Commercial Classics, a Commercial Type label, offers contemporary designers the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art, thoroughly revamped period instruments: groundbreaking typefaces from Industrial Revolution-era Britain. Based in London and New York, the spin-off is a joint project of longtime partners Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz, who since 2004 have collaborated on award-winning retail and custom fonts for the cultural sector, most notably for the Guardian.
Though mindful of history, the Commercial Type catalog is decidedly of today, for today. By contrast, the Commercial Classics library is unabashedly of yesterday, for today. The tightly curated collection resuscitates vibrant, historically important typefaces that had gotten stranded—marooned in metal. Steeped in research and often working from primary sources (many found at the St Bride Library in London), Barnes, Schwartz, and their team closely follow the original forms, imagining how they might have evolved in the context of present-day technologies and typographic demands.
The project starts from the premise that these visionary typefaces have much to add to today’s graphic vocabulary, which continues to bathe in the systematic perfection and polish that gained ascendancy toward the middle of the twentieth century. The Commercial Classics library reintroduces warmth, artlessness, and quirky candor into a design landscape that has preferred to smooth away all traces of friction, difficulty, or process. These are typefaces that were often the first of their kind, that were still finding their way—typefaces that, as they invented themselves, also invented entirely new genres. Such innovation leaves scars—a radical beauty that this project celebrates.
Since launching in the summer of 2019, Commercial Classics has watched its lovingly restored families go off to good homes. The typefaces have surfaced on screens, book covers, and packaging. They’ve powered magazine redesigns. They’ve been set at cosmic sizes on building facades and museum walls. Many more uses await. For designers who want to go off the grid, the Commercial Classics library delivers a trove of neglected treasures, ready to get back to work.
Commercial Classics donates a portion of all license sales to St Bride Library.
Typeface families with multiple weights are a relatively recent invention; in the nineteenth century, typesetters often turned to standalone bold types to convey textual hierarchy or emphasis. In the spirit of that lost tradition, Paul Barnes drew a beefy slab serif, initially in just one weight with a freshly conceived italic, as an alternative bold companion for Caslon Ionic. This new slab hewed close to its source from a competitor foundry, Figgins’ Antique No. 6, first published as a single roman type in the 1870s. Barnes gently adjusted the slab’s proportions to make them align more closely to Caslon Ionic’s, and indeed the two appear cut from the same cloth—but where Caslon Ionic is subtler and somewhat reserved, Antique No. 6 is blunter and more extroverted. Now with five weights, it’s a useful and versatile family in its own right, though it still plays well with Caslon Ionic.
One of the cornerstone typefaces of the Commercial Classics library, Brunel is a distinctly British modern. The finespun, high-contrast Didones that have dominated fashion and luxury brands for ages are lovely, but hard, a little too perfect—as airbrushed as the images they tend to accompany. A gentler modern emerged in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, cribbing vernacular details from commercial lettering and engraving: a lilted R, a waggish Q. Rediscover the subtleties—in four optical sizes, from a whisper to a scream—of this alt modern.
Paul Barnes, Tim Ripper, Dan Milne
Caslon Doric follows the fitful progress of the sans serif in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the new genre came into its own. Initially appearing as all-capital display alphabets, sans serifs gradually morphed into functional typefaces with multiple sizes and lowercase letters. Commercial Classics started with the regular weight of Caslon Doric No. 4, an exemplar of this period, and expanded the updated design into a massive, motley collection of five families in multiple weights and multiple widths, with matching italics and small caps. Although the various family members resemble one another, there’s quite a bit of variation among them, too—Univers this is not. The collection memorializes the eccentricities and unaffectedness of the earliest sans serif forms, and makes for an invigorating foil for ultrasmooth, “neutral” neogrots.
Paul Barnes, Greg Gazdowicz
What we’ve come to recognize as the Ionic style borrowed the most successful features of the two kinds of letter that prevailed in the first half of the nineteenth century: the high-contrast moderns, which were favored for newspaper types; and the loud, blocky, low-contrast slab serifs used mainly for advertising. Caslon Ionic draws on the most authoritative of the Ionics: the light, legible, and delightfully readable Ionic No. 2, with its wide capitals, condensed lowercase, short extenders, and generous x-height. The context may have changed, but situational challenges remain—low light, low resolution, high speed, spotty attention. A versatile Ionic fills a vital typographic need; Caslon Ionic, featuring a freshly drawn italic, is poised to handle a wide range of demanding design applications, from microcopy to supergraphics.
Jonny Sikov, Britt Cobb