The Fuse box

Faces of a typographic revolution

Topics: Imprint,

The Fuse box
This article originally appeared on Imprint.

ImprintIt’s 1994 and Steve Heller is on a rant about a Fuse magazine font called LushUS. It’s “an abominable typeface. It’s…”

“… vernacular carried to an extreme?” I offer.

“Vernacular carried to stupidity,” he replies. “It ain’t funny. There are certain extremes that are unnecessary, or too ingrown. Design for design, and so what?”

So what, indeed.That’s the question a lot of type lovers were asking around the time I interviewed Steve for Emigre magazine about his controversial Eye magazine essay “The Cult of the Ugly.” In it, he’d described LushUS as an “affront” to typographic standards that “simply contributes to the perpetuation of bad design.”

I also talked with Jeff Keedy, the font’s designer, and he had this to say: “That typeface was done in a very specific context. It was done for Fuse magazine, and Phil Baines was the editor of this particular issue. It was to address a particular idea about the Industrial Revolution and exuberance. So I designed it to answer that brief. It was like an assignment. If you read my essay that went with it, and if you read the essay Phil Baines wrote and saw [LushUS] in the context of the Fuse typefaces, you would understand completely what it was about. But of course most people didn’t do that.”

Of course they didn’t. Because type is meant to be read, not read about, right? Wrong, as far as Fuse is concerned. Each of its 18 issues included a diskette of original fonts by a variety of noteworthy designers, including Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville, David Carson, Tibor Kalman, Barry Deck, Bruce Mau, and on and on. Each was packaged in a corrugated cardboard box, and accompanied by five A2 posters and a booklet—a guidebook, you might say—that was meant to be studied. But once the fonts are unleashed in the public arena, the more contemplative approach is no longer relevant. So, subsequently, traditional type lovers became perturbed. Angry, even.

Well, the Fuse box is back, and it’s bigger than ever. Published by TaschenFuse 1–20, From Invention to Antimatter: Twenty Years of Fuse holds a 400-page book densely packed with texts and images. It also has a key to download new font sets by Jonathan Barnbrook, Stefan Sagmeister, and six other designers. And it still wants to kick your conventional, boring typeface’s ass.

Aggressive? Hell, yeah! If all you expect from a font is a simple repository for texts or an eye-catching sales utility, then move along, nothing to see here. But if you’re prepared to confront typefaces that challenge you, then step right up and bust open that new Fuse box.

Neville Brody: "Lies" poster

Launched in 1991 and published quarterly for a decade, Fuse was the brainchild of Jon Wozencroft and Neville Brody. That’s Neville Brody the designer who, when he was art directing a British youth culture magazine called the Face in the 1980s, would deconstruct its section headers with each issue until they became simple, abstract signs. He’s also the guy who said in a 1994 interview with Rick Poynor, “I enjoy creating modes of communicating, but I don’t enjoy communicating.” And, as Fuse’s editor, Neville felt that Jeff Keedy didn’t carry LushUS to enough of an extreme.

Here’s how Keedy hyperbolically described his bold, threateningly spiked font for Fuse: “LushUS is the typeface that inebriated itself on exuberant excess, then told history to go fuck itself.… LushUS was banned from the Typophiles Club for explaining in depth how to insert a crystal goblet up one’s backside, to reveal rather than contain the beautiful contents.…”

Yeah, aggressive. And another thing: “Please feel free to add ornamentation to this typeface: more is not a bore.” From the outset, Fuse declared that “abuse is part of the process” when interacting with these fonts. Erik Spiekermann even described his Grid type design as “nothing more than a starting point for someone else wanting to draw a typeface.”

Several of the early faces were actually put to practical use. As Wozencroft notes in his intro to 1–20, they were applied to everything from techno flyers and corporate logos to optician shop signage. But by volume 10, the characters had been pushed to such an extreme that functionality had become practically impossible. Mere utility was never the primary goal.

So… what was, then? Fuse was always after different, unconventional modes of communication. Adrian Shaughnessy put it this way in the book’s second intro, titled “Wreckers of Typographic Civilization”: “Under Brody’s art direction, early Fuse stuck pins in the eyes of typo traditionalists and gleefully invited the displeasure of graphic design’s self-appointed ruling elite by simultaneously showing how typography, thanks to the computer, had become open to all comers and showing how it had been freed of its traditional purpose of conveying linguistic meaning.”

Every one of these fonts was created to provoke contemplation, and initiate conversation. They dealt with an array of topics, from surveillance and secrecy to propaganda and pornography, from etymology and ideology to information technology. Some faces were merely clever. Many others were thought-provoking, such as the ever-elegant Matthew Carter‘s DeFace, which asks us to ponder matters of memory, vandalism, and erasure.

Not surprisingly, considering Neville’s earlier design work for New Socialist magazine, political and social agendas were frequent themes, and this was long before First Things First 2000 was drafted. John Critchley’s Ollie, each character sliced up into fragmented strips, was named after Marine Colonel Oliver North, who, during the Iran-Contra scandal, testified to the shredding of vital government documents (and who, incidentally, is back in the news this week, accused of plagiarism).

Over time, Steve Heller grew to appreciate and respect Fuse’s contributions, and even to like LushUS. And it and other Fuse “classics” remain on the market. Although it’s now taken for granted by the design establishment, in its day, Brody and Wozencroft’s project sparked an unprecedented, and as yet unmatched, typographic revolution. It stimulated radical innovation, iconoclastic experimentation, and empowering self-expression among the more daring and ambitious design practitioners. And now, thanks to Fuse 1–20, we have a comprehensive document with which to assess—and, if we’re fortunate enough, to continue—its rich and valuable legacy.

M&Co: "What the Hell" poster


Cornel Windlin: "Mogadischu" poster


Cornel Windlin: "Robotnik" poster


Neville Brody: "State" poster


Neville Brody: "State" poster, detail

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>