Cooper Union Typography

All about Typography, well, mostly about Typography.

Stephen Farrell


Almost every semester I mention to my students the designer Stephen Farrell as someone whose work they should look at. I have always admired his approach to typography, as well as his small but eclectic set of typefaces he designed. Unfortunately his work is scattered across the web, in small bits. Obviously his work is meant to be seen in real life, to be handled, interacted with, experienced. Still, I decided to pull together everything I could find online to make it easier for students and other people to see his work. Hopefully this will also provide leads to finding his printed work for those interested.

Stephen Farrell
Stephen Farrell is known as much for his graphic design work as he is for his active collaborations with authors in “designing fiction”. He is the principal of Slip Studios, as well as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Visual Communication department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Stephen’s work is strongly rooted in typography, but he combines it elegantly with the visual language of diagrams, photographs, and various distressed but expressive marks. He makes detritus look beautiful. The work feels like there is always a hand in it, but a controlled and precise hand: a designer’s hand.

Stephen has won a lot of acclaim over the years, but it is the work itself that matters. His studio has aimed at bridging the worlds of literature and design. His most impressive work is the novel he created with Steve Tomasula, VAS: An Opera in Flatland. The book has been described by the publishers as: “Printed in the colors of flesh and blood…—a hybrid image-text novel—demonstrates how differing ways of imagining the body generate diverse stories of history, gender, politics, and, ultimately, the literature of who we are.” It is an amazing piece of writing and design.

Some images from VAS:

VAS cover

Farrell himself describes his endeavor as such: “I’m interested in taking traditional literary forms, the short story, the novel, the critical essay, and remaking these forms to include the methodologies, the vocabularies—the possibilities—of design. … My work still acknowledges that reading is about flow, and that one of design’s chief objectives is to manage and facilitate this flow. However, the strategies I use—the way I manipulate flow, arrange and organize texts, and employ a spatial approach to the page not unlike staging in theater —often encourage both linear and non-linear movement. Simultaneous stories may interweave, images and information graphics may interject. How this spatial, imagetext experience collides or coincides with the linearity of reading is of prime interest to me.”

“Boilerplate: Koreshians, Potential Rioters, and Bureaucratic Complicity in American Self-Destruction.”

“Boilerplate: Koreshians, Potential Rioters, and Bureaucratic Complicity in American Self-Destruction.” Subtitled, “Being a list of 8 ways in which the dead at Waco were a lot like the rest of us”. Delivered onstage as an eight-movement duet with cello music composed and performed by Dylan Morgan.

Pieces that have appeared in Emigre magazine:

1. Emigre #37

2. Emigre #38: Steve Tomasula, Daniel X. O’Neil, Matt Dinerstein (photographer) and Stephen Farrell explore historical and geographic links that crisscross through the meticulous pulverization of one individual’s handwriting and its resurrection in digital form. This whole project explodes one moment, one event, in a particular time and place—a 1601 Florentine death list recorded by an anonymous clerk—as it passes through another event, the mimicking of this documentary handwriting as a digital typeface.

3. Emigre #51: Stephen Farrell with Jiwon Son & Steve Tomasula. Part essay-part performance, “Inhabiting Forms: Visible Citizens” explores the themes of lineage, connoisseurship and social indoctrination by intermingling speaking/writing exercises from 19th century courtesy books and shorthand manuals with strokes made with a catalogue of abandoned brooms. A blend of cultural anthropology, philosophy, literature and linguistics, this work plays with our impulse both to classify and to express civility. Their project inspects the various items and conditions of a 1920s bungalow in Chicago where Farrell recently moved.

Mythopoeia, an American Portrait, 1996

The above image is from “Mythopoeia, an American Portrait”, a companion book to the show Mythopoeia. This was a three-way collaboration between Steve Tomasula, Stephen Farrell & Don Pollack. “It originally served as a companion piece to Don Pollack’s painting show in Atlanta. The piece is at once an art catalogue and a critique on the art catalogue, a text that critiques a text’s ability to encapsulate a body of painting without producing something quite apart from it, without subjecting its subject to a transformative process, a mythopoeia.”

Volgare Project

The digital typeface Volgare is based on a 1601 Florentine manuscript written by an anonymous clerk. (Farrell studied the original at Chicago’s Newberry Library.) Volgare includes 3 weights, over 500 distinct glyphs, including ligatures, word endings, and combination characters.
Based on this manuscript:

Body Language in the Paper Theater (released as part of The Volgare Project), 2000

“A multimedia essay on the nature of typography and the page environment, ‘Body Language in the Paper Theater’ likens type to a stage actor who wields his corporeal presence and symbolic gestures as chief modes of communication.”

Other Typefaces



Indelible Victorian
“Font design has given me an opportunity to study enculturation (ours included) through letterforms and the relationship of writing to keystroking. An individual inherits specific forms of writing for specific situations, each guided by a stock of tools and larger pragmatic and aesthtetic concerns, socio-political realities, cultural memory. What does it mean to pass along the spirit of a past event of writing to a digital generation? The tension between an individual’s unique mark, the models to which it aspires, the meaning of connoissuership and its simulation as a digital commodity all serve as a platform of ideas for typefaces like Indelible Victorian.”



Farrell’s poster which uses a few of these typefaces.

Farrell is also an influential teacher at SAIC, and lecturer. His approach to teaching: “I try to teach design approaches to our students that seduce and surprise, that reward their curiosity as well as their rigor, that challenge our students’ abilities to digest and structure unfamilar material with clarity, and challenge their capacity to be entertaining—to be unapologetically seductive themselves—and to take risks: Whimsy blends with focused and systematic process; writing and research blend with design into a hybrid activity. The classroom is our laboratory, and here we turn novel intersections around and test their potentials for uncovering or deepening experience, as with a story told through the trail of crafted documents, or a graft of a narrative onto a field of study seemingly unrelated. In each case, students fashion meaning out of the strange or incongruous, prodding connections that push against cliché while learning how to play.”


Information and Image Sources / References / Further Reading:

  1. Biography on SAIC’s website
  2. Website for the VAS novel.
  3. Japan’s Shift magazine on VAS.
  4. A website for the Volgare Project
  5. Juggernautco’s pages for Boilerplate and for a poster.
  6. Mythopoeia at the AIGA Design Archives
  7. VAS at the AIGA Design Archives
  8. See his work and interview in Emigre #37
  9. See his piece in Emigre #38
  10. See “Inhabiting Forms: Visible Citizens” in Emigre #51
  11. MICA visiting artist, Spring 2008
  12. Student work from the workshops held at MICA: 1, 2.
  13. Stephen Farrell’s page on Identifont, with showings of five of his typefaces.
  14. Stephen Farrell’s typefaces on My Fonts
  15. Bio and Volgare typeface for sale at Font Factory
  16. Washington Mutual used Missive on some of their signage inside the branches.

Filed under: Designers, People, Typography

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: