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Archive for the category ‘letters’

Farewell to Jack the printer

Published

“The splendid dawns — how many more of them will the gods toss into your basket of days?”

– Horace, Carminum Liber IV, trans. Michael Taylor

Jack Stauffacher died on Nov. 16, a month shy of his 97th birthday. He was both fiercely opinionated and self-deprecating; when he called you up, he would simply say, “This is Jack, the printer.” But what a printer!

I saw him for the last time just three weeks before he died, when Dennis Letbetter took me and Rob Saunders over to Tiburon for lunch with Jack and his wife Josie at their small house. The conversation ranged all over the place, as it always did, from ideas to reminiscences to literature and craft, but I was there for a purpose: to ask Jack questions about his life and career, for the biographical essay I’ve been asked to write. This essay will appear in a book by Chuck Byrne about Jack’s experimental prints, to be published next year by Letterform Archive. And, of course, I was there because I suspected that it might be my last chance to see Jack.

While I was there, Jack gave me a copy of his last book, a beautifully designed volume of “fragments from a Tuscan diary, 1956–1958,” which he had entitled Oxen. Plough. Bicycle. It is fully in the tradition of Jack Stauffacher’s long book-design and printing career, simple and unadorned yet exquisitely arranged. Its contents consist of photographs that he took while bicycling around the countryside outside Florence when he was living there on a Fulbright scholarship; the photographs are complemented by notes, almost poems – phrases and sentences of reflection on where he was and what he was seeing. It’s a fitting culmination to a publishing career, and I’m glad I got it directly from his own hand.

When Jack turned 90, seven years ago, his friends put together a spectacular celebration at the San Francisco Center for the Book. We won’t be able to celebrate his 97th birthday, except in his absence, but ideas are being floated for a fitting memorial sometime in the new year.

Several obituaries and moving reminiscences have been published already: by Chris Pullman in Design Observer, by Sam Whiting in the San Francisco Chronicle, and by Pino Trogu in Domus. Dennis Letbetter has been putting together a photographic record that he’s taken of Jack over the years (from which the photos at the left are taken).

Acumin & Bickham Script

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Now that’s an unusual pair of typefaces to mention together. But both the new Acumin family and the enlarged and updated Bickham Script Pro 3 have been released recently as part of the Adobe Originals program, and I wrote most of the background material on both of them. These were both projects that were a long time in development, so I’m pleased to see my own descriptive work in “print” at last.

Acumin & Bickham Script Pro 3 together

For Acumin, Robert Slimbach’s extensive neo-grotesque type family, I dug into the history of sans-serifs, trying to nail down exactly what makes one a “grotesque” or a “neo-grotesque,” and where the term came from. It was a great pleasure researching images, especially from the 19th century, in the collection of the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. I think we ended up showing more images of old sans-serif type than was strictly required, just because they looked so cool.

Most of my research on the history of the 18th-century English writing style known as “round hand” and George Bickham’s compendium of examples, The Universal Penman, was done at the Seattle Public Library or online, but at the Letterform Archive I also got to see Bickham’s rare earlier book, Penmanship In It’s [sic] Utmost Extent.

The Acumin website is a highly responsive one, coded by Nick Sherman; the Bickham site is more in the mold of Typekit’s usual sites, though it too consists of several parts.

[Images (left, top to bottom): from the Acumin site; Bickham Script Pro 3 illustration; a few 19th-century grotesque typefaces. Above: combining two very different type styles.]

t for 2

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You don’t get wonderful bound specimen books from type foundries very often these days. Digital foundries tend to produce digital specimens, for all the obvious reasons. But a few days ago The Terminal Design Type Catalog arrived in my (physical) mailbox, and I was delighted.

James Montalbano, the Chief Cook and Bottle-Washer of Terminal Design, has been designing extensive, carefully coordinated type families for twenty-five years. “Ever since my days as a magazine art director,” he writes in his brief Preface, “I have both loved and been disappointed by type. I loved mixing, arranging and discovering different type designs, but was always disappointed by the lack of weights and widths of most designs.” That disappointment will not await anyone browsing this catalog.

This a well-made, well-bound hardcover book, designed by Charles Nix. The embossed red t that takes up the whole cover is striking and dramatic. Each type family is given several pages, with a display of the full character set and large one-line showings. For text faces, there are also pairs of sample text pages with the type shown at different sizes and sometimes different weights.

Terminal Design catalog text spread

The display faces don’t require extensive text settings, but they’re shown off in dramatic form. My favorite page in the whole book must be the final page for the 20-weight typeface Yo.

