Jung-Lee Type Foundry (J-LTF) is an independent type foundry, based in Amsterdam and run by Jungmyung Lee, a self-taught type designer. Originally from Korea, Jungmyung moved to Finland after her studies and started Helsinki Type Studio, a collaborative virtual type foundry created by four designers. From Finland she moved to the Netherlands to study at the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, where during her studies she started Jung-Lee Type Foundry.
Through J-LTF, Jungmyung’s primary focus is telling stories and exploring the life of typefaces and their emotions. Her practice can be roughly divided into two parts. As a classical type foundry, J-LTF releases “retail fonts,” both created by herself and as collaborative projects with Dutch design legend Karel Martens. The other side of her practice is her display typefaces and the publishing- and performance-based work she creates around the typefaces she produces. The imaginary lives of her typefaces are explored in various medias: they have conversations on exhibition walls, function as outspoken subtitles for her outsourced chain of rap music videos, or are used by artists and writers in her self-published journal Real-Time-Realist, which uses writing as a medium to explore a spectrum of emotions.
In this interview we talk about Jungmyung’s unique approach to type design, her interdisciplinary practice and projects, and the challenges of navigating and constantly shifting between fine arts, design, and typography.
Marie Hoejlund (MH)
In your personal work, you consider a typeface’s emotional features and its “interest besides words.” How did this curiosity develop?
Jungmyung Lee (JL)
Letterforms—the shapes of the stroke, its beginning and ending, thickness, angles, and curves—contain details and expressions that evoke emotions from readers. They impose themselves upon other people, saying, “I am serious,”“I am friendly,” or “I am funny” in a specific tone of voice. “Tone of voice” is a personality or characteristic that enables typefaces to transform how the written word appears on mediums and reach readers through their own emotions and sentiments. I believe verbal communication becomes non-verbal when it gets written down in print or online. Typefaces as one of the nonverbal cues—seen as elements of pictorial composition such as colors, font-sizes, and styles—are made to create a contextual background for linguistic material, and that background may carry subliminal connotations in regard to its forms.
For instance, consider Comic Sans—probably most people, even people outside of the design field, have an opinion about it. It’s designed by Vincent Connare in 1995 for Microsoft. Connare had been given a beta version of Microsoft Bob, a comic software package designed primarily for young users. The package featured a cartoon drawing of dog called Rover, with speech balloons written in Times New Roman—simply a misfit to the comic context he felt, and that is why he designed Comic Sans. Ever since, its friendly, unassuming look has gained a huge popularity, but its omnipresence led it to a harsh backlash and a negative reputation. In 2010, an article appeared on the publishing/daily humor site McSweeney’s written from Comic Sans’s own perspective, redeeming itself, in a short imagined monologue, using phrases like, “I’m Comic Sans, asshole,” “I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.” For me, this whole history is still ongoing, with positive and negative connotations (as it is the old “punching bag” of font jokes). Comic Sans is a good example of why I think typefaces, like people, have their own course of life, their own history, ideas, and feelings.
I believe that typefaces connote certain emotions and care for the text they are “holding,” amplifying the sentiments expressed by the content. Simply put, typefaces, for me, are actors in films and characters in novels, and my practice is to literally give life to them with short biographical stories.
Your exhibition Dialogues at WOW Amsterdam from 2016 is a great introduction to your work because it visualizes your specific interests in typography very directly. Can you share the ideas behind the exhibition?
In my work, I attempt to showcase various typefaces interacting with each other, creating a dialogue which clarifies the intentions behind each typeface. Dialogues consists of three dialogues—as the title implies—between typefaces that I created, unfolding their lives in their own manners. One of them speak about her disappointment in love, while another reflects on the meaning of a life full of agony and, through much effort, attempts to become a better self. The exhibition can be seen as a visual play acted out by typefaces.
