Tobias Frere-Jones

Tobias Frere-Jones is a type designer from New York City. He still lives and works there, at a type foundry in Brooklyn called Frere-Jones Type. He was born on August 28, 1970, in Brooklyn to Elizabeth Frere and Robin Jones. His mother, Elizabeth Frere, was an English native hailing from Kent, a county right outside of London. He has one brother, Sasha, who is a music critic that worked for the New Yorker for a period of time. He grew up in Brooklyn. Because he grew up before the computerization of type and design, a lot of type design that was developed in specific countries stayed in those same countries—however, since Frere-Jones’ mother was English, he received a lot of exposure to British type designs, most notably Gill Sans. This exposure to imported goods helped him to understand the jobs behind why letters looked the way they looked.

He attended a special arts-focused private school in Brooklyn called Saint Ann’s School before attaining his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in the early nineties. He worked for a while at the Font Bureau in Boston, and in his time there he worked as a senior designer, contributing to the designs of some of the organization’s most well known typefaces, like Interstate, which was inspired by the typeface the government uses for interstate signage. The Font Bureau is a digital foundry that leads the design world in typeface design usually specifically for publishing. The foundry designs typefaces for the likes of The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Esquire Magazine, Rolling Stone, and the Wall Street Journal. Frere-Jones is one of the foundry’s more prominent alumni.

After his seven years at the foundry, he went to the Yale School of Art to work as a critic. After he finished at Yale in 1999, he worked at a type foundry called Hoefler & Frere-Jones with a type designer named Jonathan Hoefler. The two designers collaborated on projects for enormous organizations such as The Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living, Nike, Pentagram, GQ, Esquire magazine, The New Times, Business 2.0, and The New York Times Magazine. The foundry was originally established when the two designers, originally competitors, decided to work together. Hoefler’s foundry, then called Hoefler Type Foundry, was then renamed what the world would come to know as Hoefler & Frere-Jones, located in lower Manhattan.

The foundry loomed large in the design world until 2014, when the foundry broke up, causing a lot of waves within the design community. The reason that their breakup was so monumental was because of the caliber of the projects they often worked on—it was unclear who would fill their enormous shoes. The dissolve of the foundry was bitter and complicated and involved a lawsuit, in which Frere-Jones accused Hoefler of scamming him out of huge amounts of profit during the break up. Frere-Jones actually said that what Hoefler did was “the most profound treachery and sustained exploitation of friendship, trust, and confidence,” to which Hoefler responded by saying that Frere-Jones was never anything more than a long time employee and changing the name of the foundry simply to Hoefler & Co. The legal kerfuffle, then, has been likened to “the legal equivalent of a knife fight in the street.” Both of the type designers pointed fingers, and both scramble to back up the truth behind their claims.

The breakup itself came as a shock to the type world—nobody had ever before seemed so in-tune with what the public wanted from designers. The typefaces they designed while working together at the foundry were extremely versatile—they worked online, in print, and at multiple scales. The two even had a short documentary made about them, called Type Men. In the video, both men seem as pleased as any to be together and there isn’t any sign of any animosity at all. In fact, they’re outwardly nice about each other, Hoefler saying that “no one who’s opinion [he] values more than Tobias’s,” and Frere-Jones stating that “they’ve always been friends.” This was the image that the foundry had: two friends that worked together designing type, so their split was an absolute bombshell that the design community talked about for a long time.

After the split, Frere-Jones has re-established himself as one of the world’s most prominent type designers by rebranding himself and opening up his own type foundry, Frere-Jones Type. It’s located in Brooklyn, and it focuses mainly on creating original typefaces for custom clients. Though this new foundry seems to be significantly less of a giant than Hoefler & Frere-Jones was, his reputation seemingly spoke for him—Frere-Jones has had absolutely no problem doing large-scale projects for the same caliber companies as he did before the split. His new foundry designed the ACLU’s new logo, AdAge’s logo, Academy Sports, First Look Media, and Martha Stewart. Frere-Jones’ short biography on the website contains no mention of his work with Hoefler, though it does allude to his thirty years of experience in typeface design and list his awards. (The same is true for Hoefler’s short biography on his foundry’s respective website—though this doesn’t specifically pertain to Frere-Jones, I thought it was interesting. Hoefler’s new foundry is significantly larger than Frere-Jones’, but they also notably take credit for things that Frere-Jones worked on without explicitly giving him any credit.)

Despite all of the drama that Frere-Jones dealt with in relation to the joint foundry, he has still managed to become one of the design world’s most preeminent type designers. His work is used across the world and in countless applications, websites, advertisements, packaging, and so much more. His impact upon the design world is evident even beyond the usage of the typefaces he left fingerprints on—as a visitor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, one can purchase a set of postcards with images of typefaces from his collection can be found on. This indicates the true artistry of his work—the fact that it can be recognized not only in its function, but also in its aesthetic.

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