Terminal Design catalog display spread

The back matter shows sample pairings of display and text faces, comparison of x-heights, the variations in OpenType stylistic sets, and, most notable of all, a visual index of “earmarks,” the distinguishing features of glyphs from different typefaces.

Terminal Design catalog earmarks

James Montalbano’s typefaces are always thoroughly considered, cleanly designed, and well produced. His squarish text face Choice Sans, with multiple widths, gives a lovely, modern texture to both text and display. The sharply serifed Consul takes high-contrast Didot style and freshens it, with six weights and four optical sizes, in both roman and italic. Even the wonderfully weird Fervent, with its pitchfork e and its double-wide w, looks assured and solid on the page.

There are two things that bother me in this catalog. One is the lack of any descriptions of the various typefaces: each one has a careful list of all its features, but there’s no hint of its history and nature, or of how its designer thinks about it.

The other thing is a choice: in the text samples, facing pages of the same typeface at different sizes have the same amount of added leading (3 points). The effect of that is to give the text blocks of smaller type looser line spacing than the text blocks of larger type. That makes it harder to compare them usefully.

The Letterform Archive

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I recently had my first chance to visit the remarkable Letterform Archive in San Francisco. This is the fruit of thirty-five years of collecting by Rob Saunders, all of it related to type and lettering and printing – especially type specimens and printer’s samples, along with books, manuscripts, and all kinds of printed and hand-made ephemera. In 2013, Rob turned his private obsession into an institution and established the Letterform Archive as a formal entity. More recently, as he announced last month at TypeCon, he acquired the enormous collection of the late Dutch bibliophile Jan Tholenaar, consisting of thousands of type specimens from the last 400 years.

The purpose of the Letterform Archive is to make original research materials available to people for hands-on study: so you can not just look at them but pick them up and hold them in your hands. There are larger collections than his, as Rob freely admits; but too many of them are closed to the public and not easily accessible. With the Letterform Archive, Rob hopes to provide a resource to students, researchers, type historians, graphic designers, and anyone interested in the history of letters. It’s easy to arrange a visit; the space is bright and welcoming, and so are the people.

The other initiative that Rob announced at TypeCon is a new program in conjunction with Cooper Union: Type@Cooper West. This will be a West Coast equivalent of Type@Cooper, the post-graduate program in type design that Cooper Union has been offering for several years at its campus in New York City.

Rob has a few other ambitious plans in mind, too. I’m delighted to see such an energetic undertaking. And I can say from personal experience that it’s a pleasure to sit in the Archive and peruse type in all its many forms.

Traveling & listening & talking: Typo Day

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“I can’t believe this is your first time,” said the young Indian woman with whom I was sharing the auto-rickshaw.

“It is, though,” I replied, calmly clutching a handhold as the three-wheeled vehicle careered through the traffic of northern Mumbai.

I hadn’t even encountered yet the full roar of the city, but Indian traffic was proving to be everything I had expected it to be. Chaotic, crowded, incredibly varied, and resoundingly effective at getting everyone around, despite the lack of any perceivable patterns. Drivers seemed to navigate by echo-location, honking fairly constantly to let other drivers know that they were approaching; and they might approach from pretty much any direction, or any side. Lanes, although clearly marked, were completely ignored, and each participant in the mêlée of Mumbai road traffic claimed possession of every inch of available space, whether occupied or not. Private cars predominated, but alongside them you’d find gaily decorated trucks, flitting motorbikes, daredevil pedestrians, and of course swarms of putt-putting auto-rickshaws, all punctuated with occasional feral dogs and meandering cattle.

I was in Mumbai for only a few days, invited as a keynote speaker at Typography Day 2015, an annual event that moves around among various Indian universities. This year it was being held at its original home, IIT Bombay, or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. The large, leafy campus lies on the northern fringe of Mumbai, abutting the shore of Powai Lake and at the southern tip of the vast hilly Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The university has about 8,000 students in a variety of faculties, clustered throughout the campus; many of the central buildings are aligned along a covered open-air walkway known as the Infinite Corridor. Although the campus feels considerably less crowded than the heart of Mumbai, and it suffers much less from the ever-present air pollution, proximity to the national park requires signs like one I saw near the lake warning that a panther had been spotted in the vicinity. “Well,” as one local put it to me, “we’re encroaching on their territory, so why wouldn’t they came into ours?”

Typo Day was put on by the Industrial Design Center, the design school at IIT, and the talks were presented in the IDC’s large, modern auditorium. Outside the auditorium was a large common area where people could mingle during the breaks for the aptly named “tea and networking,” and just outside the building, a display of typographic posters was hung in the open air and a sculptural assemblage of 3D Indian letters climbed one of the twisting trees.

