Things We Love

Typeface: Knockout

This morning’s post by the always-fertile Grain Edit reminds me that I’ve wanted to write something in appreciation of Mark Weaver. As with so many things I like, Weaver’s work is difficult to classify: design? illustration? art? The term “collage” might do as a formal description, but it’s a shabby word to describe Weaver’s mysterious inventions, which so successfully bypass both the senses and the intellect and go straight to the mid-brain. His tableaux that simultaneously evoke grange exhibits, Japanese consumer goods, early David Bowie, and recent Wes Anderson — without ever quoting any of them literally — are worth experiencing up close; spend some time with his Make Something Cool Every Day series, and I think you’ll leave intriguied, delighted, and inspired. —JH

Things We Love

Eduardo Recife for Upper Playground, 2008.

I’ve always had a thing for collage. If I was more highfalutin, I’d claim some childhood fascination with Joseph Cornell or James Rosenquist — both of whom I love, but didn’t discover until adulthood. The truth is that I probably developed a taste for collage listening to The Pixies, and reveling in all those magnificent album covers designed by Vaughan Oliver. Oliver’s work for the record label 4AD was for me an incandescent highlight of the early nineties, and his enigmatic album covers for The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares always left me shaking my head in wonder, asking “where does this come from?” Sometimes the music inside would echo an answer.

One of Oliver’s regular collaborators was the Japanese collage artist Shinro Ohtake, whose work came to define the art form for me. His incorporation of type made his work irresistible to a typographer; I archly enjoyed watching it come full circle, as his works of fine art gradually came to be used as pieces of commercial art themselves. (The Bill Laswell album Seven Souls uses an Ohtake collage, full and unaltered, for its cover.) Because collages pose an energetic dialogue between high and low art, they’ve always been fertile ground for graphic designers, as demonstrated by the dominating “Knopf style” of the nineties. Knopf designers Carol Carson, Barbara de Wilde, Archie Ferguson and Chip Kidd proved two things: first, that collage was not only dynamic and intriguing, but inviting and literary; second, that it required a dab hand. Things that look easy have a way of being difficult to do well.

Wandering online this weekend, I came across the site of Eduardo Recife, whose work includes the piece I’ve reproduced above. To me, this is what collage aspires to be: a motley company of ordinary performers choreographed into something that expresses the ineffable. I especially admire Recife’s ability to crash incongruous elements with elegance and wit (q.v. the donuts, above), as well as his egalitarian affection for all kinds of typography, from engravings to parking tickets. Spend some time with Recife’s work this afternoon: it’s a delight. —JH

Remembering Rauschenberg

If you draw a line from Shinro Ohtake to Joseph Cornell, and another from Ed Fella to William Harnett, you will find yourself at a monumental, unavoidable intersection. At this great pinnacle sits Robert Rauschenberg, who died yesterday at the age of 82.

I would have liked to have known him. His sincere appreciation for the pedestrian, which energized modern art, ultimately came to inform a major theme in modern typography as well. “I really feel sorry,” he once said, “for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly.” This sentiment applies equally to the once-maligned universe of vernacular lettering: how many of our typefaces born of humble origins would have happened without Rauschenberg?

Most especially, I think I would have enjoyed his sense of humor. His famously Erased de Kooning Drawing merely hinted at the wickedness in store: the obituary in today’s Times describes a fine exchange with fellow troublemaker John Cage. Once, while staying at Cage’s apartment,

“[Rauschenberg] decided he would touch up the painting Cage had acquired, as a kind of thank you, painting it all-black, being in the midst of his new, all-black period. When Cage returned, he was not amused.”

Maybe this was a prank born of the same exuberance that inspired his earlier work, with its bicycle tires and taxidermied eagles, or maybe it was a concise way of unseating a highflown comrade’s hypocrisy with a couple of merry brushstrokes. (It was probably a little of both, which makes it all the more delightful.) Whatever it was, I’m glad that it nourished the decades of unforgettable work that followed. —JH

Digital Analog

Writing about the glories of the nixie tube last December, I wondered aloud whether there’s anyone alive who has any affection for the ubiquitous LED display. Today I have my answer.

At RISD, BFA candidate Alvin Aronson has made the witty and beautiful “d/a clock,” in which seven-segment LED numbers are made manifest in Corian and wood. There’s something irresistable about digital artifacts come to life; watching this mesmerizing video of Aronson’s functioning clock, I’m reminded of the Game Music Concerts in which the Tokyo Philharmonic performed the themes from Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. Like these, Aronson’s work is certainly mordant and entertaining, but it’s undeniably Art. —JH

Elliott Puckette at Paul Kasmin Gallery

If you suspect that my typographic leanings affect my taste for other visual arts, it will come as no surprise to learn how much I love the work of Elliott Puckette. There’s a show of her recent work at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, which runs through February 23: do not miss it.

An interesting counterpoint to the works themselves is Judith Goldman’s interview with the artist, published in the exhibition catalog. Puckette counts Oleg Grabar’s study of Islamic calligraphy among her influences, along with the asemic writing of artists such as Henri Michaux. She mentions other influences that are further afield, and less directly evident in her work: the physiognomical portraits of Johann Caspar Laveter, the Celestial Alphabet, and the Walam Olum, among others. But most striking to me was this comment, in which Puckette describes how she began using a razor as a tool:

I warmed up to it slowly. I was looking at penmanship books and doing paintings of the letter O and A, and I thought about making the image negative by painting around it.... I thought, if I scratch it out, that would be easier, and I’d get there faster. Cutting and scratching was a way to slow the line down. In the end it wasn’t about adding; it was about subtracting.

What’s remarkable is that this is exactly how typefaces are designed: not by constructing letterforms in black, but by drawing counters in white. That Puckette chose an implement for stripping away, rather than building up, is also fascinating: files and gravers, the traditional tools of typemaking, are tools for creating whitespace. (Their profound affect on type design, which cannot be underestimated, is the central thesis of Fred Smeijers’ excellent Counterpunch.) I can’t help but wonder what a Puckette-designed typeface might look like; perhaps we’ll someday find out? —JH

Ice Ice Typeface

I’ll admit it: snow-covered typography is a guilty pleasure, and one I get to enjoy throughout the year. Summertime icicle fonts are never hard to find, once soft-serve ice cream trucks establish strategic flanking positions on either side of our office. And in the winter, their appearance on the sides of HVAC trucks heralds the return of seasonal boiler problems, a cherished part of the winter experience in New York.

Although all H&Co fonts are guaranteed frost-free for easy maintenance, the wags at Deitch have come up with this seasonal adaptation, in keeping with their site’s summer delight theme. Under these snowcaps is our very own Gotham Bold font, artful iciclized by illustrator/guitarist Rick Froberg. So great! —JH

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