Legacy of Letters: An Italian Tour

So enormous are the contributions of the Italian people to typography that they often pass unnoticed. The words you are reading may be written in the English language, but they are rendered in the Latin alphabet, which comes to us via Roman ancestors. We celebrate these same ancestors in the name of our upright Roman alphabet, and we remember their country of origin in our slanted Italics. If you ever use our Requiem typeface, take note: taxonomically it is a Venetian Old-Style, its letterforms modeled on the work of a renaissance Roman calligrapher, who was inspired by the inscriptional lettering on a classical Roman monument, which was dedicated to a Roman emperor. The emperor’s name was Trajan, an Italian name you may recognize from your font menu; he is immortalized there alongside dozens of his compatriots, including Aldus, Arrighi, Bodoni, and Jenson.

Since Italy has remained a cradle of letters and literacy since classical times, it makes an excellent destination for any lover of typography. This June, design historian and calligrapher Paul Shaw will be leading Legacy of Letters, an eight-day typographic tour of some of Italy’s most typographic destinations. Including both Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto, the tour includes stops in twelve typographic capitals including Parma, Mantua, Verona and Venice. Registration is now open for a limited number of spaces.

Lettering of the WPA

Our creative director Brian Hennings stumbled across a great resource this morning: on the website of the Library of Congress, a collection of 926 posters from the Works Progress Administration. The LOC has done a nice job with this collection, providing for each poster not only the relevant archival information, but high-resolution TIFF files that are free to download.

I’ve yet to meet the designer who doesn’t have at least a little affection for optimistic lettering of the WPA. We’ve stopped short of ever developing a full-tilt Art Deco revival, but many of our sans serifs undeniably feel the pull of the Machine Age. Verlag’s stark geometries include a conscious nod to the bold logo of the National Recovery Administration, while Tungsten is a modular typeface that resists the retro vibe of WPA “gaspipe” lettering. The Library of Congress collection offers a rare opportunity to see rarer styles still, perhaps ones that might obliquely inform some future font from H&FJ. —JH

Lubalin’s Legacy

Photo: Mike Essl

Leonardo da Vinci might have made scientific studies of the vascular system and designed the steam cannon, but today he’s best remembered as the painter of the Mona Lisa. Some identify Johann Sebastian Bach with his concerti, cantatas, and brilliant fantasias for the keyboard, but most know him only as the tunesmith behind that staple of afternoon weddings, “Air on the G String.” It’s a cruel fate, to be remembered only for your least ambitious work, as type designers from Frederic Goudy to Ed Benguiat can surely attest. But none has suffered more than the estimable Herb Lubalin, a situation which the Cooper Union will begin to correct tonight.

Lubalin’s name has become convenient shorthand for his eponymous family of typefaces, ITC Lubalin Graph. The design, an okay slab serif in seventies dress, was in turn an adaptation of his sans serif design ITC Avant Garde — itself an adaptation of his earlier logotype and lettering for Avant Garde magazine. For many, Lubalin’s body of work ends here, a tragedy that eclipses a whole universe of letters that came from the hand and mind of one of typography’s most significant practitioners.

Tonight, the Cooper Union in New York opens Lubalin Now: the inaugural exhibit at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. The exhibit, curated by Mike Essl and Alexander Tochilovsky, celebrates not only Lubalin’s work but that of contemporary designers who channel the Lubalinesque. Just a very few of my favorites appear below; the show promises lots more, as well as an answer to an age-old question: it’s Loo-bal-in, not Loob-a-lin. —JH


Lubalin Now
Opening Reception Thursday, November 5, 2009, 6:00–8:00pm
Exhibit on view through December 8, 2009

The Cooper Union
41 Cooper Square
New York, NY 10003
 

Left: Justin Thomas Kay; Right: Matt Owens

Left: Alex Trochut; Right: Gretel

Left: Like Minded Studio; Right: Thirst

Titles & End Credits

Changing fashions in movie titles are one of the richest veins in typography’s fossil record. On his website, graphic designer Christian Annyas has put together a nice collection of movie title stills — both opening and end credits — offering a handy synopsis of twentieth century lettering. Rather than an exhaustive survey, Annyas has curated a small and personal collection that’s conveniently organized by decade: dipping into any period offers a convenient way of getting a taste for the lettering of the era.