The displays, like the subjects of talks and workshops, were not only multilingual but multi-script. India is a land of many languages and many writing systems; Hindi is simply the largest, and the dominant one in northern India, but the only common language that educated Indians have throughout the country is English. Although most of the various Indian writing systems are somehow related to Devanagari, the complex script developed for ancient Sanskrit and used today for Hindi and several other North Indian languages, the relationship is tenuous enough that only scholars can really spot the similarities. As one Hindi-speaking designer from Mumbai put it, “If I go to Bangalore, I can only admire the writing there as shapes; I cannot read it.” Several of the talks at Typo Day dealt with the fine points of Devanagari type designs and manuscript traditions; others dealt with different writing systems, including one talk by a woman from Sri Lanka, Sumanthri Samarawickrama, about the lack of vocabulary to describe the letterforms of written Sinhala.

But it wasn’t just fine points and details. There was exuberant creativity on display, and the other keynote speaker, Itu Chaudhuri, gave an inspiring and well-illustrated talk about how a love of letters “will enrich your life.” He then proceeded to demonstrate how it had enriched his.

I was treated extremely well by the organizers of Typo Day, Prof. Ravi Poobaiah and his wife, Dr. Ajanta Sen. Not only did they fly me to Mumbai, have students meet me at the airport when my flight arrived in the middle of a hot March night, and put me up in the comfortable Guest House at IIT, but on the day after the end of the conference they arranged a car and driver for me to explore Mumbai (and its traffic), and the next night they had me staying at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which is every bit as luxurious as it sounds. We had met there for dinner the night before, but, as Ravi explained, there wasn’t a room available that night, so they drove me back to IIT, with Ajanta giving me a running commentary on the history of the heart of the city and which buildings she had grown up in.

At the conference, I found myself being naturally adopted into the circle of gray-haired elders of Indian design, though I also met quite a few younger designers and students. Although I often missed the jokes, sometimes from lack of context, sometimes from not catching the accents, I enjoyed the company of these men and women with their shared history of typography and graphic design in India. (Accents varied. There was one brilliant, impassioned speaker that I had a very hard time understanding; when I mentioned this to someone else, he said, “Oh, yes, he has a strong Marathi accent. He sounds the same when he speaks Hindi.” What he was saying was so forceful that I regretted missing some of it through my own incomprehension.) I felt as though I had only scratched the surface of the typographic culture of the country.

I barely scratched the surface of Mumbai, too. I spent one afternoon walking around the streets near the Gateway of India, the monumental stone arch that once welcomed incoming ships of the British Empire during the Raj. (The Yacht Club was right across the street from the public park in front of the Gateway.) Although I clearly stood out as a foreigner, the only hassles I had on the streets were the expected attempts to sell me something; most of the time, people just ignored me and went about their way, as they ignored most of the teeming crowds around them. I visited a couple of museums, of which the oddest and thus most fascinating was the Mumbai City Museum, with its collections of objects and artifacts and models and dioramas depicting the city’s history. In one room was a current exhibit about the cultural and economic connections through history of the two sides of the Arabian Sea.

I also dropped in to the vast Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum, to see the relatively small permanent exhibit on “Pre and Proto History,” the pre-Hindu Indus Valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Most of the objects, however, were reproductions; the originals were in Delhi.

Impressions of Mumbai:

Very, very hot. No surprise there! I adopted a slow amble as I walked through the streets, in accord with the way most people seemed to be moving, just sort of easing through the humidity with a minimum of effort and disturbance.

Huge contrasts of affluence and poverty. Also no surprise, frankly; I knew I would encounter this, and I was neither shocked nor numbed by the inescapable poverty. I saw some of the upper levels of Indian society, but the top and the bottom mingle on the same streets. I did not try venturing into any slums, such as Dharavi, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed; nor did I go to see colorful fisherfolk on the quay at Sassoon Dock. For that matter, I did not go see a Bollywood movie while I was in the town that makes them. I just looked and listened wherever I was, and experienced the city that I was presented with, in all its ordinary glory.

Traffic. But you already know about that. It was wild and wooly, yet I never saw an accident of any kind.

Urban texture. It seemed as though everything I saw in Mumbai was either crumbling away or in the midst of being built. When I mentioned this to Ajanta Sen, she said yes, that’s exactly the way it is. Many big cities give this impression, but Mumbai had it in spades.

