With head bent and fingers delicately posed with his graver, Matthew Carter is gazing through a lens with the cool intensity of an accomplished surgeon. But because he is wearing a suit and tie and his hair is carefully combed, one senses that this is not an offhand snapshot, but a rigorously composed portrait of the artist as a young man. The image graces the cover of a 1959 typographic journal called The New Mechanick Exercises. In an essay on what was even then a vanishing art, Carter is shown—deliberately, devotedly, anachronistically—punchcutting. The article speculates that Carter would “eventually achieve the same renown as Eric Gill.”
Carter's life has the contours of a manifest destiny toward typography. His father, Harry Carter, was a respected typographer and authority on the history of type-founding and punchcutting techniques. At the age of 20, fresh out of school, Matthew spent a year learning to cut punches by hand through an internship program at the famous Enschedé printing house in Haarlem. Having passed his exams to begin at Oxford, he realized he couldn't face three years at university after having tasted a year out in the world. He had “vaguely bookish plans” to pursue at Oxford, but was not excited by the prospect of studying there: “English at Oxford was all Beowoulf, nothing modern.” Expecting his father to contest his decision, Matthew was surprised to find him very supportive. A distinguished typophile, Harry Carter introduced his son to important people and helped set him on his chosen path.
Carter has the privilege of having retraced the technological development of typography in the course of his own training. After his immersion at Enschedé, he spent six years as a freelance type and lettering designer in London. He then moved into phototypesetting technology as a typographical adviser to Crosfield Eletronics. In 1965 he decided to move to the United States to take a position at Mergenthaler Linotype in New York, where he designed Snell Roundhand, Helvetica Compressed, and Greek and Korean faces, among others. Six years later, Carter crossed the Atlantic again, returning to London but preserving his link with Linotype. He designed Balliard, the font that is perhaps most closely identified with his name, during this period, as well as Bell Centennial, a beautiful space-saving font created for use in American telephone directories. Alongside these classics, he created Hebrew, Greek and Devanagari fonts, as well as Shelley Script. Crowning, metaphorically but also somewhat literally, the prolific period, Carter was named Typographical Adviser to Her Majesty's Stationery Office, the British government printer, from 1980 to 1984, and was elected a Royal Designer for Industry in 1982. In the midst of the professional recognition, Carter became interested in the entrepreneurial implications of the digital type revolution. In 1981 he was one of four cofounders of Bitstream Inc., a digital type foundry based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bitstream was among the first of the independent font foundries. More than a decade later, two of the founding partners, Carter and Cherie Cone, established a new, smaller company called Carter Cone Type Inc. With the diminution in scale and staff, Carter was relieved of some of the administrative and financial burdens to be found in larger organizations.
Carter's typographic achievements over the last five years have proven the wisdom of his move into smaller quarters: some of his finest works—the fonts Elephant, Mantinia, Sophia, Big Caslon, Alisal and Walker—were created during this period. While many of Carter's typefaces have responded to pragmatically defined needs, the Carter & Cone fonts have tended to be of a more speculative nature, pursued as inspiration struck. Mantinia, for example, is based on the lettering that mesmerized Carter when he saw a major retrospective of Andrea Mantegna's work: “I think he is the best letterer of any painter. I had this feeling that, historically speaking, Mantegna had been very important in opening people's eyes to the beauty of the classical letterforms.” Another font that responds to a historical precedent is Sophia, based on the highly mixed lettering found in Constantinople around the sixth century, when that area of the world was extremely cosmopolitan. In designing Sophia, an important resource for Carter was a silver chalice from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston whose lettering provided a particularly interesting example of his hybrid style.
Carter's reputation is one built on both good type and good words: his contributions to the formal vocabulary of typography must be seen against the backdrop of his intellectual gifts. He is an articulate commentator on typography, an amused observer of its public life, sprinkling lectures with puns and aphorisms that betray the life of a mind obsessed with type (e.g., “movable type is now mutable type.”). What is obvious, in the visual evidence of his type design as well as in his lectures and writings, is a generosity of spirit, a constantly calibrated measure of restraint and flourish in his visual and verbal talents.
His thoughts on design are not worn with the armor-plated sureness of the veteran practitioner: he is instead perceptive, fluid and gracious in the face of the enormous changes that have swept typographic technology in the last 40 years. He does not offer a creed or a manifesto, but has rather issued kernels of wisdom, warning against the orthodoxies of technological determinism, or overarching theories of truth-to-materials in type design. When he states that “technology changes faster than design,” he is arguing, gently, for the preservation of typographic ideals; when he says he is “not an absolutist,” he is advocating tolerance of the experimentation of younger type designers. Not only does Carter welcome graphic designers who are undertaking their own type design, he is excited by the radical democratization of type made possible by the personal computer. He is not, however, an uncritical pluralist. In response to the recent flood of typographic activity, he says, in characteristic understatement, “The results are not always wonderful, but you cannot champion the demystification of something and then protest that the results are mystifying!”
Within Carter's oeuvre there is no sense of a recurrent aesthetic. He has been a problem solver (Snell Roundhand, Bell Centennial), a historian (Big Caslon), a synthesizer (Sophia), and a radical (Walker). He designed Snell Roundhand not because he has a fondness for scripts, but because photo-composing machines made joining scripts possible. Thus his influential design of Snell was a celebration of a kind of technical liberation from the constraints of metal typecasting rather than the pursuit of a particular aesthetic. The font Walker, commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1994, features an unprecedented kind of “snap-on” serif, accessed through alternative keystrokes. The interest in a sans serif with optional serifs grew organically out of discussions with the design staff of the Walker Art Center. It was only afterward that Carter remembered that a functional model for Walker existed in his solution for photo-setting accents in Greek fonts. His solution in the Greek font was to drop the accent on top of a letter with a zero-space key before hitting another character hat would advance a letter-space. This method of building composite characters in Greek photo lettering is also used in Walker to build serif characters and linking strokes. Walker's kit-of-parts sensibility represents a paradigm shift in type design that is sure to be influential.
Carter sees two tendencies in type designers: those who have a strong visual personality, and those whose work does not elaborate a signature aesthetic. Carter offered Goudy, Hermann Zapf and Gerard Unger as examples of designers whose work he admires for its singularity of vision. Carter vividly described their fonts as having “residual, skeletal forms.” He sees himself, however, as coming from a different position, attributable to his background in type-founding rather than art or design school. While there may be no recurrent structure from one of Carter's fonts to the next, there is certainly a great deal of structure particular to each one. One of Carter's favorite assessments of his work asserts that the letters he draws have “backbones.” This sturdiness of structure is evidence of an analytical rigor that his fonts, writing, and speaking share. His typefaces have the precision, conviction, and distinction of a well-thought argument or clear diction.
When Carter says, “I can't think of a period in typography that I would rather be working in,” one realizes that he has grasped the implications of his own talent in its intersection with history. When asked what sustains his interest in typography, he offers this: “A font is always a struggle between the alphabetic nature of the letterform, the 'A-ness' of the A, and your desire to put some of yourself into the letterform. It's a struggle between representing something (you cannot take endless liberties with a letterform) and trying to find some iota of yourself in it.” With characteristic modesty, Carter speaks of finding oneself in the letter as opposed to merely putting oneself in it. The statement is a beautiful evocation of the tension between expression and restraint that animates the work of Matthew Carter.
Copyright 1997 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.