That ’70s Show

Portraits of Étienne Aubert Bonn and My-Lan Thuong

Coppers and Brasses is an award-winning type foundry based in Montreal. Launched in 2011 by Étienne Aubert Bonn and Alexandre Saumier Demers, it has created numerous retail fonts as well as custom type design for McGill University, Cirque du Soleil, Radio-Canada, and Hydro-Québec. Its latest release is Baryton, which Aubert Bonn designed in collaboration with My-Lan Thuong.

Frontier: Where and when did you first come across Century Bartuska, the primary inspiration for Baryton?

Étienne Aubert Bonn: I first saw it when Stephen Coles posted it to Flickr about six years ago. I was fascinated by its big serifs, exaggerated forms you don’t often see in a Century typeface. They were supremely elegant but also a bit quirky. I tried to find more information about it through researching Photo-Lettering Inc. and by talking with Stephen and with Ken Barber at House Industries. I was also, in talking to Ken, asking permission to start work on what would become Baryton, since House Industries had purchased the assets of Photo-Lettering Inc. about a decade earlier. He was encouraging, but there is little information about Century Bartuska available.

My idea was to do an homage, not a true revival. I didn’t start from the original letter forms, but worked from their animating idea. I wanted to keep the spirit of it and to keep the family very simple, which is why Baryton has only a single weight. (We tried to make a bold version, but it didn’t look right.) Our italics, however, are completely different. The originals are much more rigid. Our challenge was to have long serifs and find ways in and out of the characters, to figure out how to join them. We emphasized their cursiveness to create flow through the characters.

Baryton in use alongside an illustration by Catherine Potvin

Frontier: How did you collaborate with My-Lan Thuong, your former intern who is now based in Paris, on this typeface?

EAB: I began the project a few years before My-Lan joined us in Montreal, though I never took the time to really focus on it. But I recognized it’s the kind of project she really likes, that fits with her style. So after we worked on a few projects together in Montreal, I thought turning toward this Bartuska update would be a good way to make progress on it and give her a unique learning experience. But by the time she finished her internship, the typeface was far from done, so we continued working remotely.

She mainly focused on the italics; I mainly focused on the Roman. We had a lot of back and forth; we influenced each other. We spent a full year on it after her return to Paris. It takes a lot of time to finish projects.

Frontier: In what context would you most like to see Baryton used?

EAB: A designer I know in Montreal has already used it for an album cover. I think that’s one context that works well—anything where it can be used at really large sizes. There are no straight lines in the typeface, which has small interior curves everywhere. We actually had to push our software’s limitations to do all this fine-curve work. Baryton’s level of detail begs for designers to use it for big, simple compositions.

Frontier: There seems to be a trend toward revisiting the aesthetics of the 1960s and the ’70s—I’m thinking in particular of the splashy recent Chobani and Mailchimp rebrands. You’ve opted for a different version of that late-mid-century look. Why do you think the culture is revisiting that more visually expressive moment?

EAB: I might be “off-trend” because I’ve never had luck finding the next big thing. There is definitely a comeback of ’70s-inspired typefaces. It might have to do with so many tech companies doing away with their funky logos and commissioning a bunch of geometric sans serifs, which then caused designers to turn away from that somewhat cold, inhuman voice. People began searching for something warmer, or even to create a bit of a provocation.

Baryton in use alongside an illustration by Catherine Potvin

This could also be a result of changing font licensing. People can be hesitant to pay a lot of money for something funky and expressive that they might only use in a few contexts.  FutureFonts, FontStand, and other newer initiatives allow designers to experiment and for customers to try those experiments without committing too much money to them. Experiments can be accessible. It becomes less scary to do something uncommon.

Frontier: In a 2016 interview, you said, “I have a hard time seeing the Canadian field of typeface design as a whole.” Has anything changed about this in the past four years?

EAB: Though it mentions Canada, that comment isn’t really about the country. Fifty years ago, there were more localized styles. There is a Canadian version of mid-century modernism. But it’s much harder to define a type scene today, as influence spreads internationally. A few places still have a defined style; I feel like French type educators have retained a different way of teaching students how to draw letter forms.

While there is no style that communicates the essence of Canada, there are great people doing typeface design work here. There are probably only about twenty of us doing this work more or less full-time—the community is small enough that everyone knows each other.