Keep an eye out for “in-camera” lettering, in which lettering is incorporated into on-screen props. The book in Jeux Interdits uses a popular trope; the telephone in Dial M for Murder and the playing cards of Le Roman d’un Tricheur have become classics. Truly stirring is the occasional title that feels jarringly modern: The Fly has the sort of purposeful unease that still strikes a chill, fifty-one years later. —JH

John Downer at The Propagandist

John Downer

Twenty years ago, John Downer and I were introduced by a mutual friend. He’d introduced us as “type designers,” a flattering description of my professional achievements to date (I was a recent refugee from graphic design), and a somewhat elliptic summary of John’s credentials. Whether or not he was intentionally vague, I’ll never know, but it set me up for a very entertaining afternoon.

John visited my studio, where I was working on a set of roman capitals that would ultimately become the Requiem typeface. He had some suggestions about the design, which like most critiques were especially hard to articulate; typography suffers from a poverty of terminology. Eyeing two bottles of Rich Art poster paint in my taboret, John reached for these along with a sheet of typing paper, and the cheap plastic paintbrush that I kept for dusting my keyboard. In a few effortless strokes of black, he perfectly reproduced Requiem’s capital S, waited a moment for the paint to dry, and then reloaded the brush with white to render his corrections. The whole shebang couldn’t have taken fifteen seconds, most of it spent waiting for paint to dry. I just stared: it was like watching someone fold a paper napkin into a remote control helicopter, and then pilot it around the room. The detail our mutual friend had neglected to mention, of course, is that John came to type design through his other profession: he is a master sign painter.

Type design has always been a wonderfully polygenetic field, and a random sampling of practitioners is likely to include calligraphers, graphic designers, stonemasons, letterpress printers, engravers, graffiti artists, and programmers. This mixture produces a marvelous synthesis of perspectives in terms of both technique and culture, and serves to make type design a vigorous and exciting discipline. But few type designers I know bring this particular experience to bear on their work:

I began graduate studies in painting at The University of Iowa in 1973 after working at sign shops in Des Moines for about a year. The chairman of the painting department at the UI was Byron Burford, proprietor of The Great Byron Burford Circus of Artistic Wonders — a traveling art show and circus, in one. It included moving cutouts of exotic animals, motorized trapeze artists, contortionists, and acrobats...

This is from Freshjive’s The Propagandist, which today is presenting a nice slideshow of John’s work in connection with a line of lettered t-shirts. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 14

Hot on the heels of my open question about artists and fives, I came across this marvelous photograph by Berenice Abbott featuring a pair of gorgeous fives in starring roles. Abbott is best remembered for Changing New York, her seminal collection of photographs that documents New York of the 1930s; it’s both an inspiration and a great resource for designers, especially typeface designers whose work is influenced by the public sphere.

For eighty years, the A. Zito Bakery stood at 259 Bleecker Street, a short walk from the H&FJ offices. In a street now dominated by bar room neon and vacuform plastic, Zito’s window looked in 2004 much the way it did when Abbott photographed it in 1937. Bread Store is among a collection of Berenice Abbott Photographs now available from AllPosters.com as high-resolution Giclée prints, lovely not only for the glimpses they offer into a grander New York, but for some marvelous lettering as well. These barber shop windows (1, 2) must be tremendous up close, and the humble decals in Zito’s window above have long been a favorite of ours: our Delancey font is based on them. —JH

The Neon Boneyard

Our own Andy Clymer has returned from a trip out west with some fine photos of Las Vegas’s infamous neon boneyard. A project of the Neon Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and study of one of the nation’s great lettering traditions, the neon boneyard is of course located in the Las Vegas desert: an ideal climate for preservation, and convenient to the center of the energetic neon carnage of the 21st century.

Years ago I enjoyed a tour of the boneyard during a visit with Yesco, the Young Electric Sign Company, who are responsible for the haberdashery of a significant number of megawatts on the Vegas strip. It was with a combination of pride and horror that I discovered how many H&FJ fonts were being used on the new digital signs that were fast replacing the old neon: even today, Yesco’s own site advertises their digital abilities using a little Knockout. For a type designer with a love of signs, it’s a very odd feeling. —JH

Collection of the Day

I am not wistful for the days of carbon paper and Ko-Rec-Type, and the era of the typewriter ended before I ever figured out what to do with those wheely-eraser-brush-things that populated my parents’ offices. But a truly grand leftover from the vanished world of the typewriter is the ribbon tin; my friend Tal sent me this collection of product packaging shots on Flickr, which are resplendent with lovely lettering. Some are sweet and others serious, some are frank, and some are simply fantastic. —JH

A Secret Universe in Your Desk Drawer

My weapon of choice is a Pilot Precise rollerball, but I keep a General’s Sketching Pencil below my monitor. I don’t write with it: it’s not sharpened; it’s there because I admire its typography, which in less than four inches goes from italic small capitals to a cheery script, to a pair of unrelated sans serifs in two different sizes. It is eclecticism incarnate, and it’s got a lot of heart.

