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This font you know from old pulp novels is all over new books

An approachable-witchy 1938 typeface is the hand-cut, calligraphic answer to colder modern sans-serifs.

A photo illustration of book covers. Sarah Lawrence/Vox

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: Lydian is a “humanist” sans-serif typeface. That means it gives the impression of being written by a human hand, but it doesn’t have any of the characteristic flourishing strokes more commonly associated with calligraphy or popular serif fonts (the best known being Times New Roman). It has crisp, knife-cut-looking edges and is most recognizable by its O, which is punched out in the middle by an eye shape that tilts backward.

Lydian was created by designer and children’s book illustrator Warren Chappell in 1938, and named for his wife Lydia. It was used on the cover of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in 1939, and then on the classic children’s novel Homer Price in 1943, but didn’t really find its groove until after World War II.

During the war, serialized novels like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew had super-simple covers with plain white spines and were published on cheap paper, in keeping with the patriotic austerity of the time. But in 1946, artist Rudy Nappi was hired by Nancy Drew publisher Grosset & Dunlap and art director Ted Tedesco to redesign the series’ cover with a dust jacket that was covered all the way around — with a bigger illustration and a more striking overall design. Lydian Bold was chosen as its title font, jump-starting a decade of the font as a go-to for commercial fiction.

In addition to dozens of Nancy Drew titles, Lydian was used on a variety of pulp novels throughout the 1950s — including paperback romances like Paul V. Russo’s This Yielding Flesh (which was subtitled, somewhat incredibly, “She flung herself into a man’s arms to save herself from an unnatural life”). In the 1960s and ’70s, it appeared in the credits for Lucille Ball’s The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, but mostly it faded from popular culture for decades until reappearing briefly, first on the cover Patti Smith’s 1992 memoir Woolgathering and, more importantly, in 1994, in the credits for NBC’s Friends.

Where it is: My first intimate interaction with new-wave Lydian was last year, when I worked briefly at the now-defunct digital magazine Damn Joan. We used the font to convey what we thought of as a highbrow tackiness, or an approachable snarkiness, but sometimes bickered about whether it was “too witchy.”

NBC

In the wake of the site’s demise, I’ve been seeing Lydian everywhere I turn. Most of where I turn is bookstores, not because I’m supremely literate but because I love rows of repeating, colorful things. (Candy stores are also good but not when they dwell too much on chocolate!) Bookstores are Lydian hotbeds.

For example, whether or not you’ve read it, you’ve very possibly seen the cover for Against Everything, a widely acclaimed 2016 collection of essays by n+1 founder Mark Greif, which was designed by Pantheon Books art director and Knopf associate art director Kelly Blair and is also pretty enough to sit at the top of Instagram feeds and near the front of basically any bookstore. It uses black Lydian Bold for the type, set against geometric shapes in bright, trendy colors, combining for a look that’s somehow both super-serious and incredibly whimsical, like Martha Stewart die-cutting elements for a funeral invitation.

It’s fitting, then, that Blair also used Lydian (in red with a drop highlight) for the cover of Judy Blume’s deeply morbid 2015 novel In the Unlikely Event, which is about three plane crashes and, sort of unfortunately, romantic love as the main protective barrier between individuals and the horrors of fate.

Blair’s influence radiated outward quickly, crossing publishing houses and genres: Lydian is used on Andrew Martin’s fiction debut Early Work, released by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux last year, as well as Qing Li’s Forest Bathing, a guide to using trees to make you healthier, published by Penguin Random House. Also: Crystal Hana Kim’s novel If You Leave Me (HarperCollins), Tim Kreider’s essay collection I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (Simon & Schuster), and Mieke Eerkens’s memoir All Ships Follow Me (Picador). It seems to be particularly favored for vaguely momentous occasions: Judy Blume’s first adult novel in 17 years, Richard Flanagan and Leif Enger’s first books in a decade, Marilynne Robinson essay collections destined, as ever, for prestigious honors with long names.

You can also find Lydian at a fancy restaurant in Vienna, in promotional materials for the Thalia Theatre in Germany, and on the hymn boards and complimentary postcards at the super-trendy Line hotel in Washington, DC. The Line also stocks its rooms with issues its in-house magazine Here, which uses Lydian for many of its headers. (Not to be confused with the editorial arm of the luxury luggage company Away, which also uses it.)

