the-radical-origins-of-2021’s-favorite-font

The Radical Origins of 2021’s Favorite Font

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The most striking thing about the cover of the last Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1971, is not the photo of the Earth, all black except for a silver of milky white and navy blue, but the huge, looming typeface that announces the journal’s name. The lowercase A leans to the left like one might recline in a chair. The upper-case C is rounded like an inner tube floating in an empty swimming pool. The typeset is warm, analog, brimming with AM-radio gold. It looks like it was drawn by a human hand. It is naturalistic, organic. Have you seen it before? Does it look familiar? Its name is Windsor.

Windsor’s appearance on the cover of The Whole Earth Catalog is probably the font’s most famous appearance—the catalog, a phone book-sized almanac represented a certain kind of midcentury idealism rooted in the desire to live off the land, maybe terraform other planets, and at least reconnect with our own. With a few changes, this way of looking at the world is back in fashion. And so is Windsor.

Windsor on the cover of the Fall 1970 Whole Earth Catalog.

Glenn Smith / Getty Images

In the last two years, the font has saturated the market, appearing on everything: indie rock record covers, podcast art, bootleg t-shirts, beer cans, cold brew cans, gig posters. You name it. That sexy little lowercase “a” is all over the place. I first became aware of Windsor while on one of my little quarantine walks, catching it in the cover art of the podcast How Long Gone. When I asked Jason Stewart, one of the podcast’s cohosts, about the font choice, he gave a muted response. “It just ended up looking good,” says Stewart, “It’s just so inoffensive to anyone and everyone.”

But Windsor evokes a stronger response in plenty of folks. Once I noticed Windsor in one place, I began to see it literally everywhere, like on the covers of countless of albums: Thom Yorke’s Anima, Helado Negro’s This is How You Smile, Bedouine’s Bird Songs of a Killjoy. I found out that that Bedouine record was designed by an artist named Robert Beatty, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and has also made record covers for musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never, Tame Impala, and Kesha. To Beatty, Windsor is like reverb, the effect that makes guitars sound cavernous and washed out. It’s overused, it’s a little obvious, but sometimes you just need to use it. It makes sense. To be clear, Beatty likes Windsor, despite its overwhelming ubiquity. He’s noticed that it’s being used quite a bit in bootleg t-shirt communities.

Indeed, Windsor is really a pet favorite in the world of bootleg merch. It’s been used a few times in drops from Boot Boyz, the sly sorta-streetwear brand that turns midcentury academic totems into advanced fashion. Windsor is also literally in the logo for Jam, a brand helmed by the artist and designer Sam Jayne. Jayne likes the font because of its quirkiness—it has a “hand-drawn human element to it.” He uses it all the time in his other career, as a graphic designer. When he started Jam, using Windsor was a natural decision: it had personality.

Perhaps Windsor has blown up because of what it doesn’t represent: the streamlined minimalism of big tech. To signify its future-facing approach, Silicon Valley companies have historically turned to Swiss Modernism, a design movement responsible for Helvetica, that simpler-than-simple typeface that you can find both in the New York City subway system and the Microsoft logo used from the ‘80s up until the early 2010s. Windsor, on the other hand, looks hand-drawn and cushy, in direct opposition to sleek, Silicon Valley minimalism. If using Helvetica is like sitting in an Eames chair, outfitting your band’s poster in Windsor is like lying down on a shag carpet while wearing nothing but a pair of velvet bell bottoms. Stephen Coles, the editorial director at the San Francisco-based Letterform Archive, calls it “the corduroy of fonts.”

Coles explained that Windsor, and fonts like it, often emerge in response to trends in minimalism that are coupled with new technology and waves of modernization. He puts the cycle at about every 50 years. Windsor was first developed by the Stephenson Blake foundry in 1905. It came out of the Arts & Crafts movement, which originated in England during the rise of industrialization. Art & Crafts designers worried that machine production would destroy craftsmanship. The movement had socialist underpinnings, and valued the individual’s ability to beautify the world and the home. If you look at it the right way, Windsor’s deliberately handcrafted aesthetic appears nearly anti-capitalist.

Windsor takes the digital airwaves.

Courtesy of Anchor

While Windsor was first created in response to fears of over-industrialization, it reemerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s, alongside concepts like eating a macrobiotic diet, kibbutz living, and a general frustration with Man in the Gray Flannel Suit-era capitalism. As well as appearing in the Whole Earth Catalog, Windsor showed up on quite a few record covers, and appeared on an iconic, early pro-Angela Davis poster. It was also, obviously, used a fair amount in advertising—perhaps its most infamous usage from the last 50 years is in the title cards for Woody Allen films.

Windsor’s reappearance in the last few years makes plenty of sense. It’s been 50 years since it last saturated the market. Big tech cynicism is at an all time high. A striking number of young Americans identify as socialists.

Ultimately though, nobody has ownership over a typeface. For every Whole Earth Catalog-style publication with Windsor on the front cover, there was also a cigarette company using the font. In 2021 there are plenty of funky bootleg t-shirt designers and craft beer companies using Windsor, but it’s also used in derivative formats to get you to buy Chobani. We’re already headed in the direction where Windsor is so overused that people are starting to get sick of it. One can only have too much of a good thing, if you even want to call it that. Soon it will probably disappear—if only for fifty years or so. Windsor has a way of coming back.

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