Military bands. This wasn’t something I expected, but while I was staying at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, the park across the street was closed off, with a police cordon all around the Gateway of India. It turned out that there was a huge celebration going on there during those couple of days: a big stage in front of the arch, with performances by military bands and orchestras from around the country. The music was loud; and it was eclectic, a blend of Bollywood show tunes and folk performances and military band music, accompanied by light shows. I never did quite figure out what the point was. One effect that it had was purely personal: I had hoped to catch the boat to Elephanta Island on my next-to-last day in Mumbai, to see the Hindu temple and its famous carvings, but because the quay was temporarily blocked off, the boats weren’t running.

One of the typographers I saw at the conference was Aurobind Patel, a type designer and design consultant whom I had met before, a friend of Roger Black’s. He made my last day in India memorable by inviting me to his weekend house, in a fishing village north of Mumbai, to spend a relaxing day out of the city; his driver would then drive me to the airport for my flight to Amsterdam, which didn’t leave until 2:45 a.m. So I got to see a little bit of what lies outside the city, and how the city is encroaching on the countryside year by year; and I got to walk on the beach by the shore and watch the sunset over the Arabian Sea. Aurobind’s house, which was newly built to replace a crumbling older house inherited by his wife, was in the process of being repainted and having the pool’s foundation reinforced. During the painting, the wall-size sliding-glass doors on the seaward side were covered by huge segments of Bollywood movie posters, their painted sides turned in; this gave the interiors a bizarre and dramatic look. But while I was there, that very afternoon, the workmen finished the painting of the exterior, and as I was taking a much-needed nap they removed the posters from the windows. So when I awoke I could look out through the glass directly to the sea. That was quite some transformation.

I have now seen a very tiny piece of India, and met a wonderful and eclectic range of Indian designers and typographers. Perhaps this will be just the first of many visits to the subcontinent.

Back on the wall

Published

It’s gratifying to see, from a story on the TDC’s website, that the three-dimensional typographic mural that Lou Dorfsman constructed in 1966 for the cafeteria at CBS headquarters in New York City has finally found a permanent home.

As I wrote six years ago, the “Gastro­typographical­assemblage,” which a subsequent régime at CBS was ready to junk, got saved thanks to the efforts of NYC designer Nicholas Fasciano, and was given a temporary home at the Center for Design Study in Atlanta, while funds were being raised to preserve and restore the crumbling masterpiece.

Now, as you can see from this short video, it has been lovingly restored and installed at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. Sounds like a visit to Hyde Park is called for.

The Briem Report

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Last year, after a highly entertaining turn as the keynote speaker at the ATypI conference in Reykjavík in 2011, designer and lettering artist Gunnlaugur SE Briem asked around 100 practitioners of lettering or typography to contribute a two-page spread each to a new compendium, The Briem Report: Letterforms 2012. I was pleased to be among those invited to participate. The resulting volume was published earlier this year as a freely downloadable PDF, and recently Briem sent printed copies to all the contributors. (I recommend the print-quality PDF, as the hard copy is a black-and-white print-on-demand edition; you can order it from Amazon and it’s wonderful to have, but I consider the core edition to be the digital one.)

Briem did something similar once before, in 1986, when he edited and produced a book for Thames & Hudson called Sixty Alphabets, asking sixty noted calligraphers to introduce themselves and their work and to contribute a design of their own choice. That in turn had been inspired by a much earlier compendium, Dossier A–Z 1973, which had been put together in 1973 by Fernand Baudin for that year’s ATypI congress in Copenhagen, on the theme of “Education in the Design of Letter Forms.” Both Baudin’s 1973 volume and Briem’s 1986 one examined the place of written letter forms in a world dominated by print. The Briem Report takes this one step further: what is the place of both calligraphy and type design in a world that’s becoming thoroughly digital? Baudin was looking at the changing nature of type and letter design in 1973; Briem is asking much the same question today.

The answers are all over the place; there is no one thesis to be found in this anthology. But as a snapshot of current practice and ideas, it’s invaluable. The contributors include most of the people you might expect, and many that you might not be aware of; Briem drew from many different streams of practice. Some are artists, some are technical experts, many are educators. As Briem describes the book, aptly (and in thoroughly Briem fashion), on his Operina website: “Inspiring ideas, firm convictions, lovely dreams.”