Once you start to notice their markings, pencils draw you into a beguiling world of exotic lettering. With color unavailable to their designers — absurdly, the color of a pencil either definitely indicates the color of its lead, or is completely arbitrary — pencils have historically expressed their identities through playful typography. The range of information they need to convey (manufacturer, product name, grading and classification, place of origin) calls for a self-contained system of semantic distinctions, and the unforgiving process by which tiny letters must be hot stamped into soft pine demands durable letterforms of considerable ingenuity. These conditions recall the challenges of designing newspaper text faces, which must first and foremost be legible. But where expressiveness trumps clarity, things get interesting.

Bob Truby’s Brand Name Pencils offers an inviting tour of his collection, complete with closeups of each and every specimen. The brief sampling above already reveals more kinds of script, blackletter and tuscan than can even be categorized, and these are among the collection’s more conservative members. Check out the Dixon Aerial 2280 No. 2, whose logotype might be classified as “open Lombardic capitals with terminal lightning bolts.” Definitely not a species you see every day. —JH

Fantasy League Typography

One of the things I most love about the design of the late nineteenth century is its unpredictability. Across all of the decorative arts there was a strong emphasis on novelty, and a succession of new technologies made it easier than ever to execute these strange and untested ideas. (You can see this in the terra cotta work of architect Louis Sullivan, or the elaborate inlays of furniture designer Gustav Herter.) The period was a riot of ornament, and to be sure, much of the work was awful: most of what we remember today is hopelessly cliché, or cloyingly overwrought. But then there are moments like these.

Above is a piece of nineteenth century engraving, which looks as if it might have been the product of a CalArts group project by Wim Crouwel and Louise Fili. (The rest of my fantasy league is no less oddball; images after the jump evoke Jonathan Barnbrook vs. John Downer, and Max Kisman vs. Marian Bantjes.) These excerpts come from an incredible collection of American sheet music from the period 1850-1920, currently being exhibited online by Duke University. The documents from the 1870s are my favorites, many of which are from the hand of an engraver named Reed (note his signature hiding in the fourth image below.) His stylistic pairings are among the more remarkable — above, the constructed sans serif and swelled rules are unexpected bedfellows. But some of my favorite moments are those in which unrelated visual agendas collide in the letterforms themselves. Is there anything more fabulous than the monoline blackletter of “Mazurka Elegante” below, or the squared-off shapes of the final line, “Tiny Birdlings of the Air?” Will you check out that lowercase g? —JH

Not Playing at a Theater Near You

Now appearing at Vanity Fair is a great exhibit of lobby cards from the collection of the late Leonard Schrader. From Schrader’s collection of 8,462 items the editors have chosen an attractive and representative set of 36 that celebrates the golden age of lettering, before its ultimate fall to typography.

At left, an excerpt from Saved by Wireless, Joe and Mia May’s 1919 epic about which the IMDB is strangely silent. (Judging from the cavemen, presumably it does not deal with the convenience of 802.11; been there, though.) Other highlights include MGM’s The Devil Doll, whose inside-out lettering prefigures Roger Excoffon’s Calypso typeface of 1958, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis rendered in a whimsical style of lettering that befits the movie’s cheery themes of dystopianism, technological isolation, and internecine strife. For ages six and up. —JH

Love Letters from Plum Press

You can always tell when a typeface designer is involved. Some unseen force summoned me across the room to this beautiful set of greeting cards, resplendent in rich stochastic color, and bearing a wonderful assortment of letterforms. The choice of typeface for the letter K was enough to identify their designer as a connoisseur: it’s Sapphire, a rare and underestimated typeface by none other than Hermann Zapf (1953), and one of my personal favorites. The others in the series have their own stories, as I would soon learn from their designer: it’s our very own Sara Soskolne, who designed them for Plum Press.

