The Fence Brings a New Look to the Staid World of Current Affairs Mags – Eye on Design
I first encountered The Fence in a small store stuffed with magazines of every variety. The corner of Issue 1 peeked out from the bottom of a stack, its white paper glaring against the surrounding photographic covers. I went home with probably the only magazine in the entire store devoid of a single photograph.
Legendary London-based fashion and culture magazine The Face winkingly describes The Fence as “London’s second-best magazine: an independent quarterly that publishes witty essays, sketches, investigations and insider accounts of powerful institutions.” Established in 2019, The Fence is part of a tradition of satirical current affairs magazines like Spy and Private Eye, but its four sections—“Facts,” “Features,” “Fiction,” and “Etc.”— span topics as varied as pop culture, current events, humor and literature.
The ambitious editorial mission is supported by a visual identity from Studio Mathias Clottu, who mirrors The Fence’s omnivorous attitude with a penchant for visual references that nod to historical lettering, typography, and publication design. However, The Fence looks and feels completely like its own entity rather than a revival, homage, or pastiche of other publications thanks, in large part, to a clever, iterative typographic treatment that has continually grown in-step with the magazine’s ever-evolving content.
Issue 10, the most recent issue of The Fence, is a slim volume printed on a lightweight coated newsprint in just two colors: jet black and a bright, rich orange. Swiss-born, London-based designer Clottu established the visual direction for The Fence from the first issue, with a pared-back system of two typefaces, two-color printing, and a refined grid. “We wanted to have something as calm and solid as possible that allows more bespoke and eccentric moments,” he said. The primary display typeface is a heavy sans-serif designed with Adrien Vasquez of Abyme Type Foundry, a longtime collaborator. “The roots of the typeface are a mixture of what we would see in early, mass-produced newspapers,” Clottu explained. “It has something about it that a lot of designers would recognize, but also references wood-block printing.”
“We wanted to have something as calm and solid as possible that allows more bespoke and eccentric moments.”
The typeface is reminiscent of Schmalfette Grotesk, used in Twen, the West-German magazine designed by Willy Fleckhaus. However, Clottu explains that, “Adrien and I were particularly drawn to the rawer and more primitive Antique Presse by Ladislas Mandel, from the French Deberny Peignot type foundry.” Though the influences for The Fence’s custom typeface are firmly rooted in 20th century print technology, Clottu and Vasquez developed it as a variable typeface, addressing the constraints of a 21st century magazine that publishes on the web. The typeface situates The Fence firmly in the tradition of publication design, but goes beyond a mere revival of Antique Presse in its adaptability to contemporary editorial needs.
This “something that a lot of designers would recognize” is a clear affinity for the typography of Twen, the mid-century West-German magazine designed by Willy Fleckhaus. There’s an unmistakable resemblance between the Schmalfette Grotesk used for Twen‘s display type and the bespoke typeface of The Fence. Also subtly reminiscent of Twen are the magazine’s grid and italicized subheadings of articles, but The Fence’s visual references go beyond one magazine and read like a deep-cut of great publication design. For example, the cover of Issue 6 presents an illustration of a William Blake drawing. Clottu also looked to the playful typographic covers and illustrations of French literary magazine La Quinzaine Littéraire, whose subtle influence can be seen through The Fence. Through Clottu’s careful attention to type setting, grid structure, and image-making, the magazine embraces the texture of its many-layered references without feeling derivative.
Though Clottu and Vasquez developed The Fence’s signature blocky display typeface early on, recent issues have featured variations on the original with many of the newer typefaces being created on a per-issue basis. Clottu and Vasquez use each variation as an opportunity to address their own interests in historical lettering, display typography, and technical approaches, as well as develop ideas from the editorial team.
For Issue 10, the custom typeface was inspired by a biscuit, in reference to the holiday season. Since Issue 6, Clottu has used the back cover of the magazine almost as a type specimen, with a witticism or in-joke from the editorial team providing the content. For Issue 8, the custom typeface was dripping. “We forgot the crossword… Sorry,” read the back cover, mock-mournfully.
The Fence’s editorial attitude and Clottu’s visual instincts are mutually supportive, both drawing on humor and daily visual culture, and spurring the other on to new interplays of language and form. It would certainly have been possible to typeset every issue of the magazine using the custom typeface developed for Issue 1, but Clottu is firmly set on an even more ambitious route, introducing readers to a palette of references and a graphic attitude as sophisticated as the writing published inside the magazine. “London’s Second Best Magazine” may only be a temporary title.