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Mike Parker’s Story of Type

We often hear “Why do we need more fonts?” One might also ask, “Why write another history of type?” Mike Parker suggests that Rookledge’s International Directory of Type Designers* has 90 percent of everything one needs in terms of factual information about type throughout history; but it lacks a narrative story of type and doesn’t connect the influences throughout type’s organic evolution.

Mike Parker was exposed firsthand to type history as an evolving story over the centuries when he worked at the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp in the mid 1950s, where he was charged with cataloging hundreds of early typefounders’ artifacts, including punches, matrixes, and molds. As Parker describes it, “It’s the biggest lump of history anywhere, of any time; everything is real.”

So it is with no surprise that Parker would write his history of type distinct from the others — as a story. It was Sam Berlow who inspired him to write: “I asked him to start writing, just write . . . Start with describing the people and see where it takes you.” Berlow also knew Parker’s approach would be different. “I was always impressed with how he could tie together interesting bits of history about type designers, punch cutters, the machines and the technology of the time, and the influences on the end product: the typeface.”

On occasion, Parker draws connections with Font Bureau’s library, illustrating how Font Bureau’s typeface revivals reference their typographic predecessors. Naturally, it is exciting to see how the work we’ve done over the past two decades is woven into the interconnected story.

There are six major chapters:

  1. Roots of Western Letterforms & Typography;
  2. Oldstyle Roman & Italic Typefaces;
  3. Intermediate Roman & Italic Typefaces;
  4. Modern Roman & Italic Typefaces;
  5. Industrial Roman & Italic Typefaces;
  6. Arts & Crafts, Twentieth Century Revivals, and Originals.

We will be segmenting Mike Parker’s Story of Type into a series of blog essays to be posted here on Type 101 during the coming weeks and months.

The first chapter is short. We start it in Mesopotamia to add context for the development of the alphabet, and then on to Constantinople where we see the beginnings of the characters we use today.

I. Roots of Western Letterforms and Typography

Mesopotamia, circa 8,000 BC

In Before Writing: From Counting to Cuneiform, Denise Schmandt-Besserat at the University of Texas at Austin traced the origins of the letters we know back about 10,000 years, following the appearance of agriculture in Mesopotamia. Clay tokens in hollow clay containers were sent with objects being traded (typically some number of animals) to record the conditions of the contract. After about 5,000 years the hollow container evolved into a solid clay tablet, and the tokens evolved into characters scratched into the surface of the tablet. The first form of written code, cuneiform, had made its appearance. Over a further 2,000 years cuneiform evolved into the kind of formal characters that we know today.

Constantinople, Sixth Century

Matthew Carter’s Sophia is a typographical forerunner to the characters that we use today: A hybrid alphabet engraved in metalwork by an unknown hand during the sixth century in Constantinople (now Istanbul) suggested Sophia. The lettering reflects a Byzantine blend of cosmopolitan influences: Roman classical capitals, early uncials, and Greek letterforms. Carter’s contemporary development, a titling face designed in 1994, includes many alternative character shapes. Some of these have extending strokes that are designed to fuse with neighboring letters to compose on-the-fly “manuscript” ligatures.

Sophia represents the very beginnings of the capitals that we know today. The originals of this single alphabet, engraved in metalwork in Istanbul, follow models that were in use approximately 1,000 years earlier than our present typographic libraries. Yet the Sophia “capitals” are immediately and gracefully readable, suggesting ancient origins with impeccable scholarship.

“Two fine examples of sixth-century Byzantine metal-working were the main sources of Sophia’s letterforms, one a processional cross donated by the Emperor Justin II and his wife Sophia to the Pope in Rome, now in St. Peter’s, the other a silver chalice in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The cross is inscribed in Latin, the chalice in Greek. The idiosyncratic Latin capitals (reproduced as an illustration to Stanley Morison’s Politics and Script) are a salad of influences expressive of Constantinople’s vigorous cosmopolitan culture.”

— From a panel in the exhibit Typographically Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter (Sept 9–Dec 7, 2002; curated by Margaret Re; organized by the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

*International Directory of Type Designers by Ron Eason and Sarah Rookledge [New York: The Sarabande Press, 1994] is the primary bibliographic reference for Mike Parker’s Story of Type.


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