsense, yes; but the manner in which curves, stress, and transitions are handled suggests a touch of freewheeling insouciance—there’s a bit of fun and games behind all the serious business.

Ultimately, I wanted to explore this whimsical nature of the sans serif grot, as well as investigate the construction of alternate forms that permeate the genre: spurred versus spurless G’s; straight- versus bent-legged R’s; as well as explore more playful glyph construction of everything from figures to currency symbols. In this way, the substitution of a few stylistic alternates could instantly switch the voice of the typeface from belt and braces to Barnum and Bailey.

Construction: I decided to maintain the relatively extended nature of Philadelphia Gothic while also giving it a generous x-height to aid in legibility at smaller sizes. Heeding the advice of Sara Soskolne, I decided to make this first font in a book weight. In this way, I would be exposed to more problem-solving and decision-making about stress, joins, and weight transitions than I would be were the font a heavier or lighter weight—I would ultimately learn more from the experience.

During the ongoing development of the typeface, I have been exploring alternate forms (witness the R, G, and Q), as well as begun investigating expanding the glyph set into Cyrillic. At this point in time, I am planning on at least three weights (Light, Book, and Bold) with their corresponding italics (not simply obliques). However, I fully intend to set my weights up for interpolation, so intermediate weights—should they prove to be helpful to the family—could certainly be in the cards.

What’s in a name? When starting Type@Cooper, I—and probably many of the students—was under the impression that we would be at the new academic building at 41 Cooper Square. Imagine, then, my surprise when we were placed in the Foundation Building. While not the newest kid on the block, it certainly is one of the most charming.

The Foundation Building is a fickle old war bird. The air conditioning—when it works—can turn the halls into ice chests, and—when it decides to turn itself off—can also transform the classrooms into tropical bungalows. The iron doors are heavy enough to quite literally kill a man, and the washrooms are straight out of the Roaring Twenties.

After just one week, everyone felt that our studio space—as well as the building as a whole, with all its little foibles—had really grown on all of us. It felt like home.

It really hit me how much life and vitality the Foundation Building has when we went across the street to 41 Cooper one day for workshop—a chance, then, to sample the sleek architectural delights of which we had not yet experienced. However, there was a palpable sense that something essential was missing from our day. In the evening, when we were walking back across the street, someone remarked that they preferred not being in “the new building”.

Charming, quirky, and full of character.

It could only be Foundation.