When you’ve been making and collecting type for over 100 years like we have, you accumulate a lot of typefaces. So each month we’re digging deep into our extensive collection to bring beautiful but buried typefaces back to the surface and give you fresh new options for your designs. This month, let us introduce you to Alisal™ with help from our friend and designer Anthony Noel.
For me, what makes Matthew Carter’s Alisal such a finely crafted, top-order book typeface is that, like many of its class intended for long form text settings, it rewards the close attention to detail that professional typographers relish.
This is a compact and focussed three font family of two weights (regular and bold) and a companion italic, drawn and refined by Carter over the course of two decades. But a typeface with as much character as Alisal should never be thought of as just a book face.
Beneath its functional modesty is an assertive and distinctive calligraphic character, with an ancestry that can trace its lineage right back to the first fine Roman book faces cut during the Italian Renaissance.
Style and genre
Those first Roman typefaces established a model for the ideal book typeface that, with only minor variations, remains the prevailing standard today. Carter drew heavily on that legacy for Alisal. “What really gave birth to it was my interest in the early history of Roman type,” explains Carter. “How Roman type is really a hybrid between the lowercase (which has manuscript origins) and the capitals (which have inscriptional origins)… In my view, the early Roman types changed from looking like scribe’s letters to looking like printer’s letters very quickly. So I was interested in this transition from calligraphy to printing type.”
Let’s examine the lowercase ‘g’, shown here nice and big. Those early type cutters (still familiar to us, having given their names to typefaces like Jenson and Garamond) based their letterforms on the writing style of the Renaissance humanist authors who used broad-nibbed pens held at a slight angle to the page. The modulating effect of the stroke as it sweeps from wide to narrow and back again around the shape of the letter is called the stress. In Alisal, the narrowest sections fall to the left off the vertical, echoing the angled position of the pen as it would have moved had a real hand formed its shapes.
However, this fidelity to a historical style and technique doesn’t result in something that feels like an antique revival, but is rather Carter’s adept and typically original blend of the classic and the contemporary. Short descenders; a carefully balanced contrast between the thick and thin parts of the stroke; and sturdy, crisply-jointed serifs combine with the fluid calligraphy of the stroke to bring the modern together with the old. This is most obvious when we inspect the characters at unnaturally large sizes, but the final effect is a harmonious and handsome, if somewhat dark in color, block of text.
“I’m hopeless with a pen” says Carter, “but I did draw this face to be deliberately calligraphic, and [the glyphs] really do look as though they have pen-written origins… So it’s an odd kind of typeface. It is a Roman and italic, but at the same time it’s a little bit of a script face. There aren’t many typefaces for which this is true… and I think that’s what appealed to me–to try to do something in a rather underpopulated category of typefaces.”