Phil Martin, 1923–2005

Written by Stephen Coles on January 17, 2006

Phil MartinComedian, writer, radio host, cartoonist, type designer, WWII bomber, and piano bar crooner Phil Martin passed away last October. I’m so glad Mark Simonson recorded some of Phil’s memories and thoughts in their 2004 conversation, but I always thought the man’s story and delightfully offbeat personality deserved a more substantial documentary, perhaps on film.

Phil was peppy, as always, up to our last communication, but I hadn’t heard from him for several months. No amusing emails about his adventurous past, no nutty language trivia or playfully off-color jokes. I feared the worst, and it was confirmed when JLT and I checked his site last weekend. Still, he lived a very full life. He did everything he wanted to do, and with gusto. Phil Martin was the definition of “a character” and I am one of many who will miss him.

I can’t think of a better way to remember Phil — besides revisiting his eccentric body of font work, of course — than playing a few of his vocal interpretations of old standards. Listen to “Sweet Lorraine”, “Shanty Town”, and “I Thought About You” from his Jukebox.

[Update: Unfortunately, Phil Martin’s website went offline a few months after his passing. There is an cache of his site, but some of the following links are no longer available. — SJC]

See also: Credit overdue.


  1. Peter Bain says:

    Um, I never met the man, and have no axe to grind with those who find him interesting. I think his comments on the business of type and protecting intellectual property were spot on.

    That said, most of his typefaces, like Martin Gothic, were derivative and not alays well drawn. Helserif reminds us that an idea is not always worth making into a typeface.

  2. Norbert Florendo says:

    I’m sorry I never met Phil as well, though we communicated a few times when I released licensed designs from TypeSpectra for Compugraphic. His Jolly Roger, Didoni and Martinique were among the first display faces I specified for projects as a designer fresh out of college.

    I also had one of the old Alphabet Innovation specimen binders then that I would pour through tracing his letterforms for practice. There was something very affectionate about his faces for me.

    So glad he also lives on in your memories.

  3. most of his typefaces … were derivative and not always well drawn.

    Most type design is derivative to some degree, but I know what you mean.

    When I prepared to do the interview in 2004, I compiled a list of the fonts released by Phil’s two companies and categorized them in terms of originality. I was surprised at how many were closely based on existing faces. I had first encountered his type catalogs as a young designer in the mid-1970s and didn’t realize this at the time.

    Still, there are very few cases where his version is indistinguishable from the source — in other words, just a knock-off. He nearly always added something new or different — a different x-height, swashes, bi-form or alternate characters — the kind of thing that nowadays would be called a remix. Another thing he did was to create bolder weights for popular faces — something Headliners and PLINC also did. The most interesting of his faces are the hybrids, where he took characteristics from two different existing faces to create something new. Heldustry and Criterion are good examples. But when you look at the completely original faces he did — roughly a third of his output — they are technically not as good as the more derivative stuff. This was also surprising to me.

    Things were different back then. A lot of the stuff he did was perfectly acceptable at the time, but you would never get away with it nowadays if you want to be respected as a type designer. Phil was not a great type designer, but he was a great remixer.

    My own experience with Phil — mainly through email and the odd phone call — was as a force of nature. Stephen asked me to do the interview and I agreed. But it was Phil who made it happen. On my own, it might still be on the back burner. He pestered me until it was done, and I’m glad he did. It turned out to be a lot of fun (though the comments it inspired got a little hairy). It was the same with Grad, his last type design. I had mixed feelings about it as a typeface, but he kept after me about it. I got it done and had fun doing it.

    I knew his health must be deteriorating when he stopped pestering me. Phil, wherever you are, don’t worry. Frizbo is coming along nicely.

  4. Peter Bain says:

    MS: Most type design is derivative to some degree, but I know what you mean.

    To be sure, I’ll certainly defend a designer’s right to pursue a legitimate revival, one that’s not a copy or a knockoff, intended to take the place of the original. Rather, I guess, I was expressing some reaction about how Phil’s work will stack up against others from the same time. As you pointed out, plenty of firms and lettering artists, including Techni-Process, added heavier weights, italics etc.

    To pick examples, Retrospect and Jolly Roger still look distinctive, so they’re stronger designs. The first time I remember noticing Phil’s name was when he was boasting of how many typefaces he had created in some late ’80s typesetting publication, when the designs he was touting were things like Martin Gothic, Scenario and Souvenir Gothic, the kinds of stuff any competent type designer ought to be able to make given the original. So, as a buyer and typeface specifier, I was a bit skeptical from the first. Not that he wasn’t prolific…

    Who are other designers that don’t get mentioned much (online) but were productive during the same period and are much more important? How about Freeman Craw, Arthur Baker (work with Photo-Lettering, VGC, Headliners and on his own), and Ronald Arnholm — his humanist sans in the mid 60s may be as important as Hans Meier’s Syntax. So Phil Martin has his place, I’m just not as big a fan, I guess.

  5. Hrant says:

    > you would never get away with
    > it nowadays if you want to be
    > respected as a type designer.