As mentioned earlier, for me typefaces have their own courses of life and are gradually formed as characters, like humans. For example, the exhibition contains a monologue by Impact Nieuw, in which the typeface is redeeming his life. Impact’s life story leads to the unveiling of my font Impact Nieuw and the making and life of it. (I released both Impact Nieuw 2012 and Impact Nieuw 2016). To explain the background, I came across an article about Impact which is the most known default “meme” font. It was designed in the ’60s by Geoffrey Lee. Impact is a “hard-hitting header font” that was widely used in ’60s and ’70s, but it somehow became a very hated by the public. I turned this into a story of Impact having a mid-life crisis, which shows a life-changing story of this lonely and dorky figure with a core of self will from a big success from the past—he is a faded star. Impact Nieuw is a makeover version of himself, a final outcome of all his struggles. Impact Nieuw shares the same letter structure as Impact, yet its daring flowery cursive lines, ink-traps, and different width variations are the most significant change from the previously rigid look with its unified set of straight-lined letters and condensed fixed width.
I know that you have very unique starting points for your typefaces. Could you share one of these background stories and tell me about your process of execution?
In 2014, I began exploring new type design tools with Niklas Ekholm (one of the cofounders of Helsinki Type Studio). The research project, entitled Realist Typography (with reference to Object Oriented Ontology), explores shapes of objects’ material properties and their emotions/expressions through letterforms. An easy example would be a needle which is a small thin metal stick with the pointed end. If you design letters by using the shape of the needle, those letters would never look friendly—the result is quite the opposite. They will rather look spiky, hysterical, and cold. These adjectives are emotions of the needle and Realist Typography uses the object’s visual cue directly into type design process.
In 2017, I wrote a short text that indirectly explains how I developed a script font, Spooky Hairy-Authentic, and how Realist Typography is rooted in process. This short writing discusses “things” that meaningfully reappear in a specific moment. In the text, Asian black, thick, shiny, and unbearably coarse soaking wet hair traces bleak past memories, and it becomes letterforms, while containing these specific emotions.
Introductory notes on Spooky Hairy with reference to material realism, object oriented ontology, emotions, emoting and a parasocial relationship with Impact Nieuw.
1] I get out of the shower, the mirror in my bathroom is reasonably foggy. Heavy, stifling moisture hits my cold forehead.
2] The warm, moist air silently meets cool air in the bathroom. The ceiling starts to drip its tears.
3] Non-human (living, non-living, artificial or conceptual) entities are all considered ‘Object’. All these entities experience their own existence by perceiving each other.
4] I stare at my eyes—the fog is in the eyes making their colour seem translucent—between the wet, kinky, wild, black hair draped all over my face, a bead of water trails down the side of my neck, pooling in the hollow of my collarbone.
5] All beings acting on one another. “Condensation, mirror, fog, eyes; or a failed ex-love, Borat and schizophrenia”
6] The diameter of Asian hair is 0.08 to 0.12mm. Significantly thicker than the average European’s hair.
7] Wider, glossier, shinier, straight, coarse and almost invariably black.
8] Some strands of hair dip their feet in the pool of my collarbone, the others hold fast to not fall into it.
9] Letterforms trace the desire of objects, beyond the purview of human conception.
10] The obscure copulation of typography and materialism gives birth to the multiverse of beings.
11] Things are emoting according to their own goals and motivations, which can be deeply affecting. “The world does not exist outside its expressions”
12] The way you emote is drawn by the truth and fantasy of the uninitiated.
I am curious about the relation between your typefaces and your publishing-and performance-based work. Does one come before the other, and in what way do these two areas of your practice affect each other?
Last year, I produced the first issue of Real-Time Realist, an experimental typography, art, and literary journal. It explores the whole range of human affects (emotions) based on psychologist Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. It is edited together with Charlie Clemoes, (writer and researcher) and published under Jung-Lee Type Foundry Press. Publishing Real-Time Realist as a container to experiment with a wide range of emotions has helped me practice the intimate relations between writing, typography, and visual art through working with various artists and writers with their various takes on chosen emotions.
The general focus of my practice lies in the interest of the topics of emotions, materialism, outsourcing, and language, and these subjects are multi-layered by combinations of sentiments, irony, and humor and expressed in a highly subjective and involuted manner. They often result in a form of music—hip-hop—with visuals. A rap song as a whole makes sense for my exploration of narratives; the lyrics in syntax (rap rhyming) with an introduction, development, turn, and conclusion, a set of sounds that follows the passage of the lyrics, and the act itself of high-spirited, yet assertive rapping. Then I add another layer of expressive visuals to underline the feelings of the content. In the actual music making, I explore the logistics of a chain of outsourcing, working with anonymous artists. The process consists of communicating remotely with artists I’ve found on the internet who offer their best service or artistry for a fee, through websites like Fiverr. In this process, my role varies, such as a writer, a caster, a PR agent, a music producer, and a visual director. As I am the only person in the whole process who has an overview of the bigger picture, this orchestrating transactions with anonymous creators can be quite tricky. I use a step-by-step guide for instructing them, and attempting to get their best performance to complete the puzzle, fascinates me.