The P is modeled on a Photo-Lettering face called Johnson Grafin Hedda, and the F and C are adapted from an 1884 set of French signpainter’s specimen sheets titled Modèles de Lettres. In nice counterpoint to the luscious outside, inside each is an inscription set in our own H&FJ Didot font. The complete collection features eight cards, covering for a range of appropriate occasions; I’m stocking up on the the apology card, K is for Knucklehead, in anticipation of future bad behavior. —JH

Until the Next Type Tour…

Angry villagers descend with torches and pitchforks.

After taking a moment to recover, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who came out for the AIGA/NY “Alphabet/City” type tour this past weekend. Being a native New Yorker, I’ve come to think of the city’s lettering as a kind of home to me. So it was a real pleasure to see so many people ready to walk the streets for hours and look at letters, reaching for their cameras to capture an old carving, or some weatherbeaten shopfronts.

Winding through the heat and crowds, we saw lettering grand and humble, prominent and hidden. (Thanks to Michael Surtees, John Kwo and Caren Litherland for these photos.) We even got a serenade from a Mulberry Street maitre d’ (did anyone get a shot of that guy?), and a very special outdoor concert on Chrystie Street. All part of a weekend stroll in Manhattan.

Even after three miles or so and two and a half hours, it was less than half of what I wanted show for those neighborhoods. Perhaps there’s material for another tour someday. Until then, keep shooting! —TFJ

More Type Tour Photos

John Kwo posted this Flickr set with some beautifully crisp photos from the type tour. Don’t miss some of the great inscriptional lettering to be found on lower Manhattan’s municipal buildings, including these spirited NH and TT ligatures.

Over at Villatype, Joe Shouldice has assembled some instructive comments to accompany his photos. Points for relating why signpainters’ dropshadows point left instead of right, and defining the term “gaspipe lettering.”

More goodies from Matt Sung, again on Flickr. Matt definitely shares our thing for distressed typography!

You’ve got to admire the rudeness of the above, from Michael Surtees’ Flickr set. Michael captured some other excellent moments, including this unlikely but fabulous set of inscriptional, inline, sans-serif, old-style figures. —JH

Type Tour Photos

For those of you who missed this weekend’s typographic walking tour that Tobias led for AIGA/NY, designer Karen Horton has uploaded a Flickr set containing some of the highlights. There are a couple of treasures here that aren’t to be missed, including at least one rare architectural palimpsest that won’t be visible for long. (Demolition in the city regularly exposes sudden windows into the the past, as in 1998 when Times Square was suddenly home to a 121-year-old advertisement for “J. A. Keal’s Carriage Manufactory,” painted in 1877.) Some of the lettering on the type tour is older still, and some of the newer signs may find themselves covered up by adjacent construction. So catch them while you can, or wait another 121 years to see if they resurface in 2128. —JH

A Treasury of Hollywood Lettering

Lettering buffs and cinephiles alike may enjoy this lovely Flickr set containing final frames of classic films. Romantically, these hearken back to an age before typesetting replaced hand-lettering as a matter of convenience, but sociologically they tell another interesting story as well. A movie concluding with “The End,” perhaps followed by a list of its major players, definitively dates a film to before the rise of the unions, which now negotiate on-screen credits for even off-screen contributors. Best Boys and Key Grips are old hat: today it’s Mouse Wranglers and Assistant Caterers who are the little people, along with the occasional Compositing Inferno Artist. (But where are the type designers, hm?) See this fascinating infographic in The New York Times, comparing the length of the credits in Casablanca with those in Lord of the Rings. —JH

A Typographic Walking Tour

More than fonts, it’s lettering that contributes the dominant flavor to New York City’s typography. More often than not, these one-off inscriptions and signs, handmade by artisans in a variety of media, were rendered in styles unconnected with the business of typography, which refers only to the practice of creating alphabets for printing. But the advent of digital type has made it easier than ever to use a mere font for architectural lettering as well. Combined with the building boom that’s transforming the city faster than ever, the grand inscriptions and humble signboards that constitute our alphabetic inheritance are vanishing fast.

In preparing the Gotham typeface, which celebrates just one of New York’s unmistakable typographic themes, Tobias Frere-Jones assiduously photographed tens of thousands of signs throughout the metropolis. On Saturday, September 29 at 11:00, Tobias will be leading a typographic walking tour for AIGA/NY, which promises two and a half hours of the city’s most unexamined — and imperiled — typographic treasures. Space is limited, so book early. Don’t forget your camera, and a snack. Sold out! —JH

Update: Photos and more photos from type tour attendees.

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