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

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

The World’s First Graphic Design Museum

On my first trip to Amsterdam in 1992, I spent a couple of hours having lunch at a pleasant café on Willemsparkweg. I’d come from seeing an exhibit of the year’s best book covers, and planned to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city’s many graphic design bookshops. A passing waiter, noticing my open sketchbook, idly asked me what I was designing. I took note that he’d said “designing” rather than “drawing,” and on his return trip he surprised me further: “are you designing a typeface?”

A nation whose visual literacy is such that the lay public is familiar with the concept of typeface design is surely a designer’s paradise. And if there were any doubt that Holland is the world’s preeminant design capital, tomorrow will see the opening of the world’s first graphic design museum in Breda. There’ll be live coverage on the museum’s website, emceed by none other than Queen Beatrix! I love the Dutch. —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

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

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