Maelstrom Design Information
10 January 2019
Nicolette Gray wrote about the Caslon Italian (above) in her book Nineteenth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages:
The only semi-ornamental type of this decade  is the much, and quite rightly, abused Italian. The Italian is an Egyptian with a horizontal stress and extra serifs reversed and joined to the letter by the point; a crude expression of the idea of perversity. It is scarcely just, however, to regard it as a typical monstrosity of the time.
Further on she describes the Miller & Richard French Antique:
The simple-minded unimaginative strain in the mind of the [eighteen] fifties has, however, a direct expression in the ornamented letters of the period. Very characteristic is the new semi-ornamental type, the French Antique, which comes c. 1860, and is enormously popular. It is an Egyptian with the horizontal lines about double the width of the verticals; a surprisingly unpretentious type. Is it the extreme simplicity of the idea which makes its perversity pleasing?
It’s hard to know exactly what Gray finds perverse: the mere concept of the reversed stress or the actual execution. She seems to dislike the Caslon Italian yet grudgingly accepts the French Antique. I suspect her attitude is typical of most typographers throughout the ages: oscillating between loathing and mirth.
These days I am rather partial towards a good reversed-stress typeface. I agree with Gray: they are perverse. But that is their beauty. It took a while to come to this conclusion; for years I felt ambivalent about them. My entire attitude changed while drinking a beer in the sun, reading American Wood Type: 1828-1900 by Rob Roy Kelly.¹
I saw Debow’s 20 and 8 Line Italian and was immediately smitten. As Kelly writes, this style exhibits a powerful “demonstration of figure-ground relationships which appear to have been more consciously developed in the design of wood type that with metal types”. The razor-thin side bearings and serif counters are striking — narrow strips of light sparkling through the black mass. This was precisely the effect I wished to capture with Maelstrom. To amplify the contrast the hairlines needed to be just as thin, allowing me to cram in as much fine detail as possible.²
Due to the contrary nature of the reversed-stress form, I established a basic three-zone construction principle along the horizontal. This freed me up to concentrate on other particulars, like proportions and punctuation. I found that slight serif bracketing warmed the line work, softening the harsh contrast and lending heft to the overall impression.
And so, off I sketched.³ There is limited information in the historic specimens on how to flesh out a reversed-stress character set. In general, it’s a simple game of opposites. Take a Modern, make the thin strokes thick and vice versa. When it comes down to specifics, however, this rule cannot be mindlessly applied to everything; liberties have to be taken. It’s like reading upside down or talking backwards — all the sense is there, just in exactly the opposite place. It takes some mental and visual adjusting.
Take the ampersand, for example. This was tricky to figure out and relied on some optical sleight of hand. It’s essentially an “impossible” letterform with two strokes merging into the kick. Characters with a basic vertical and horizontal weight distribution are logical to reverse, but angled strokes and curves take much more work.
“Sometimes it feels as if a typeface comes into existence so it could be used in one transcendent design. In Maelstrom’s case, that design is this poster. Svendsen is a masterful typographer, and by making very subtle modifications to an “off the shelf” typeface she creates an effect that feels so hand-crafted that you would be forgiven if you thought the letters were custom-made to fill the role.”
Not long after Bethany’s review went live, I started working on Maelstrom Sans. The graphic power of Maelstrom is its combination of massive slabs, thin hairlines and tight spacing. I was curious to know if axing the slabs would diminish its power or remain a convincing typeface.
It took me a while to accept it. We are accustomed to letters being constructed as if they’re functioning in the physical world. Usually vertical strokes are thicker than horizontal, like they’re load-bearing and subject to gravity. But letterforms are simply shapes on a surface, gravity has no effect. I finally understood that the power of Maelstrom Sans isn’t graphic, like Maelstrom. It’s power is how it truly feels perverse, like Gray wrote years ago. The uneasy mix of heavy horizontals and spindly diagonals make it feel fragile, almost delicate — like it could splinter at any moment.
Historically there have been relatively few reversed-stress typefaces, a trend that continues today. For more contemporary information, I highly recommend perusing David Jonathan Ross’s site.
Creating a typeface is a lot of work. During the process many questions are raised. For Maelstrom the hardest question was, “why does this perverse thing need to exist?” After careful deliberation over several more beers, I decided that the best reply is, “because it can.”
1. Kelly’s book is fairly easy to obtain and I highly recommend it. For a taste, visit the University of Texas’s dedicated Rob Roy Kelly page.
2. For the trainspotters, Maelstrom’s sidebearings are 3 UPM each and the hairlines are 6 (which, surprisingly, hold up under many conditions). Still, I don’t recommend setting a dictionary in it.
3. Rest assured, dear reader, that these sketches are indeed authentic. No post-factum scribbling here.