When asked about oversights that did not involve legal issues (especially the glaring omission of any fonts from Adobe), Antonelli sheepishly said, “Think of us as ignoramuses.” Although her candor is to be applauded, the statement is damning. It implies that the museum did not do its homework, despite having empaneled a group of experts (among them Steve Heller, Rick Poynor, Emily King, Michael Bierut, Khoi Vinh, Peter Girardi, Tarek Atressi and Matthew Carter) in 2006 to advise the Department of Architecture and Design on its future design acquisitions, fonts included. Antonelli said that the current font selections were an outgrowth of the discussions among those experts, though she did not say — other than herself — who was involved in the final decisions.
The twenty-three fonts were not the first to be acquired by MoMA, according to Antonelli. Instead that honor goes to the Helvetica, specifically the metal fount originally loaned by Lars Müller for “50 Years of Helvetica,” the small exhibition the museum mounted in the wake of Gary Hustwit’s film. Antonelli also stressed that the museum would be adding more fonts to the collection in the future, possibly as early as 2012. This first group will be joined by others and any mistakes made this time may be rectified.
“Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design
”, the exhibition designed to showcase the new font acquisitions, was curated by Antonelli and Kate Carmody, Curatorial Assistant. The installation was overseen by Julia Hoffmann, MoMA’s Creative Director for Graphics and Advertising, and others in the museum’s design department. An exhibition on type for a general audience is a difficult assignment, especially one devoted to digital type. Type is esoteric and, unlike type in the past, digital type is ephemeral. Yet, type is both universal and ubiquitous. And, as a result, more and more people are familiar with fonts — witness the unexpected popularity of “Helvetica: the Movie.” Antonelli recognized the problem and chose to solve it by lumping typefaces with other objects already in MoMA’s collection on the grounds that they shared the concept of “families.” This was a fatal decision.
The first problem is that Antonelli does not fully understand the concept of family as applied to type and, although the exhibition includes a glossary, “family” is not among the words defined (nor are italic, weight or width). “Some of the clearest examples of family in design are digital typefaces,” the introductory panel exclaims, “which each comprise several dozen related sizes, styles, variations, and behaviors.” This is an inaccurate description. And no examples, either verbal or visual, are provided to clarify the concept, especially for the average museumgoer. The type family has changed over time and a simple chart outlining its evolution — from the pairing of harmonized roman and italic types by Simon de Colines
in 1528 to the addition of bold romans in 1830s England to the full blown concept of a type family by American Type Founders
with the extension of Cheltenham (from one typeface in 1904 to twenty-one in 1914) to the eighteen-member pre-programmed Univers family of 1957 to the standardization of families by International Typeface Corporation
in the 1970s to the widespread acceptance of the superfamily (in which serifs, sans serifs and other styles are mated) in the 1980s and 1990s — would have been immensely helpful.
Having established family as one of the governing themes for the exhibition, Antonelli failed to follow through in the typeface samples. No italics are shown (other than the pairing of an HTF Didot italic k with its roman counterpart), which is a shame given the radical aspect of ITC Galliard Italic. A number of fonts are displayed in their heavier weights (FF DIN Medium and FF Meta Medium; Keedy Sans Bold, Template Gothic Bold, FF Blur Bold, Mason Serif Bold, Gotham Bold; and Interstate Black), but without their regular or roman version for comparison.
More importantly, the increasingly complicated notion of family that has sprung up during the digital era is not addressed, though it could have been. Even with the absence of Lucida, ITC Stone, Rotis and Thesis — four of the pioneering superfamilies — there are fonts in the exhibition that exemplify this slippery topic. For instance, only the Bold Listing of Bell Centennial, the least representative member of this unusually named family is shown. There is no Address, Sub-Caption or Name & Number. Similarly, Mason Serif is present, but Mason Sans is not. And Oakland is presented without its siblings Emperor and Emigre. To be fair, the artifacts that accompany the font specimens do, in some cases, show other members of the type family. But are general museumgoers going to do anymore than glance at them?
Antonelli’s idea of showcasing fonts alongside furniture, toy robots, early Macintosh computers and other objects is a strange one. She sees “serial manufacturing and customization” as their common ground, but exactly what is meant by this is unclear and the exhibition itself is no help. The installation is confusing. The furniture, the toys and the industrial items are not integrated with the type but isolated. A mishmash of chairs, dressers and lamps is planted on a platform in the middle of the gallery with two additional lamps hanging above. The three walls to the left, behind and to the right of the pile are covered in type specimens (truncated character sets and apposite quotations set in each font) with printed samples of each font propped up on a narrow shelf and, sometimes, accompanied by a small screen playing videos illuminating technical aspects of the fonts or interviews with their designers. The fourth wall, contains a glass vitrine full of old Macintoshes, toy robots, messenger bags and other industrial products; to its right the original series of sketches that led to Milton Glaser’s iconic I [heart] NY design; and, further right, the title and introductory statement about the exhibition. The title and subtitle are printed on four narrow panels, perched sideways on a narrow shelf.
To a museumgoer entering the Architecture and Design Gallery from the escalator bank — the most common direction — the title of the show is invisible. Instead, the viewer is confronted by the pile of furniture and the three walls of type specimens. There is a sense that one is looking at two exhibitions, a not unreasonable expectation given the habitually cluttered nature of that section of the museum. Only when — and if — the museumgoer turns around is the title and introductory panel seen. Even then it is unclear whether it is referring to the I [heart] NY designs, the items in the vitrine, the island of furniture, the typefaces on the other three walls, or to the whole shebang.
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