The font is all over the website for Curate Labs, a UK-based design studio that does work for Adidas, as well as Wonderland, a Netherlands-based design studio that does work for Nike. It’s also being put to use advertising high-end floral arrangements in Massachusetts, an “experiential cannabis lifestyle brand” in Oregon, “unique wooden items” in Sweden, and limited-run 7-inch vinyl records at Urban Outfitters.

Serra

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: Lydian has an academic implication, possibly because it was used all over official documents for the International Baccalaureate — the liberal arts-centric alternative to high school AP programs — until 2007. In its first era of popularity, it was all pop and pulp, but now it seems reserved for the task of adding just the slightest bit of a smirk to extremely straight-faced endeavors: elegant magazines, important books, experimental theater, and $80 ceramic pipes.

YuJune Park, an assistant professor of communication design at Parsons, says Lydian is “fluid and sharp” and has a spirit that’s “edgy, while winking to the past.” Font trends are faster now, she says, and she attributes this particular wave to a popular reimagining of Lydian released by the typeface foundry Colophon in 2013. That condensed, bold, italic Lydian is a lot less twiggy than the original; the foundry’s website says it’s meant to “appear wrought simultaneously by both pen and machine.” It’s not the version of the font that’s popping up the most, but it was a reminder to the design world that Lydian could be cool.

“I’ve been surprised to see it used for so many cultural institutions,” Park says, referencing the Thalia Theatre and Here. “Although it does make sense from a formal perspective. There’s a sense of history from its calligraphic bones, but it also feels contemporary.”

Lydian also appears on the 2017 European reissue of the DC-based punk band Priests’ early cassette recordings, thanks to drummer Daniele Daniele, who was the only designer available at the time despite her total lack of design experience. “Everyone was busy,” she tells me, “so I was like, can I do it?” For the art, she chose Lydian in white for the band’s name, then chopped it up and repeated it all over a purple, pink, and red geometric background.

Tough Love Records

“Probably where it got implanted in my head, subconsciously, was the Mark Greif book Against Everything,” she guesses. “The art I make at home is similar to that cover, and I read that book and I love it. I bought it just because of the cover.” She points out the “cut edges” of Lydian, adding, “A lot of people think it looks calligraphic, but what I do is cut and fold and weave paper and it looks like cut strips of paper. It reminds me of what I do.” Priests is a feminist band that makes use of traditionally feminine color schemes, often in contrast with fonts that have religious connotations, as on the cover for their debut album Nothing Feels Natural.

“I wanted something classic and feminine,” Daniele says. “I wanted architectural, pretty, nothing macho.” She is a little disappointed to learn that she came in at the middle point of the Lydian trend. “I’m always like, let’s do something new! And then I look around and everyone’s doing it. But I love that cover, it’s so pretty. It’s dated now in this one sense, but it looks good and that’s all that matters.”

New York-based designer Jason Heuer, who teaches typography at the School of Visual Arts, also points out the font’s friendly formality. “This popularity is part of the ongoing trend of seeing the maker’s hand in a product,” he writes in an email. “The contemporary artisanal movement that has been happening for some time — from craft brewing, furniture making, and bee-keeping to hand lettering and printmaking — is a reaction to the digitized world we see every day. I think consumers yearn for something visceral, sincere, and authentic.”

In its last popular period, he argues, it was actually used the same way. It was complex yet reproducible. When it was chosen for the Nancy Drew covers, he speculates, it was in part because it looked enough like grade-school lettering exercises to be familiar to its young adult readers, and in part because it was unique enough to look distinct without resorting to a novelty font or expensive illustrated type.

In both eras, coming out of times of responsible, money-pinched minimalism, Lydian has represented a slight, simple wedding of darkness and fun, of the instant and the painstaking, the mass-produced and the extremely valuable. Here isn’t the first advertorial publication to use it, as it was the title font for the Ford Motor Company’s in-house travel magazine for at least 20 years. Daniele Daniele isn’t the first musician to select it for album art with a religious reference point, as it was also the choice for Loretta Lynn’s 1965 gospel album. It’s not exactly original to note that everything old is new, but it may be very slightly comforting to know that we have felt all these things before, and wanted similar reassurances in other times.