Speaking of outsourcing briefly, being labeled as Korean or Asian while living in Finland (2010–2013) made me think about who I am and what I am good at. When people ask me something that relates to my background, there is often a fine line between an honest request for my expertise and a presumption that I am good at something simply because of where I am from. With this sort of encounters in mind, I started a project, Rent a Korean, in which I fulfilled tasks that I am expected to be good at. In the beginning, it was inevitable that I was questioned about whether this ironic self-satire is intended to highlight racism. However, I was more interested in the term “service” and the need to offer high-quality work in accordance with your cultural background.
Turning back to music, music pieces as a self-promotional aid/tool for my typefaces or for my publications, accompanied by visuals, reflect a combination of emotions that are deeply distilled. Since publishing Real-Time Realist I did a couple of reading performances of with Lieven Lahaye (artist and writer) and Rondi Park (artist) at San Serriffe in Amsterdam and Tallinn Art Hall in Tallinn, accompanied by the atmospheric set-up with color lights and a smoke machine.
For me, all these practices are to be of support for each other in a circle, and it’s difficult to say what comes first and more important.
Your practice is very much your own. How do you relate to the more classical typographic and design world around you? As you mentioned earlier, you come from a design background rather than having a traditional typographical training: how has this influenced your work?
I studied industrial design when I was in Korea, and I found myself drawn to graphic design at the end of a six-year-long study. I am self-taught in type design and graphic design. The cost of being self-taught was a feeling of insecurity tagging along for years. Though this also has a good side. It enabled me to build my own perspectives on things without conventional knowledge passed through others in the educational regime like the one which I went through in my BA.
I like to read backstories of classical typefaces and their iterations after decades of time. Helvetica, for instance, began its life in 1957—post-war Europe—as Neue Haas Grotesk. From the mid-1960s, after the name changed to Helvetica to be marketable internationally, it began to gain a reputation overseas, and since then, it’s ubiquitous, though its social presence—from strongly corporate to fashionable—has been changing.
Here, as I believe typefaces are like human beings, it’s not only about the personality, but also about the behavior, and sometimes it’s about the voice as well. I am interested in giving life to typefaces by considering those and exploring ways to unfold stories of them.
Your practice feels very related to a fine arts practice, how do you think about and balance this? And in that light, how do you see J-LTF as a business?
I think of myself as a farmer when I make “retail” typefaces. Farmers carry with them a level of service, professionalism, and dedication, and most importantly, they are the bedrock of food supply chain. In that regard, I like to think that I serve raw materials, such as grains, and seeing final appearances, from a bottle of beer to a bowl of breakfast cereals to well-plated Italian pasta, is a compelling reward for toiling for weeks on the curve of the letter S, the perplexing lines of the X, and the way these letters appear next to each other.
However, when I work on the other—formally more exuberant typefaces with their backstories—I rather try to be a cook than a farmer. As mentioned above, this side of my practice is focused on the creation of the narratives of the typefaces, and I work in various mediums. The outcome could be a piece of music, video, a publication, or mural.
Returning to the question, theoretically, balancing out these two should be quite simple. I try to work on designing a couple of retail typefaces for half a year, and the remaining time of that year I work on short biographical stories of the typefaces, make music and videos, and publish Real-Time Realist. Though connecting these two bridges is quite difficult, as it feels like I need to pay many tolls by going back and forth to each bridge. The retail typefaces require time to be developed, and half a year is not just quite enough. Also, it’s not easy to set the certain division when things are all done on one side so I can move on to the other; often times I lose momentum.
From the beginning of next year, I am going to start a membership scheme to make a distinction between the retail typefaces and the typefaces that are my personal projects, that are not produced to be consumed, but collected, almost like artworks. I hope this way I can achieve a better balance between the business part of a type design practice and my autonomous work.