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What’s in a typeface? St. Louis was once a hotbed of creativity for type design

Did you know? St. Louis is considered the first major type foundry city in the Midwest.
Ian Britton | Flickr | http://bit.ly/1U07mgm
Did you know? St. Louis is considered the first major type foundry city in the Midwest.

See these words on the screen right here? Do you see them? No. Do you really see them? Without realizing it, the words you’re reading right now are helping to give you a certain feeling. Not because of the boundless depths of meaning held within these sentences, but because of the typeface they are written in.

“The tone that is set from what we read. Part of it is content, part of it is form,” Ben Kiel, a type designer and owner of type design studio Typefounding, told St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter.

(They typeface you're reading right now? Lato, to be exact). 

Kiel is part of an exhibition that is reopening for one night only on June 25, which highlights St. Louis’ contributions to the world of typefaces and type foundries, at Gallery 210 on UMSL’s campus.  The exhibition is titled “Cast and Recast: St. Louis Type Design Present and Past.”

St. Louis is considered the first major type foundry city in the Midwest and hung in there with New York, Chicago and Philadelphia during the 1800s, when type foundries were at their peak in producing metal letters for printing newspapers.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Jennifer McKnight, professor of graphic design, UMSL.

At the end of the 1800s, advertising became very important in the city and across the nation … as did newspapers for immigrant populations that were exploding at the time, said Robert Mullen, author of “Recasting Craft: St. Louis Typefounders Respond to Industrialization.”

“There were all these new Americans coming from Europe and they wanted to express their nationalism by reading … reading English,” said Jennifer McKnight, a professor of graphic design at UMSL. “There was this huge demand for papers and these papers needed newspapers and these newspapers needed type.”

St. Louis had an advantage during the Civil War, because it could make its own letters in type foundries and not wait for shipments from other cities — shipments that might have been delayed if supply lines were broken.

“What I’ve always liked about typeface design is its intersection with culture, language and history,” Kiel said. “At this period of time, type and typesetting technology was a high-tech industry, what we would think of as a start-up company today. Typesetting, the manufacture and production … that was high-tech back then and just as we see companies merging today, the same thing happened with typesetting.”

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Ben Kiel, owner, Typefounding.

You can learn more about the history of typefaces and how they are implemented today on June 25 at the closing night reception of “Cast and Recast.” At the event, you’ll be able to browse through a catalogue that McKnight, Mullen and Kiel produced, which shows St. Louis’ contributions to the typeface world. Details are included below.

“Type is quite important to our history,” Mullen said. “If we go back to Gutenberg, who invented the process of printing as we know it, it was an invention that really changed how we look at the world. It was an invention that allowed us to print and preserve man’s thoughts and distribute it in a mass way to many, many people.”

Related Event

What: Gallery 210 Presents "Cast and Recast St. Louis Type Design Present and Past" Closing Reception
When: Saturday, June 25 from 5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
Where: Gallery 210, 44 East Drive on the University of Missouri - St. Louis campus
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.