So how does one go about turning a legend into a font? The roundabout way, apparently. "Charles and Ray Eames did not design a typeface," explains the House Industries catalog. "But they did leave a philosophical template for a font collection worthy of their name." Roat describes the process of sifting through the Eameses' legacy as "exhaustive research and interaction with the Eames family" that was well worth the effort, as it "further clarified our mission to honor the Eames aesthetic while maintaining the timeless relevance and functionality that characterized their work."
Made from mundane materials but routinely cited as one of the preeminent design advances of the 20th century, the Eames Molded Plywood Chair was hailed by Time magazine as "something elegant, light and comfortable...much copied but never bettered." Photo courtesy of Eames Office
Although the Eameses didn't design a typeface themselves, in their dossier of work the couple left more than enough hints for House Industries to absorb. "Ray designed lots of Art & Architecture
covers." Roat says. "Look at any of their exhibitions or displays or simply photos of their office. The clues are ubiquitous."
House Industries is no stranger to the process of translating the work of prominent mid-century modernists into a typeface. The company's 2002 Neutraface type family is based on the design styles favored by the Austrian-born architect Richard Neutra
. As it happens, Neutra designed the West L.A. apartment where Charles and Ray lived before moving to Pacific Palisades, and he delivered four designs for the Case Study program as well. (Of the four, Omega House #6
, Alpha House #13
, and an unnamed house #21A are all unbuilt; only the unnamed house #20A, a 1948 structure just up the road from Eames House, was constructed.)
Whereas the Eameses both engaged in all manner of artistic pursuits, from films to fabrics, Neutra was purely an architect and as such represented a different challenge for House Industries. As far as Roat and his colleagues could tell from the blueprints, Neutra did not design lettering for his buildings' signs. In the case of Neutraface, they had fewer specific references to work with than the Eameses supplied and more leeway with a general impression. "Sure, that's the point, isn't it?," Roat says of the decryption. Since Neutra was working with available typefaces, the artistic cascade of influence gave a clear sense of his preferences, which factored into the Neutraface decision process.
"Richard liked to use geometric sans letters because they dovetailed nicely with his style," says Roat of Neutra's penchant for open and elegant but subtle type. "The Neutra project was more about incorporating Richard's philosophy and his architectural aesthetic into a working and practical typeface. The geometric sans serif letters on buildings were just a starting point."
A starting point was all they needed. For Roat, any additional backtracking — attempting to further distill a common "Neutra element" from the third-party typefaces that were not Neutra's creation but a reflection of his preferences — crosses into the no-win territory of overthinking. "I think we did our homework, worked really closely with Dion [Neutra's son and partner] and tried to apply his aesthetic to a collection of typefaces," Roat explains. "I would like to think that Neutraface is a reflection of Richard and that he would have approved, but we can never really be sure."
Roat makes his case coolly, though, considering the Eameses portfolio, not to mention the family's years-long hesitation in greenlighting the project. When working on assumptions, isn't a fairly deep artistic vocabulary a necessary filter to ensure that those assumptions are valid? Never mind the sonorous body of Eames work — considering the couple's house alone, if the average student of art history or typography had no broader frame of reference, he or she would likely look at a photo of its façade and credit it to Piet Mondrian. Still, Roat doesn't consider an encyclopedic grasp of design a prerequisite for a project like Eames Century Modern. "I just think we have to have a genuine love for the subject matter," he says. As for the precision of their particular interpretation, "I wouldn't want to get into an intellectual or philosophical battle with another type designer or art historian. At the end of the day, we are just trying to interpret their aesthetic and apply it to something that's never been done."
"The contemporary design environment [is] so much about 'originality' that designers spend more time over-intellectualizing their work and trying to cover their tracks from the swiped file they keep in that secret shed in the back yard than they do trying to execute something that actually has merit," Roat snarks. "Our visual landscape is rife with 'original' ideas that probably never saw a sketchbook. Entire careers of highly paid 'art' and 'creative' directors and entire corporate identities are based on dusty piles of mid-century-era design annuals."
Obviously House Industries were under no delusions of inventive grandeur when it came to creating their Eames typeface. They rolled up their sleeves and set to work translating the particularities of the duo into their lettering. "The execution is from scratch. You can't scan and autotrace something that doesn't exist," Roat says of the finished typefaces. "The curves in the 16 styles of Eames Century Modern are original. We drew them with a pencil, then with a pen, then with a Bézier tool."
Typographical sculpture at the Eames Century Modern exhibition in California
Although Charles was an architect by trade, the absence of any previous Eames-drafted typography in breadth of his and Ray's work — from architecture and painting to photography and film, from the design of toys to furniture to entire exhibitions, even materials application for the U.S. military — seems a bit anomalous. What of the couple's approach to things like house numbers or mailbox lettering, product packaging or exhibition signage? Rather than creating something of their own, would two of the 20th century's most celebrated and versatile designers have phoned it in with generic stencils picked up at the hardware store?
Riffing on the Eameses use of stencils for the military, House Industries did some stenciling for the Eames Office exhibition
"If you look at some of the photos of the splint packaging (for the U.S. Army), for example, that looks like exactly what they did," Roat says. "That stencil was nothing. The use and the context was everything," he adds, "but isn't that the mark of a truly great designer?" Such are the peculiarities of genius. "That was the whole point of the house as well," Roat says. "It was built from standard 'off the shelf' materials available to anyone." What they did with it, of course, was purely Eamesian.
When it comes to materials and technology influencing their own approach, House Industries straddles the divide. Eames Century Modern "is fairly low tech in terms of typography," Roat says. "We're using the deep type handling capabilities of modern layout applications to access things like true small caps, nine different figure styles and some key ligatures." Along with alternate serifs, two stencil cuts, four number sets, proportionally correct "smart ornaments" and encoding to support several dozen languages around the globe, from Afrikaans to Welsh, the typeface is also designed with ease of use in mind.
"We also wanted it to work for the mid-century modern fan who uses an old version of Word to write letters and compose signage for their grandchild's christening," Roat says. "We think that's what Charles and Ray would have wanted."