Cooper Black: The Typeface that Binds

Cooper Black
Sketches for Cooper Black, Wing Modern MS Cooper.
"Pet Sounds"
The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds."
Bert Cooper
Bert Cooper, from AMC's "Mad Men."

Oswald Cooper is best known for the Cooper Black typeface, which was released in 1922 and has since become a mainstay in Microsoft Word and other word processing programs. The first truly wide-selling American typeface, Cooper Black was the most ubiquitous font in advertising throughout the first half of the twentieth century, even showing up in contexts in which an aversion to advertising (or the appearance of such) was cultivated: the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” album art, for example.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, the advertising field was changing; designers began to orient their work around the principle of minimalism, responding to the notion—novel at the time—that type should be a neutral conduit for corporate messaging. This led to the rise of fonts like Helvetica, with its clear, measured angles, and the fall of expressive fonts like Cooper Black. (From this standpoint, perhaps it is no accident that Bert Cooper, the relic of a bygone age of advertising in AMC’s Mad Men, bears the Cooper name). Today the Cooper Black font is deployed primarily as shorthand for quirkiness, famously appearing, for example, in the opening credits of the television show “Louie,” whose title character’s rotund physique and gauche social presence are meant to be reflected by the font.

Not that this is an ineffective or uninteresting use of Cooper Black, but it threatens to impoverish our understanding of, and to belie the full range of communicative possibilities inherent in, the typeface. But where does this expressive range come from? And if a font has a particular inherent expressiveness, how can it also express many things?

Paul Standard, in his contribution to The Book of Oz, a retrospective tribute to Cooper published in 1949, lamented the growing industrialization of the advertising profession and the factory-like production by teams of specialists working in concert but also in competition with one another. According to Standard, "Few indeed nowadays are the ads or booklets produced by a single hand or brain. Most of them bear the violent marks of too many hands--and look like an operation performed by a band of specialists, each eager to leave some trace of his unique abilities." Oswald Cooper, by contrast, created typefaces as a singular artist. The design possibilities of Cooper Black, therefore, are not exhausted by the time one encounters the font; representing the unified vision of an individual rather than a patchwork of contributions based on market research and discrete philosophical agendas, Cooper Black seems to gain strength and variety from the intimacy with which it is regarded. This is perhaps why you feel something when you see Cooper Black.

The Cooper-related materials in the Newberry collection consist of Cooper's limited correspondence and the sketches, drawings, and proofs bearing witness to his creative process. Cooper worked on Cooper Black for three years, and the sketches for the typeface, some of which are on display in The Newberry 125 exhibition, reveal the amount of revision that went into this apparently informal design. In drawings from 1919, for example, one can see Cooper experimenting with weight distribution, the contrast between thin and heavy strokes, and the angles composing the letterforms--until he refined Cooper Black into what it is today.