Maelstrom Design Information
7 January 2014
Maelstrom is a reversed-stress typeface. It’s a “perverse” typeface, to be sure, but that is exactly its charm. It belongs to a genre that seems destined to be perpetually a typographic outsider—never really fashionable yet never fully abandoned.
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 (above):
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 the exact reproduction below
and was immediately smitten. The razor-thin side bearings and serif counters are striking—narrow strips of light sparkling through an angular mass of black. This was precisely the effect I wished to capture with Maelstrom. To really ramp up the contrast the hairlines needed to be just as thin, which would allow me to cram in as much fine detail as possible! ² I figured that no typographer in their right mind would ever use this style for small sizes.
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.
Maelstrom’s first rodeo was for T. J. Tucker’s Texas Monthly redesign, debuting in September 2012. It’s used intelligently and sparingly, as one would expect from Tucker. My favourite instance is the ever-changing illustrative opener for the “Touts” section. A graphic typeface receiving a graphic treatment.
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. He lists 19.
Creating a typeface is a lot of work. During the process many questions are raised. For Maelstrom the hardest part was answering the question “Why does this perverse thing need to exist?” After careful deliberation over several more beers, I decided that the best reply was “Because it can.”
1. Kelly’s book is fairly easy to obtain and I highly recommend it. For a taste of the contents, have a scratch around on the University of Texas’s dedicated Rob Roy Kelly site.
2. For the trainspotters, Maelestrom’s side bearings 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.