Granshan 2012

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In June, I traveled almost halfway around the world to the tiny Republic of Armenia, for Granshan 2012, the fifth non-Latin type-design competition and its accompanying small conference. This year is the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first book printed in Armenian (the book was printed not in Armenia but at an Armenian monastery in Venice, which was then a center of both printing and scholarship); this year Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, was also named the World Book Capital by UNESCO. Armenians are enthusiastic about their unique alphabet, which was created 1600 years ago by Mesrop Mashtots (now a saint in the Armenian church); we visited not one but two locations where giant stone letters are placed like so many statues, one set on a hillside facing the republic’s highest mountain, the other under the trees in a garden next to the Church of Saint Mesrop Mashtots in Oshakan. (Armenia is the world’s oldest Christian country; it officially adopted Christianity in 301 CE, decades before Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman empire.)

The judges of the competition chose the best designs among the typefaces submitted, and gave a Grand Prize to Dalton Maag for Nokia Pure, which was a prize-winner in three categories: Greek Text, Cyrillic, and Armenian. Meanwhile, the two-day conference opened with a day of public lectures (I spoke briefly about the importance of space in typography) and concluded with a day of more specialized talks about type design. (Actually, it concluded with the field trip the next day to the giant letters in the countryside.) I was particularly taken with Ken Komendaryan’s talk about designing the currency symbol for the Armenian dram (with its relationship to the tall arch form common to many letters in the Armenian alphabet and to architectural forms in medieval Armenian buildings) and with Panos Vassiliou‘s discussion of harmonizing type designs across different writing systems (something that you could see every day in the streets of Yerevan, where Armenian, Russian, and English all appear frequently in multilingual signage and advertising).

The two co-organizers, Edik Ghabuzyan and Boris Kochan, brought together an international group of type experts, not only for the judging but to encourage conversations and cross-fertilization within the field of non-Latin type design. This was a high-profile event in Armenia: we were interviewed for local television (and Edik told me later that Granshan was covered on all the local TV stations – something he had never seen before), and as president of ATypI I was invited to join Edik and Boris in a meeting with the Minister of Culture.

After the official events, Edik and his team took us on a day trip into the country to see Lake Sevan, one of the largest high-elevation lakes in the world (“This is our lake, our sea, our ocean,” said Edik proudly), the Black Monastery on a former island in the lake (the island is now a peninsula, thanks to Soviet-era engineering), and the historic monastery of Haghartsin. Then we claimed a patch of ground overlooking the forested river in the valley near Haghartsin for a family-style barbecue masterminded by Edik. I’ve posted a few photos from that day, along with Yerevan street signage and some images from the amazing exhibition of ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, and early printed books at the Matenadaran museum, on Flickr.

Substrate

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I’ve been musing about that wonderful word substrate, and contemplating its many permutations. The word has uses in biochemistry and philosophy, but the meaning that intrigues me is literal. By its etymology, a substrate is an “under-layer,” or what lies behind or underneath something. When it comes to letters, the substrate is the surface you write or print on.

The substrate gives typography its third dimension. Even when the surface is perfectly flat, it’s the surface of something. In printing, the substrate is the paper (and the occasional non-paper surfaces that people choose to print on). The substrate for digital type is the screen that it appears on, whether that screen is held in your hand or propped on your desk. (Or, indeed, mounted on the wall in your living room or a theater.)

Printing, in all its many forms, deposits ink on the paper. Type on screen is projected out of the substrate on the surface (and from there into our eyes). In e-ink and other kinds of smart paper, the letters are actually displayed inside the substrate. The substrate is the physical ground of “figure & ground.”

Essentially, type is about the nature of the substrate and how the type is rendered on that surface. In traditional printing, this is a matter of inking and presswork. On a screen (like this), this depends on resolution, and all the many tricks for making it appear finer than it really is.

Printing or display depends on the relationship between substrate and rendering. Everything else – the real heart of typography – is arranging.

[Photo: “Rock 6,” copyright Dennis Letbetter.]

PLINC is in the House

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It was impossible resist: when I got the package from House Industries with the catalog for their new Photo-Lettering collection, I had to use my old Photo-Lettering, Inc. letter-opener to slit the envelope. It seemed the right thing to do.

The catalog showcases lots and lots of newly digitized Photo-Lettering fonts from the heyday of over-the-top advertising typography in New York. Like all of House Industries’ productions, it’s a keepsake in itself. The cover stock for the catalog was milled exclusively for House by the only other business that could match their flair and sensibility, French Paper.

Most of the lettering styles sold by Photo-Lettering, then and now, are playful and exuberant; they were headline styles, sold to type shops that would price headlines for their clients by the letter or the word. Today you can buy headlines the same way, but in digital form, from photolettering.com.

The letter-opener? It was on my desk when I started at ITC as editor of U&lc, just down the block from where Photo-Lettering’s shop used to be; and it’s on my desk today.

Handle of the PLINC letter-opener