    Respected by other type designers, maybe. But really, who cares what we think. When it comes to respect by graphic designers at large, unfortunately good craft and solid ethics go largely unnoticed; books (like the recent Type Specific) are filled with money-making and dearly-loved fonts that suck, and often aren’t even fonts!

    > Ronald Arnholm � his humanist sans
    > in the mid 60s may be as important
    > as Hans Meier�s Syntax.



  6. Peter Bain says:

    Sample? Re: Arnholm Sans Medium. Try any VGC catalog, or those issued by shops that had their equipment. Also this VGC thread.
    And a tip of the hat to Phil’s Eightball…

  7. Is this Similar to Arnholm Sans?

  8. Hrant says:

    Sadly I don’t have a VGC catalog. And I skimmed that thread for a sample, but I guess it doesn’t include one? So if anybody can provide a scan or photo, that would be cool.

    Legacy: if that’s a remake of Arnholm Sans, then in the 60s that would have been a big deal, I agree.


  9. norbert florendo says:

    I have a single sample of Arnholm Sans Med. (the name is set in the face). I’m not near my scanner today but I can take a quick digital snap later.

    I can tell you right now that the lower case “a” and “e” are treated a bit different from ITC Legacy Medium, other characters are somewhat similar to each other

  10. norbert florendo says:

    Arnholm Sans Med. from VGC Phototypositor catalog 1972

    ITC Legacy Sans from

  11. Maybe you fellas can take this discussion to Typophile if you don’t intend to wrap it back around to Mr. Martin’s life or work.

  12. Peter wrote:

    …other designers that don�t get mentioned much (online) but were productive during the same period and are much more important…

    I completely agree. Phil is important to me personally because he was the first type designer I knew of. I saw one of his catalogs when I was in high school. It raised my awareness of type and of the possibility of type design as a thing one could do. It didn’t take long before I found other (better) role models. Getting to know him in the past few years was both disillusioning and encouraging. I learned that his work was more flawed than I remembered, but I also have a better understanding of human side of the font business from someone who was in the middle of it.

  13. Dirk Brandts says:

    Aww, cripes, I loved Phil and all of his work. Sad news, but not unexpected.

  14. I see that quite a few of Phil Martin’s fonts are available in digital form through MyFonts.

  15. Hrant says:

    I’m wondering: what do people consider to be Phil’s single most significant typographic contribution?


  16. Peter Bain says:

    Maybe Eightball or Retrospect; but Mark is the recognized authority in this area, so whatever he says goes.

  17. Helvetica Flair? :-)

    Seriously, Phil might (and did) claim otherwise, but I don’t think he made a big impact on typography as such. The display film font business dealt in typographic fad and fashion. It was by nature ephemeral. Phil was one of a number of individuals who rode the Typositor train for the ten or fifteen years it ran.

    If Phil made an impact, it was more in the area of business and marketing. He was a pioneer in the irreverent and whimsical attitude he brought to the creation, naming and marketing of his fonts, paving the way for people like Chank or even House Industries.

    As a type designer, I think of him as being a bit like George Barris, the kustom kar king who gave us the Batmobile and the Monkee-Mobile.

  18. Norbert Florendo says:

    > I�m wondering: what do people consider to be Phil�s single most significant typographic contribution?

    Maybe the love of letters and that there is room for whimsy in what we do. Phil was not the first designer I became aware of, nor his typefaces, but as I mentioned above, they gave me reason to pause, look, enjoy and occasionally use (mostly for heads and funky logos). If he did that for anyone else out there… need I say more?
    Thanks again, Phil.

  19. Marshall McClure says:

    I can’t tell, through all the chat, if this was the Phil of Phil’s, the type house in DC in the ’70s? Before PostScript, before digital.
    If so, his alphabetical section headers in his specimen book were great!
    If so, he must have lost a bundle when PostScript came in and folks could rip off type designers and foundries….

  20. Marshall – You’re thinking of the late Phil Baldus of Phil’s Photo (now Phil’s Fonts). Ralph Smith took the reins of the company in the ’90s. Thanks to Tamye Riggs of SOTA for the info.

  21. Bill Davis says:

    What sad news! Phil was everything that Stephen wrote at the beginning – and more! He really was a talented, creative person who definitely loved life to the fullest.

    I first came into contact with Phil back in 1991 or 92 when I was with Monotype in Chicago. One of our customers gave Phil my name, and then next thing I knew I was receiving regular faxes with his newsletter reporting on an amazing mix of topics from typography to his antics at his retirement community in Florida. We brainstormed a variety of ideas to revive some of his fonts, but they never materialized.

    When he found out we were selling fonts on CD-ROM he suggested we include a soundtrack of his songs from his caberet act… sorry Phil that we never pulled this off. It would have been a hoot! Hope you found a new stage in Heaven to continue your act.


  22. Bob Trogman says:

    Phil was a personal friend as well as his family. He led a tragic life in spite of his great talent. His son Phil Jr. committed suicide and his wife Yvonne did suddenly of cancer. My wife and I attended her funeral. I was always in contact with him. As a fellow font maker we spent many hours on his houseboat drinking Martinis and talking type.

    Fortunately, I have a recorded interview made in 1977.

    I really miss him.

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