Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler are the closest thing to superstars in the mysterious world of typography. Their renowned studio has created fonts for Fortune 500 companies and garnered numerous design accolades. An iconic Gotham typeface, originally created for GQ Magazine, gave Barack Obama’s “hope” and “change” presidential campaign its distinctive edge.
This business partnership is now in shambles – and it’s unclear if anyone can pick up the letters and put them back together.
Mr Frere-Jones, in a lawsuit filed Thursday night, accuses Mr Hoefler of luring him into the company in 1999 with the false promise that they would be 50-50 partners. Whenever he asked to put the terms of the partnership – valued at $ 40 million, according to the lawsuit – in writing – he was told the timing was wrong. More recently, in July, according to the lawsuit, Mr. Frere-Jones, the chief design officer at Hoefler & Frere-Jones, addressed the matter.
“Stop it,” Hoefler, who runs the company, told him. “I’m working on it. Stop harassing me.
News of the schism quickly spread among the tight-knit community of designers, who are more used to arguing over serifs and spacing than over partnerships and profits.
“They are the most prolific American type designers, both in quantity and quality,” said Scott Thomas, national design director for the Obama campaign in 2008.
Fans of the foundry – a term reverting to the days when typefaces were forged out of metal – have expressed sorrow over the discord. On Twitter, an admirer lamented: “Police gods divorce. “A title on Quick business design read, “Hoefler & Frere-Jones, the Beatles of the guy world, go their separate ways.”
Friday, Michael Burke, lawyer at Hoefler & Frere-Jones, said in a press release that Mr. Frere-Jones had “decided to leave the company” and that the company would henceforth be called Hoefler & Company.
Regarding the accusations of fraud and broken promises, the company statement states that “the allegations are not facts, and they deeply distort Tobias’ relationship with the company and Jonathan.”
The statement said the company, located in Lower Manhattan, “has always been a great place for designers, which is why it has always been and will continue to be a great place for design.”
Foundries make money both by designing licensed fonts for users and creating custom designs for customers. Typographers credit the introduction of personal computers for drawing public attention to fonts. And recently, improvements in web browsers have opened up new markets in typeface design.
All of the changes have created instability and excitement on the ground, said Stephen Coles, who writes about fonts and typography at typographica.org.
The lawsuit accuses Mr. Hoefler of “the deepest betrayal”, and although it describes the many honors accumulated by Mr. Frere-Jones, it also describes Mr. Hoefler as “a character designer and a businessman” . (The trial documents were written in the Arial pedestrian typeface, which was not created by Hoefler & Frere-Jones.)
It was Mr. Hoefler, however, who first rose to fame in the typography world – creating a font, Hoefler Text, when he was barely 20 years old. Apple included the Hoefler font on its computers in 1991. It brought Mr. Frere-Jones to his company, the Hoefler Type Foundry.
By all accounts, however, Mr. Frere-Jones was the creative force behind the creation of the fonts, including Gotham, Whitney, and Mercury, which fueled the company’s growth. At one point, the company had 18 employees, according to the lawsuit. Yet all of their font designs, including four that were among the 23 added to the Museum of Modern Art permanent collection, shared the name Hoefler & Frere-Jones.
The perceived closeness of the partnership is why the typography world has been so surprised by the conflict. Most outsiders, and even former employees, assumed the two were, in fact, 50-50 partners.
“They were a very well-matched partnership – Jon has a very good sense of business marketing and enjoys it, while Tobias enjoys drawing,” said Jesse Ragan, a former employee.
In 2004, the company formally acquired the earlier policies created by Mr. Frere-Jones for a small fee of $ 10, according to the lawsuit. Mr Frere-Jones said the policies were actually worth $ 3 million, according to the lawsuit. It was around this time that the company was officially renamed Hoefler & Frere-Jones.
A 2004 New York Times article described a happy business partnership with Mr. Hoefler and Mr. Frere-Jones finishing each other’s sentences. The two have remarkably similar biographical details – they were born in 1970, just six days apart; they each have a British parent.
They also shared an early interest in what would become their life’s work. “Tobias and I were probably the only two people under the age of 14 who subscribed to U & lc,” Mr. Hoefler said, referring to the Upper & Lower Case font magazine.