Priori Acute: A Twist on 19th Century Display Types

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Priori Acute Serif

Designers: Jonathan Barnbrook, Marcus Leis Allion

Foundry: Emigre Fonts

Year: 2009

Formats: OpenType, Postscript

Jonathan Barnbrook, one of the “bad boys” of type design in the 1990s, has mellowed. Priori Acute Serif, his newest font, designed with Marcus Leis Allion, does not have a provocative name, nor is it as obviously transgressive as his early Exocet or Manson (since renamed Mason). Although it is ostensibly an extension of Priori, a font that tweaked classical expectations by adding serifs in unexpected places and Cyrillicizing some letters, it has none of those nose-thumbing antics. Instead, its delights are more subtle.

Priori Acute Serif is, in the manner of many 19th-century display types, a decorative 3-D face with shading and perspective. But its design has a twist—literally, in the case of the R with the fishtail leg. Taking a cue from M.C. Escher, the perspective and shading play with the conventions of representing three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. By refusing to be consistent in their one-point perspective, Barnbrook and Leis Allion have made letters that appear to be twisting and turning in space, thrusting forward one moment while receding the next. Priori Acute Serif is a fun-house font, a joyous typographic kick.

Barnbrook has been intrigued by dimensional typefaces for a long time: “The way to represent typography, particularly serifs, which are ostensibly two-dimensional, in a three-dimensional form, is a really interesting problem.” His previous release, Hopeless Diamond (Virusfonts), was a wild take on faceted typefaces.

Priori Acute Serif does not refer specifically to any decorative type of the past. “I would never copy specific examples directly,” Barnbrook says. “Then it gets too close to pastiche, and for me the interesting thing is how you take something from the past and interpret it in the spirit of the age.” Though decoration is back in vogue, Priori Acute Serif stands apart from the popular fonts of Alejandro Paul, Patrick Griffin, or Hubert Jocham. The decorative aspect lies in the way the letters of Priori Acute Serif play with our typographic expectations. This is most evident in the H and R, which exist in two versions that tilt and twist in different directions. The fact that there aren’t more such letters, and that the perspective games do not work as well with C, G, O, Q, and S, is the one complaint that can be made about Priori Acute Serif. But at least the Q has a lovely swelling tail worthy of Isaac Moore or Ed Benguiat.

It’s not for text setting, but rather, is a titling face, which means that it has no lowercase, italic, and other weights. Barnbrook deliberately created a limited set of characters rather than the now requisite slew of alternates typical of OpenType fonts. “I felt too many alternates just distracted from what is essentially a little subversive joke,” he explains. As a titling face, its uses may be limited to initial letters, headlines, and the odd logo, but that provides more than enough opportunity to revel in its quiet weirdness. Don’t let your pleasure be a posteriori.

Paul Shawteaches calligraphy at Parsons School of Design and the history of typeat the School of Visual Arts. This June, he is leading a lettering tourof Italy entitled “Legacy of Letters.” He teaches the History of Type at the Schoolof Visual Arts and calligraphy at Parsons School of Design. Under thebanner Paul Shaw / Letter Design (established in 1980) he has donelettering for CBS, NBC, Origins, Clairol, Avon, Barbie, Campbell Soupand others. He has written A Chronology of the Lettering Arts from 1850 to 2000 (2 vols.: 2000 and 2001).

This article appears in our June 2010 issue. See the full table of contents here.

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About Paul Shaw

Paul Shaw is a letter designer and design historian. He is the recipient of many design awards as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution. He currently teaches at Parsons The New School for Design and the School of Visual Arts.

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