If you attended Paul McNeil’s excellent talk at TypeCon in Seattle last August, you already know that MuirMcNeil’s experimental type designs are informed by a strong sense of history. Cut is a formal departure for the studio, but it draws openly on two distinct lines of development — the so-called “modern” faces of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century designed by Didot and Bodoni, and the twentieth-century geometric constructed faces designed by modernists like Albers, Bayer, and Tschichold.
As a stencil typeface, Cut also shares formal points of reference with that tradition, specifically with mid- to late-nineteenth-century punched-plate stencil designs. The reduced stencil forms help the designers reconcile Cut’s Modernist formal efficiency with its Didone elegance. The design may not be the only answer to the question of whether “two differing points of historical reference could be reconciled harmoniously”, as Muir and McNeil explained to Angela Reichers in an interview for Print last year. But it’s a pretty definitive one all the same, not to mention a convincing demonstration of the argument that all typefaces are (in their various ways) engineered.
One feature of Cut I appreciate is how the bold weight, especially, combines the qualities of high- and low-contrast letters through the stencil forms. The triangle components suggest simultaneously a low-contrast stroke interrupted by a stencil bridge placed parallel to a crossing stroke, and a latin (wedge) serif terminating a thin stroke. The eye favors the low-contrast interpretation in letters like V/v and W/w, and the high-contrast interpretation in M and N, while the arm and leg of the K, for example, resolve in opposite (but not conflicting) directions. The R also shows that by leaving as much space as Cut does between its rectangular stem and its half-ellipse, the latter doesn’t need to serve as both bowl and counter, as it does in (for example) Albers’ Schablonenschrift and Kombinationschrift. Instead, an activated space for engagement is left between round and square, further defined by the positions of the other elements of the letter.
Also, in contrast to its more aggressively modular modernist antecedents (like Albers’), Cut is not only proportionally spaced, but includes optical adjustments to its geometry. Its components are not positioned strictly on a grid, and its modules can be rescaled and realigned from glyph to glyph as needed. But conceptually, the design unquestionably feels very modular. It reuses formal solutions, dimensions, and elements where it can, and context plays a large part in resolving the identity of the more unusual letterforms that result. This gives Cut’s letterforms a playful coherence; the only obvious formal departure is the 7, which gets a tapered leg that feels a little out of place, especially in the bold weight — perhaps it’s there to keep the color of the numerals consistent?
Designing a font like Cut is very much like playing a game. And even though MuirMcNeil didn’t define and apply its rules with the same gusto they used to push their other modular typefaces — especially TenPoint — to their minimalist extremes, Cut still displays its logic with grace and invites the reader to follow along. Put another way: where the appeal of another excellent stencil face, Dala Floda by Paul Barnes and Ben Kiel, relies primarily on an emotional response, Cut also encourages a cerebral one. It’s a beautiful and compelling contribution to the studio’s ongoing project of historically astute and systematic typographic experimentation.