Brutish Beauty

The Making of Corsair

Corsair was designed to be used; it’s a rugged ride, a Sharpie pressing in as it moves along coarse paper. Inspired by the lettering on a collection of leaflets intended to help discern WWII fighter aircraft, it has a look that goes far beyond military maneuvering. Like life in the scenes that served as its inspiration, Corsair has a weathered feel; a bruised, pock-marked carpenter’s pencil left out for too long. The unflagging typeface is a natural fit whether used for album liner notes in Alabama, the end credits on Red Westerns, or amidst the pages of Japanese Americana magazines. Rough yet precise, it’s a typeface that’s likely to be the penmanship of a meticulous mechanic. Yet Corsair, for all that grit, looks great gilded in gold on the window of a haberdashery — or a bottle of bourbon on a banquet table. It’s boundless.

The Original Commission

The original commission came from Best Made Co., which wanted to pull the essence of those leaflets into a typeface that could travel with the company’s outdoor gear and designed-for-life aesthetic. However, the original text marking the illustrations was hurriedly sketched, it was meant to be functional, efficient… not used for a longer copy or polished layouts. At first, looking at the untidy, blocky hand-written caps in front of me, I hesitated, thinking, “Is Best Made really requesting I remake Comic Sans?” and “How can we take these lowbrow, scattered letters and reform them without it seeming horrendously skeuomorphic?” It felt like an intractable problem, which, turns out to be my favorite kind.

Close-ups from two of the original Major F.R. Hazard leaflets, for the ME-110 and the Mitsubishi 96.

The Pirate’s in the Details

In manifesting the typeface, we first started with the spare parts that seemed like they might work. Often, when you’re unsure of an article’s beauty, the trick is often to just get closer, look longer. So I focused in: gravitating towards the narrower letters, mining out a truly unique ampersand, being charmed by a straight descender on one of the Q’s, or getting curious about the U’s that were constructed out of three careful separate strokes leading to barely a curve at the bottom. Pan sifting for the glittering nuggets of intriguing type.

It was coming together, but even after a few drafts the typeface was still a little too… pedestrian. So, we paused to dive even further in. Taking a magnifying loupe and paying particular attention to the asymmetrical way the ink spread from the symmetrical marker, then redrawing every angled tip. Once everything seemed more-or-less aligned, we went through and added what any natural handwrit font should have: variations. Each letter, number, bit of punctuation now existing in three forms, modulating and alternating for an amorphous, natural feel. Thus, by honing in and fine-tuning the details, balancing the right amount of repetition with subtle variability, we were able to take an idiosyncratic scrawl and carefully elevate it.

Partial glyph snap of Corsair’s 2300 or 2500-so glyphs.

Global Scripts

Before hitting the retail shelves, Corsair was extended to, depending on the count, 2,300 to 2,500 glyphs, covering Cyrillic (inevitable for any typeface I touch), Greek, and full extended Latin ranging in coverage from the African Continent to the islands of Vietnam. Why take something imagined for a North American camp-gear company and adapt it for other pockets of the world? Wherever I end up traveling further out, and going in to discuss type: a conference in Thessaloniki, a design meet-up in Nairobi, a similar theme emerges: a request for simpler, more casual fonts. Something relaxed, something hand-written, something that feels less… imperial. What is at once assumed to be the ubiquitous history of type, the serif and the sans, the broad-nibbed pen and the carefully held chisel, is actually fairly limited. Many scripts come from traditions of different tools and different use-cases, and they want quality font options to reflect that. Corsair’s a careful, studied, meticulous design that references a more low-brow tool: a pointed marker pen. Thus, it made sense that it would travel the seas, its simple and unassuming edge navigating forward.

A corner of Corsair’s moodboard, incl. LAND, RRL, Free & Easy, Forrestbound, Burberry, LEE.

Burnishing Corsair’s Brand

For the name, we pulled from the source: the planes from the original tabloids. Skipping over the ones that looked like an open tin of alphabet soup — letter, number, letter, letter, number… — until landing on the Corsair F4U. It was perfect, a slightly rowdy and coarse word used to describe a plane that Wikipedia hailed as a superior machine compared to its contemporaries. The copywriting about the typeface was hammered into place with language that nodded to the oeuvre of Rudy Wurlitzer and the works of Cormac McCarthy, writers whose tone infused our own mental anthropomorphizing of Corsair.

The pattern of the release poster, assembled from the em-dashes and vertical bars, arranged to evoke to vintage bandanas, quilted Burberry jackets, and Japanese magazine layouts alike. The filler copy — names of musicians ranging from Outlaw Country to Folk — were then fastidiously hand-pruned and weaved to fit the askew pattern. With the addition of illustrations, and printed in indigo and silver on uncoated paper, the poster sits fittingly at ease whether on the shelves of a Ralph Lauren’s Double RL outpost, or on a coffee table of a dusty Lake Tahoe cabin. A slightly Western look that could have originated anywhere — and, like ranch-hands and aviators themselves, keen to travel much further.

Typeface release poster, available from Rosetta in February. Designed by Samarskaya & Partners.

Corsair corroborates the notion that something based on a simple, rough design can be elegant and evocative, can look hand-written and also measured. Its functional design means it can be put to use in nearly any environment, from a local eatery to a global trade-show; its slow, hand-made appeal translating with ease.

Corsair can be licensed via Rosetta Type Foundry. Posters will be available, gratis, early next week. Keep an eye on rosettatype or samarskaya on Twitter for the unfolding.

Samarskaya & Partners: Azamat Kodzoev, Micha Strukov, James Todd, Angela Watercutter. Rosetta Type Foundry: David Březina, Anna Giedryś, Mathieu Réguer, Andrea Churchill Wong.