Culture

That font you hate is coming back in style

Fontdinerdotcom evokes the ‘50s as you’d like to remember them, not as they really were.

I have an adversary who follows me around in public. It is not a person or a product. It is a font, my own personal Papyrus. You have almost definitely seen it. Maybe recently, in an ad for Amazon’s saccharine 1950s period series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which on Sunday charmed its way into two Golden Globes. Maybe you saw it a while ago, on the sign outside a vegan diner in Berkeley, CA or on a snarky midlife-crisis birthday card. This is what it looks like:

How does this font make you feel? Perhaps sort of zesty and effervescent, or maybe a little woozy — unlike most typefaces, it doesn’t have a baseline to keep you grounded as you read. Rather, it dances across a center line, winking at you in a wholesome sort of way. Even I have to admit it’s downright adorable. More important, though, is when this font makes you feel. Once you start looking for it, it’s in a surprising number of places that want to summon a very specific version of the 1950s — the land of jukeboxes, tail fins, 2.5 smiling white children, and boundless optimism.

That idea is a misleading anachronism, a shorthand for a time that never really existed — just like the font that’s come to represent it with near ubiquity. As someone irked by anachronism, particularly when it comes to aggressively whitewashed versions of mid-century America, I have found this font mildly irritating for about ten years. But I hadn’t cared enough to identify it until, with Maisel as its vector, it began relentlessly pursuing me. The time had come to find out where it came from, and why it’s everywhere.

The journey begins with a return to an earlier era. Not the 1950s, though. We’re going back to the unspoilt expanse of Web 1.0, where this font was pixelated into being in 1998 by a designer named Stuart Sandler. A lifelong fan of 1950s design, he’d recently parked an online foundry (for other non-designers like me: this is a fancy word for “a business that designs type”) dedicated to retro fonts, at the address fontdiner.com.

Sandler started the site for a very specific reason. Typefaces from the ‘50s like Helvetica and Optima, which were created when type was set using metal blocks, were among the handful of fonts that came standard on the earliest PCs. Because they had been continuously used since their debut, they didn’t — and still don’t — look retro, as modernist design truly is timeless. But, Sandler told me, “There was a huge missing chunk, all the handwritten stuff that has so much more personality and feels more expressive.” 1950s advertising was full of this playful hand-lettered display type, which specialized artists crafted on a per-piece basis to warm up and bring movement to rigid typeset copy. The technique had largely fallen out of favor by the 1980s, so in the mid-’90s, the ‘50s style of hand lettering looked like a throwback despite being from the same era of typefaces it originally accompanied.

Inspired by old diner menus, advertising copy, and an existing font by digital hand lettering pioneer House Industries, Sandler got to work designing some options. Permanent Waves evoked the script on a Chevy Bel-Air’s fins. Cocktail looked like it walked straight off a grocery store coupon booklet. Kitchenette was a thing of stand-mixer-whipped, fluffy beauty. But he loved one of his creations so much that he made it his foundry’s titular character: Fontdinerdotcom. It conveniently doubled as promotion for the site — anyone who looked up the font would know where to find more.

By inserting it into the earliest days of web design, Sandler watched it grow along with the internet itself. People making something that needed to evoke the ‘50s used Fontdinerdotcom because it was vaguely reminiscent of the ‘50s — and so it became the ‘50s font, a relationship reinforced across several hundred websites at a time when there just weren’t that many websites to surf.

Soon, it migrated offline. Daddio, a forgotten nine-episode dud of a show that aimed to reshell a ‘50s family sitcom in the year 2000, used the font for its title credits. So did The Osbournes, whose intro doubled down on mid-century aesthetics with a Pat Boone-esque cover of “Crazy Train.” A friend of mine who’s been a vintage clothing dealer for the better part of two decades told me she saw Fontdinerdotcom on “every business card in the rockabilly scene in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.” It is, I can confirm from personal experience, very much still there.

Since its introduction, Fontdinerdotcom has continuously remained one of the foundry’s top five fonts — not by sales, but by downloads. Sandler gives his work away free to non-commercial users, who can’t get enough of this font. He considers it, more than anything else he’s made, his legacy. “It’s as if this was Comic Sans, and I was Vincent Connare,” he told me. “It’s my contribution to popular culture.”

By Sandler’s own admission, his signature creation “has roots in the ‘50s, but it would not have been period correct in any real way.” Retro — as opposed to authentic vintage, or a faithful reproduction — is always like this, self-affirming and recursive. We pick the parts of the past that make the most sense to us in whatever moment we’re inhabiting, often tweaking them to mesh with current tastes. Slowly, we replace the real thing with the rewrite, to the point that we might not be able to pick the original out of a lineup.

This is a bad tendency, and one that directly inspired Fontdinerdotcom. When I asked Sandler why he thought people liked his font, he said it reminds us of a time when “things were going really well, technologically and financially, for people, and this lettering spoke that optimism and the promise of the future tomorrow.” Ellen Lupton, a design critic and curator at Cooper Hewitt, agreed: “We have an image of a nostalgic, happy 1950s nuclear family, and this is very effective in expressing that.”

But who was really promised this future? Certainly not black Americans, who were living under Jim Crow, excluded from the G.I. bill and, like all people of color in the U.S., denied mortgages by redlining policies that would continue for two more decades. Not queer Americans, whom government agencies identified and then fired by the thousands thanks to McCarthyism and Eisenhower’s “lavender scare.” Not even, despite Maisel’s insistence to the contrary, Jews, who were included in immigration quotas set forth by 1952’s racist, xenophobic McCarran Act. This version of 1950s America is not fun. No wonder we’d rather use a font that glides right past it, to the comforting realm of 45 singles, tail fins, and 2.5 smiling white children.

After the show’s advertising forced me into this typographic reckoning, I tried to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, if only for the costumes. But I couldn’t stand it, for the same reasons I’m irked by Fontdinerdotcom: They’re both security blankets for audiences who don’t want to complicate a confected, nostalgic version of the 1950s. Such shiny populist capitalism, preserved under cake-stand glass, grows alluring any time part of America wants to escape to a time uncomplicated by civil progress. (Like, for instance, right now.) As government policy once again embraces racism, nativism, and homophobia, indulging in sanitized ‘50s escapism feels like an endorsement.

Amazon declined to comment when I asked how they chose the typeface for promoting their new show, but it’s easy to guess: Fontdinerdotcom is Maisel incarnate, a bouncing free-for-all disconnected with the realities of the world it’s supposed to represent. The show’s only speaking characters of color are a group of pot-smoking jazz musicians and a store clerk whose defining trait is her race. One of the main characters is very likely gay, but the show doesn’t care to confirm it. The focus is on the costumes, the hair, the spunky thin white heroine. All shimmer, no substance. But then again, it’s not like I really needed their input. However it happened, they picked the only font that tells me everything I need to know.

Correction: A previous version of this article said The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won two Emmys on Sunday. The show won two Golden Globes.

Zoë Beery is a freelance journalist in New York. She previously reported on the Great 78 Project.
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