A Wild Discovery: Safari, the “Where the Wild Things Are” Font

”Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, book cover title set in Safari Medium Semi-Condensed font by The Headliners, shown with promotional postcard

Poring over some photo-lettering specimens—one of my preferred pastimes—I stumbled upon an advertising postcard that had been mailed to the original owner of my Lettering Inc. book back in November of 1960. The postcard was exciting enough to me on its own; I presume very few examples of this kind of ephemera have survived, and it is always fascinating to see how new type and lettering fonts were advertised contemporaneously with their original publication. The postcard came from the Los Angeles offices of The Headliners (“The Finest in Hand and Photoprocess Lettering”), so it was not directly related to the Lettering Inc. specimen in which it served as a bookmark for so many decades. Mid-century art directors in the United States had a number of options for phototype services to work with, and although some of their offerings overlapped, there were some unique faces that were exclusive to particular foundries.

”Where The Wild Things Are, Story and Pictures by Maurice Sendak“ set in Safari Medium Semi-Condensed by The Headliners

”Design Headlines“ set in Safari Medium Semi-Condensed by The Headliners, M202 SC specimen

”Where The Wild Things Are, Story and Pictures by Maurice Sendak“ set in Safari Medium Semi-Condensed by The Headliners (typeface comparison animation)

Safari, a new lettering style from The Headliners (font specimen postcard, front)

Safari, a new lettering style from The Headliners (font specimen postcard, reverse)

Safari, the font from The Headliners featured on the postcard, is an “interlock” example of a “casual gothic” or “naïve gothic” style, popularized in mid-century America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Interlock faces evolved from the graphic design practice common in the 1950s of alternating letters up and down from the baseline, setting every letter higher or lower than the one before. Often associated with Googie architecture (see the Dinah’s Family Restaurant wordmark in particular), jazz music, beatniks, or Tiki culture, interlock fonts or lettering are easily distinguished from other styles due to how some letters are drawn on top of, underneath, or tucked in-between others for a jaunty, playful effect. The “tails” of capital Rs, Ls, or Ks often serve to underline smaller superscript characters. Nowadays, with OpenType fonts, this kind of trickery is accomplished automatically for typographers, as type designers can create seemingly infinite permutations of ligatures and program them to substitute in when specific combinations of letters are typed. But back in the ’50s and ’60s, this style would have been accomplished either by hand-lettering the entire design, or by photo-lettering. Metal type was impractical for this style since the number of ligature sorts required would overflow well beyond the capacity of a California job case. But photographic typesetting, which was becoming widely adopted for display lettering in the printing industry, was particularly well-suited to tightly-kerned interlock forms (as well as ornate scripts and cursives, which had been quite constricted by the limitations metal type technology). Still, for casual interlock styles, a font designer would need to create many versions of each letter (or combinations of letters) to suit every conceivable usage. And skilled typesetters would need to use their discretion to determine how to best employ the font for a customer. After all, the goal for photo-lettering was to look as attractive as hand-lettered artwork, and repeated use of the same glyphs would give away its mechanized nature. And interlock lettering shines most when bespoke letter pairs are used to maximum effect.

After I discovered the postcard, I pulled my three-ring specimen binder from The Headliners off the shelf and began to look for Safari. Fortunately seven full pages are devoted to specimens of all of Safari’s variations (weights, widths, italics, outlines, all-caps, U&lc, etc.). The “DESIGN HEADLINES” line of text set in Safari Medium Semi-Condensed looked very familiar, but at first I could not put my finger on exactly where I had specifically seen it used before. This aesthetic was almost ubiquitous for several years when it first emerged, and I especially associate it with fonts from House Industries like Ed [Benguiat] Interlock and Shag Lounge. When I sat back down at the computer, I was staring right at it: the home page of AbeBooks.com featured the cover of the legendary Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And it was set in Safari—at least it seemed to be. I had to do some tests. So I scanned some bits of the lettering from my own 1980s paperback copy of Where the Wild Things Are and compared them in Photoshop to scans of Safari from The Headliners. The Medium Semi-Condensed weight/width is an exact match. Unfortunately I do not have the entire character set to compare, as foundries back then typically knew better than to make their entire fonts available for instant piracy, which was rampant enough as it was. But perhaps one day I will be able to track down additional samples or source material from The Headliners.

I find it odd that as of late 2023, this particular typeface has not yet been digitized, considering the well-deserved fame of Sendak’s book. That remains the case even after renewed interest in the original book sparked by the 2009 novelization The Wild Things by Dave Eggers and the Spike Jonze film (whose hand-drawn Dr. Strangelove-esque titles à la Pablo Ferro sparked their own aesthetic trend in typography at the time). There are plenty of other interlock faces revived faithfully from that era, as well as new designs that reference and amalgamate the swingin’ ’60s aesthetic. To me, though, Safari stands out as one of the best, and long overdue for revival.

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