I am no typophile, but there was certainly a time when I was preoccupied with type. In the late 1970s, bumming around, I took a job at a company that produced books for academic publishers. I already knew how to touch-type – first step, I thought, to becoming a writer – and I persuaded my employers to let me learn to use their Compugraphic photo-setting equipment. It was a new world. I was fascinated by the differences between Times, Bodoni, Bembo, Plantin and all the rest. I typeset several books, including one titled The Hollywood Musical, published by the British Film Institute. The title, back cover blurb and chapter numbers were set in American Typewriter Bold. For me, learning about type, the face was the last word in coolness. I loved the reference to manual typewriters – I’d learned to type on one. In 1980, I used American Typewriter Bold on a record sleeve that I put together for a friend.
As I now know, American Typewriter was designed in 1974 (by Joel Kaden and Tony Stan) but perhaps things moved slower back then because in the late 1970s and early 1980s it remained a highly fashionable display face. Eventually, though, like any typeface that comes to represent its time, over-use turned it into a cliché and out it went.
Now, twenty years later, here it comes again. Check out the November/December issue of Frame, the interior architecture and design magazine, and there it is: American Typewriter cover lines, headlines, intros and body copy. I have no idea how it will strike someone who has never noticed it before. I suppose it looks “seventies” in a funky retro kind of way. The typewriter reference must be obvious, even in the bold versions, but if you’ve never watched the letters hit the paper as you pound the keys, this must seem quaint. Is the face’s roundness, softness and unthreatening air of friendliness a factor? The other day I saw it used for the headline on a police poster in the London Underground, advising against giving money to street people, who will only use it to buy more of the alcohol and drugs that are slowly killing them: kid gloves for a tough message. I’m not sure we have a trend yet, but the meme is loose.
As a first-time enthusiast for American Typewriter, I was happy to see it pass into history. It’s a bit like flared trousers: you only need to do it once. There was a time when American Typewriter was the height of sophistication, a way of saying both “intellectual” and “pop”. To my eyes it never looked smarter than it did paired with a photo of Jane Fonda in her “Hanoi Jane” phase on the cover of Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (1980), designed by the masterly Richard Hollis. When the typewriter was still an everyday appliance, the appearance of a proper, proportionally-spaced, typewriter-like typeface was rather thrilling. Resurrecting it now that the technology has given way to digital alternatives is just nostalgia – soft at the core.