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Stern, the type

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When I first opened the package from P22 with their press release and the specimen booklet for the typeface Stern, I didn’t make the obvious connection. I grasped quickly that it was a new design by Jim Rimmer, notable British Columbia punchcutter and type designer; and I understood that he was doing something unique by issuing the face both as a digital font and in foundry type for hand-setting. (There have been typefaces issued in multiple formats before, such as Sabon, and digital typefaces have been printed by letterpress, but I don’t think anyone has spanned the technologies quite this widely before.)

The obvious connection was the name: Rimmer had named his typeface in honor of artist/printer Chris Stern, whose work spanned the same broad swath of typesetting technologies, and who visited Rimmer and learned from him. It’s a fitting tribute, one that Chris would have appreciated.

He might even have put it to use in a book. The typeface Stern is unusual – “an upright italic type designed for hand-set poetry and diverse digital use,” as Rimmer describes it. The angle of the slant is very slight, as befits an upright italic, but the italic forms of e, f, m, and n give it a calligraphic feel.The wide, two-storey a creates a tension with the italic forms and makes it look more like a text face; there is, however, an alternate, single-storey a for occasions when you want a more consistently italic look. The caps are upright, and come in four different heights: tall, mid-height, small Aldine, and small caps. It looks like mid-height is the default, or at least that’s what was used in the elegant little specimen booklet designed by Rich Kegler.

In metal, Stern is a 16pt font, a size suitable for spacious settings of poetry or short prose passages. It’s a light and delicate-looking typeface, in both metal and digital form; digitally, of course, that lightness can be scaled up for use at display sizes. But it’s designed for use at large text sizes, and in the right circumstances, with careful treatment, it could shine. At first it looks peculiar, but it certainly grows on you.

Incidentally, the exhibit of Chris Stern’s printed work at Design Commission in Seattle has stayed up through July, and many of the broadsides and prints by printer friends of Chris’s are still available for sale; all proceeds go to paying off the huge medical bills that don’t go away even when you die.

In the spirit of technology-spanning, you can play with bits of the Stern letter forms at a site called Typeisart, which uses interactive Flash to let you create your own collage out of elements of the typeface. Watch out – it’s addictive.

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