In Ya Face

The gentrification font we love to hate. 

You don’t have to be in the publishing industry to appreciate typeface — it’s all around us: signs, logos, packaging, icons… They’re a part of our scenery, and we register their shapes and colors unconsciously. Different fonts say different things: Hallmark’s script speaks to tradition, whereas Burger King’s fat lettering suggests indulgence.

Fonts can connect to different times and trends, too. In fact, one typeface has lately been gaining recognition as a universal symbol of gentrification, a ridiculously popular sans serif known as Neutraface.

You know the one. It’s sleek, structured, and minimalist. It’s everywhere: on the logos of trendy cafes, hipster clothing stores, boutique hotels, co-working spaces, organic grocery stores, and the address sign of that high-rise apartment complex that just went up around the corner.

Designed by Christian Schwartz in 2002, it hearkens the mid-century modernist architecture of Richard Neutra, who perfected the signature “LA” look, of flat-roofed houses tucked into hillsides. Neutraface is based on the distinctive typeface he favored for numbers/signage on his iconic buildings. Schwartz consulted with Neutra’s son, Dion, to create lowercase letters, punctuation, italics, etc  — the whole text font family —  in the same clean, geometric style. It’s supposed to evoke balance, simplicity, refinement.

But does it really?  🤔 🤔🤔

For many graphic designers, Neutraface is not just a bad typeface, it’s a terrible one. Some of the reasons they give:

  • It’s boring. Seriously, have you ever seen a more bland and generic typeface? It’s so clean, it’s devoid of personality, flair, or charm. It’s like a robot trying to imitate human handwriting: perfect, but yet cold and soulless.
  • It’s overused. Neutraface is so popular that it has become a cliché. It’s the obvious choice for anyone who wants to look trendy and sophisticated without having to think too much. It’s the typeface equivalent of avocado toast.
  • It’s a signal of gentrification, of a community changing from outside in. It’s the font that tells neighbors that rent is going up and favorite local businesses are closing down. It’s often the font that says, “You’re not welcome here anymore.”
  • It’s disrespectful to Richard Neutra, who was a visionary architect whose buildings harmonized with their environment and human needs. He was not a fan of superficial aesthetics or commercialism, and supported affordable housing. He would probably hate what Neutraface stands for today.

Neutra Nextdoor: The Hassrick House

Photo: Jefferson College of Architecture and the Built Environment Facebook page

If you’re a fan of the simplicity and elegance of Neutra’s architecture (or would like to learn more about it), you’re in luck — of only three Neutra houses in the city, one of his finest examples is open to the public Northwest Philly. The Hassrick House is a 5-bedroom, 3-bath home, built for the sculptor Kenneth Hassrick and his family in 1958, on three acres of land off Schoolhouse Lane (a wedding present).

Set in a naturalized landscape with lush plantings and water features, the stunning residence seamlessly connects indoor and outdoor spaces. The house also has some unique features, such as a fireplace that can be rotated to face different rooms, a hidden bar cabinet, and a skylight that illuminates the staircase. Its bright open floor plan showcases organic materials throughout.

Long story short, by 2008 the home had been abandoned and was in a state of disrepair when it was purchased and fully restored by private owners. Jefferson University bought it in 2017, and it’s now the Center for the Preservation of Modernism on their East Falls campus, where it hosts tours and exhibitions that highlight the significance of modernism. It’s also the heart of their new graduate program in historic preservation.

4126 Cherry Lane
East Falls, Philadelphia

To visit Hassrick House, reach out to Jefferson’s College of Architecture and the Built Environment or watch their social media for the next open showing. You can also admire it from the street, but make sure you stay on the Jefferson side of Cherry Lane as it’s a private road, and neighbors often scold strangers on sight. Hmmm… perhaps Neutraface is an appropriate gentrification font after all. 🫢

Neutraface in Your Neighborhood? Reach out to like-minded residents and organizations pushing back on gentrification, like the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities and the Community Justice Land Trust.

⚖️ Neutrafeud! Rite Aid vs Licensing Rights ⚖️ 

In March, a Delaware-based design studio sued Rite Aid, claiming that the pharmacy chain violated a licensing agreement by using their Neutraface font in a $700 million rebranding campaign. House Industries alleged that Rite Aid used the Neutraface font in their new logo despite an agreement explicitly forbidding it. Rite Aid’s brand refresh in May 2020 showcased their new blue-and-green logo, which relied heavily on House’s Neutraface font. “House’s font designs are intended to evoke a mood or aesthetic,” their complaint read, “… and not an exclusive association with any one company.”

This suit is still pending, but meanwhile — what do you think? Most logos, indeed, use text that’s been customized specifically for the business. Why might a corporation as big as Rite Aid rebrand themselves with a free font that’s found everywhere? Is the ubiquity of Neutraface, maybe, what they’re trying to tap into? A familiar font might be an unconscious shortcut to convey trust and reliability to customers.

Are we onto something here..? Does the Neutraface font trigger any reactions or associations for you personally? Please leave your comments below.

About Karl Von Lichtenhollen 68 Articles
Dr. Karl Von Lichtenhollen is a doctor and fellow of the Applied Knowledges at Blödsinn Universität in Munich, Germany (1973). He was born and raised in the Nether Regions area of Holland, near Tainte, which he refers to fondly as a "Dutch Wonderland." Dr. Lichtenhollen once shared a houseboat in Amsterdam with the cast of a geriatric production of HAIR, inspiring his famous essay, "That Which I Cannot Unsee." He is a three-time recipient of the "Iron Feather" award. His hobbies include ascots, Highland wool sweaters and his pipe. He has a cat.

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