Cem Eskinazi on “Aggressive Serifs,” Psychedelic Shapes + Bringing Some Softness Back Into the Visual Landscape

Mantar, designed by Cem Eskinazi for Occupant Fonts.

I didn’t realize that the typeface had psychedelic roots until two years into the drawing. I developed it as a small family, and after using it for some projects, realized it was just too small. I went back to the team and said, “I need to make an Ultra version, because it doesn’t get bold enough.” Cyrus told me at the time that drawing an Ultra is basically making a caricature of the typeface, as Matthew Carter advised him years earlier. We looked at [Carter’s] Galliard, in which the Ultra is very much a caricature of the Regular. So I had the permission to exaggerate everything that I was doing on the Regular weights and this helped me open up the voice of the family.
I came back to the studio, and I immediately started drawing. I focused on achieving two things: one, make the serifs as long as possible, to a point where the spacing breaks, as a joke, as a homage to that aggressive landscape that I was image-collecting at the time. And two, to sneak in this particular softness in as many details as possible. 
Tell us a bit about Occupant Fonts. How does the process and team there support this kind of project? 
I sense the influence of the phototypesetting technologies and psychedelic visuals of the 1960s and ’70s in the softer details.  You studied darkroom photography while majoring in marketing communications as an undergraduate, before getting your MFA in graphic design. How did your exposure to typography evolve your thinking about language and typefaces?
I see graphic design as a reflexive process, where I listen to the thing that’s in front of me, and attempt to reflect what I’m hearing in my own way. In type design, it creates this winding and unconventional process. Making Mantar was this way. Typically, typeface projects can get very big, and they require these massive pre-planning sessions. If you’re drawing a huge family, it’s smart to do some family planning to strategize what to draw and what to interpolate. But because my process is to respond to what’s directly in front of me, I did not approach Mantar in this linear way. Instead, I started with a question, for example, “How do I soften the voice of this letter?” And then before I know it, I have the first weight, which is totally coincidental. I don’t know, or I’m not concerned yet, if it’s regular or bold, narrow or wide. I bring that set of drawings back to the team [at Occupant] during one of our monthly open meetings where we share our current projects and process work. Sometimes they’re excited about what I bring in, and sometimes they’re not. If there’s energy around it, I’ll keep working on it on the side.

The typeface set against a black background.
Mantar, designed by Cem Eskinazi for Occupant Fonts.

I wanted to work on photo books, because I was really interested in creating narratives through image sequencing. That’s really the magical part of graphic design: You put two images together and it makes a story. Other discoveries happened during grad school. I learned type design and I fell in love with that. This is the way that I live my life—reactive and spontaneous. As opposed to living life like one big project, I try to look at only what’s one step ahead of me.
At what point did you discover the theme of psychedelia?
How did you come up with the shapes and relationships we see in Mantar? Where did you begin and how did you arrive at its final form?
Generally, type design is not as widely practiced (as a graphic design studio). For example, we don’t have an InDesign equivalent of a sophisticated tool for making typefaces. Glyphs is pretty sophisticated, yes, but it still lacks a lot of functionality on its own. At Occupant, we build many jigs and tools to be able to make, produce, and improve the typefaces we release. That’s a big part of the process here. Nic Schumann and Marie Otsuka are essential team members. They write extra tools for us to either use in production or check things that we’re not able to check otherwise. In that way, Occupant is really collaborative. We have tool sprints each month. During the month, I might be drawing something I think “Wow, I can’t believe I have to do this repetitive operation.” Or, “Yikes there’s no way I can check these components one by one, because I’m dealing with 10,000+ glyphs, within 12 masters. I wish there was a tool to help.” By doing the work and being on the ground designing the typefaces, I can describe what a tool should or could be doing, and we collectively design a plugin for that. Next thing you know we have the tool to do it; and, in some cases, the tool saves us months of work. This kind of co-designing is definitely a huge part of the Occupant’s working method.

The typeface set against a black background.
Mantar, designed by Cem Eskinazi for Occupant Fonts.

I visited Providence Public Library, because we have a good relationship with Jordan Goffin, [the librarian there]. One day, there was a class visit with students, and he called us saying, “Hey, we put a bunch of stuff out. Do you want to check it out?” When I walked in, there was this phototype specimen there. It looked exactly like those aggressive serif typefaces that I’d been thinking about and seeing on screens. As I walked over to it, I felt a softness about it that was surprising and drew me in.
A newly-released font family distributed by TypeNetwork and Occupant Fonts, Mantar also defies a couple of key aspects of how a typeface is typically produced. It wasn’t drawn in a standard scale for display type (it was drawn at size 24, purposely an awkward scale between display and text). It was started with no specific format in mind and developed through a process of a reflective writing, drawing, and research. It’s as much a response to a research question about contemporary visual tastes and trends as it is adding to the cohort of conceptual-yet-practical typefaces. The result is a distinct display typeface for editorial use, with a nod to Scotch Roman roots and a psychedelic smirk. 
Yes, absolutely. I realized while drawing the Ultra that some shapes looked like it came from the Art Nouveau era—nods to the curvilinear frames, swirling forms around typography, and ball terminals spiraling into themselves. The psychedelic poster artists were also inspired by Art Nouveau. I was also trying to have this typeface escape the contemporary visual landscape I had been researching, so there was also a theme of countering mass culture and creating an alternate reality. 
What were some of the specific specimens you were looking at and responding to in your writing and research?
The softness was due to several factors: it’s an old book, the blacks are a warm yellow, the whites are not exactly white. I realized that even the sharpest points were a little bit softened because of the blurring in the photographic effect. Because phototypesetting involves a lens operation, it never registers as 100% crisp. I looked at small catalog numbers, which are even more low-res, because they’re just printed so tiny. I saw these letters that had extremely soft edges. I thought that was really interesting, and exactly what I was looking for. 
Mantar was designed by Cem Eskinazi, a designer at Occupant Fonts in Providence, Rhode Island. There, Cem works alongside founder Cyrus Highsmith and a close-knit team of designers and developers, namely Marie Otsuka and Nic Schumann, focused on both producing typefaces and creating tools for typeface design. The studio is based on an apprenticeship model, making the work of the Occupant team at once collaborative and collective, with co-learning and research in the forefront. Schumann worked with Eskinazi to develop a micro-site for Mantar, where you can see the weights and contrasts in action and enjoy an experiment in non-linear storytelling as a way to meet Mantar in the wild of Eskinazi’s mind.  Eskinazi was kind enough to sit down with me for a conversation to share a bit more about how Mantar came to be.
How does this sense of openness and exploration map to your work as a typeface designer?

The typeface set against a black background.
Mantar, designed by Cem Eskinazi for Occupant Fonts.

On first sight, Mantar is a jovial typeface family. High-contrast, serif-forward, wide-faced, with details that seem to jump from letter to letter. I’m struck by the exaggerated serifs and tightness in the capital M, W and R. The numbers, particularly the 2 and 3, swirl into themselves in a playful game with the punctuation. 
I had been doing some visual research through an essay-writing exercise, and one of the things that I was collecting as a precedent were these really sharp and long serifed typefaces. I was interested in what I call “aggressive serifs”—I was seeing a lot of super sharp, white on black serifs, made for Retina display. I thought to myself, “Oh wow, my visual landscape is so angry right now. I’m feeling really overwhelmed. How might I shape a typeface responding to these wildly pointy forms?” Through details, I thought I could make something that seems angry as first, with soft, kinder details, and sneak something softer back into the contemporary visual landscape.

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