A Type-Design Dialogue: Alexander Tochilovsky on the Cooper Union's Dueling Typography Exhibitions

Through the end of next week, New Yorkers have a chance to catch two snapshots of contemporary typeface design (and type-design education) with a pair of exhibitions at the Cooper Union.”Types We Can Make” is a selection of new Swiss typeface design, curated by François Rappo and Pierre Keller from ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne. And “Type@Cooper” gathers a swath of work by graduates of the Cooper Union’s two-year-old typeface-design program (which our own Ellen Shapiro visited last July). It was curated by Alexander Tochilovsky, the director of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography and a Type@Cooper professor. Recently, Tochilovsky answered our questions about the two shows, the diversity of contemporary typeface design, and the long shadow of Helvetica.

“Types We Can Make”

Are visitors to the two exhibitions going to see huge differences between the work of contemporary Swiss typeface designers and that of the Type@Cooper graduates?

I do think that there is a some visual difference between the work on view. This was part of the reasoning behind the decision to have the two shows together. A lot of it has to do with the different needs and purposes behind the design of the typefaces on view. Many of the typefaces by the Swiss designers were done for editorial purposes, and with an emphasis on being used at a larger, headline size. Many of the designs from the Type@Cooper graduates focus on being used at a smaller size. (Although there are examples of the opposite in both shows.) I think that what unites the shows is that there is a strong sense of an appreciation of craft evident in the designs. Since the two exhibitions are connected to design institutions, it makes sense that there is a stronger emphasis on the teaching of the craft of typeface design, which is becoming more and more relevant and desired.

Are today’s Swiss typeface designers embracing their country’s type-design legacy? Or do you see signs of designers trying to rebel against the famous Swiss Style?

I see a bit of both in the exhibition. There is a strong sense of the legacy of Swiss type design, but also a sense of trying to react to its hold. In general, the Swiss typeface design history is quite young, especially when compared with that of some of its neighbors, and even to the United States. But Helvetica has had a massive effect on the design world, especially on the Modernist design movement. And the legacy of that aesthetic is quite strong, certainly compensating for the relatively young history. I also believe that the Swiss designers have a very strong sense of and respect for traditions. So the work tends to revolve around these notions of tradition, but from a contemporary perspective. You sense a playfulness in many of the designs, but many also exhibit a strong concept behind the design.

Where does the title “Types We Can Make” come from?

I asked one of the curators of the exhibition, François Rappo, and this was his response: “I remember I found something like that in an old American type foundry specimen from the mid-fifties, maybe from the Midwest. I was charmed by that straightforward pragmatism.”

How many Type@Cooper graduates’ work is on display in the exhibition? And is the exhibition mostly drawn from their final projects, where each student creates an original typeface?

The Type@Cooper program actually has two formats: the condensed program lasts 5 weeks, and the extended program is three terms long, with ten weeks per term. Students enroll in either one depending on their needs and schedules. On view in the exhibition is the work of the 23 graduates of the extended program and of the 43 graduates of the condensed version, both from the past two years. In most cases, the work is the result of their final projects in designing an original typeface. In the exhibition we also included lots of photos, proofs, and pages from their process books, in order to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the program and to highlight a bit of the process that goes into the making of a typeface.

Work by Type@Cooper students. Photo by Juan Carlos Pagan

Photo by Juan Carlos Pagan

Type@Cooper students at work. Photo by Cara Di Edwardo

I know that the Type@Cooper graduates come from a diverse array of professional backgrounds and experience levels. Is it possible to generalize about their work—are there common themes or interests? Or is the exhibition really more about showcasing the diversity of type design?

I think that over the two years of the program’s existence it is easiest to note the diversity of the designs. There is very wide range of students, with many international students participating in the condensed program, so that reflects on the results. Many of the students come from a graphic design background, so there is a strong interaction, and a closer connection, between graphic design and typeface design. Since typefaces play such an integral part in the design process, it is no surprise that by shortening the distance between those two areas, designers capable of both have an advantage over other designers. And as as graphic designer myself, I am very drawn by that notion of being able to craft the forms of a typeface to suit the specific needs of a project. This idea of a close link between typeface and graphic designers is also very evident in the “Types We Can Make” exhibition. There is a much closer dialogue between the two fields of design, and I think that it is a very good place to be.

“Types We Can Make” and “Type@Cooper” are on view at 41 Cooper Gallery, in New York City, until November 17.

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2 thoughts on “A Type-Design Dialogue: Alexander Tochilovsky on the Cooper Union's Dueling Typography Exhibitions

  1. Paper Acrobat

    These exhibitions look amazing. I work with a Swiss based design company and they stick to the grid like glue! But then again a lot of new Swiss design breaks all the rules, so I guess there’s a place for both styles. Great article by the way.

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