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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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‘Profound Treachery’ in Font Business

MANHATTAN (CN) - Two of the world's most famous font makers have gone to court in a bitter fight in which font designer Tobias Frere-Jones claims his business partner Jonathan Hoefler strung him along for years without making him an equal partner in the company.

Frere-Jones sued Hoefler in New York County Supreme Court, demanding $20 million. Frere-Jones has designed dozens of type faces, including the one used on Barack Obama's "Hope" campaign poster. Hoefler handled the business end of the business.

"This is an action to enforce an agreement made between plaintiff Frere-Jones and defendant Hoefler to become equal owners in The Hoefler Type Foundry, Inc. ('HTF'), presently known and operating as Hoefler & Frere-Jones," the complaint states. "Their agreement was that Frere-Jones would contribute his name, reputation, industry connections and design authority, as well as certain fonts he had already developed and owned or would own when he left his former company (referred to as the 'Dowry Fonts'), valued in excess of $3 million, in exchange for half of Hoefler's equity in HTF and 'his name on the door.' Frere-Jones fully performed all of his agreed obligations, and he moved to New York to do so.

"However, in the most profound treachery and sustained exploitation of friendship, trust and confidence, Hoefler accepted all of the benefits provided by Frere-Jones while repeatedly promising Frere-Jones that he would give him the agreed equity, only to refuse to do so when finally demanded."

In the complaint, Frere-Jones describes himself as "one of the world's leading and most recognized type designers," the creator of more than 800 fonts used in newspapers, magazines, advertising and websites. He has served on the faculty of the Yale School of Art and lectured on typeface design and typography at various universities.

Once competitors, Frere-Jones and Hoefler became collaborators and eventually close friends in the 1990s, while Frere-Jones worked for the Boston-based The Font Bureau, according to the lawsuit.

Frere-Jones says Hoefler approached him about working together in 1999, and proposed to make him an equal partner in his New York-based company The Hoefler Type Foundry.

He claims Hoefler promised him 50 percent equity in the business in exchange for Frere-Jones' expertise, reputation, industry connections, and the rights to some fonts he had designed at Font Bureau.

Frere-Jones left Font Bureau and moved to New York to join Hoefler's company in 1999, in exchange for the promised equity and "his name on the door," the complaint states.

The fonts Frere-Jones agreed to transfer included profitable designs such as the Whitney retail font family, and were worth more than $3 million as of March 2004, according to the lawsuit.

Frere-Jones claims his design and creation of new fonts and training of junior designers helped boost Hoefler's business and brought it recognition.

He says that in the early 2000s Hoefler introduced Frere-Jones as his partner, promoted the partnership to industry and media contacts, and renamed the business Hoefler & Frere-Jones Typography.

Relying on the oral agreement, Frere-Jones transferred the rights to his fonts to Hoefler for $10 and worked to build the business, according to the lawsuit.

But, according to Frere-Jones, Hoefler never made good on the promise to transfer half of the business ownership to him.

"Upon information and belief, on the many occasions that Hoefler put off Frere-Jones, he intended to, and did, dupe Frere-Jones and the graphic design world into thinking that there was an equal partnership (as reflected by the trade name then being used and as repeatedly expressed both orally and in writing publicly and internally within HTF)," the lawsuit states. (Parentheses in complaint).

Frere-Jones claims Hoefler promised to make the transfer soon after the launch of a new product called "Cloud," an online font delivery service geared toward web designers, but continued to push back the date for the launch.

In early 2013, Frere-Jones says, Hoefler refused to let him see the company's financial records.

"The Cloud finally launched on July 1, 2013," the complaint states.

"On the day the Cloud launched, Frere-Jones asked Hoefler to set a date to conclude their deal as Hoefler had promised, which Hoefler scheduled on July 31, 2013.

"On July 31, 2013, Frere-Jones followed up with Hoefler, and Hoefler responded to Frere-Jones, 'Stop it. I'm working on it. Stop harassing me.'

"On Oct. 21, 2013, for the first time, Hoefler explicitly reneged on his personal agreement to transfer 50 percent of HTF to Frere-Jones.

"Upon information and belief, Hoefler transferred to his wife, [HTF Chief Operating Officer Carleen] Borsella, the shares that he had promised to Frere-Jones and Hoefler and Borsella are now the owners of 100 percent of HTF."

Frere-Jones says he never would have left Font Bureau to work for Hoefler's business as an employee.

He seeks more than $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages for breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud.

He is represented by Fredric Newman with Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney.

The Typography issued a statement Friday, calling Frere-Jones "a longtime employee of The Hoefler Type Foundry, Inc."

"Following his departure, Tobias filed a claim against company founder Jonathan Hoefler," general counsel Michael Burke said in the statement. "Its allegations are not the facts, and they profoundly misrepresent Tobias's relationship with both the company and Jonathan. Whether as The Hoefler Type Foundry, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, or Hoefler & Co., our company has always been a great place for designers, which is why it's always been and will continue to be a great place for design.

"It goes without saying that all of us are disappointed by Tobias's actions. The company will vigorously defend itself against these allegations, which are false and without legal merit."

Fonts have been a big, if rather obscure, business since Gutenberg; the public has taken an interest in them since the rise of Apple Computer, which offered its users a variety of fonts. Other companies felt they had to go along to compete. The off-the-shelf computer on which this article was written offers 212 choices of font, each one also available in bold, italic, and bold italic, and a variety of point sizes.

The incredible variety of fonts available today can be traced back to Steve Jobs' insistence that Apple computers offer a variety of fonts. Jobs insisted because, in his year at Reed College, he took a calligraphy class from Lloyd Reynolds, which stimulated Jobs' interest in fonts.

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