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Archive for July, 2008

Legible in Poland


My recent article for Eye magazine, “Legible in public space” (first image at left), has been translated into Polish and will be published in the next issue of the Polish magazine 2+3D (second image at left), a design quarterly published in Kraków and devoted to “grafika plus produkt.”

2+3D looks like an interesting magazine, and I’m pleased to be in it. Wish I could read Polish.

Stern, the type


When I first opened the package from P22 with their press release and the specimen booklet for the typeface Stern, I didn’t make the obvious connection. I grasped quickly that it was a new design by Jim Rimmer, notable British Columbia punchcutter and type designer; and I understood that he was doing something unique by issuing the face both as a digital font and in foundry type for hand-setting. (There have been typefaces issued in multiple formats before, such as Sabon, and digital typefaces have been printed by letterpress, but I don’t think anyone has spanned the technologies quite this widely before.)

The obvious connection was the name: Rimmer had named his typeface in honor of artist/printer Chris Stern, whose work spanned the same broad swath of typesetting technologies, and who visited Rimmer and learned from him. It’s a fitting tribute, one that Chris would have appreciated.

He might even have put it to use in a book. The typeface Stern is unusual – “an upright italic type designed for hand-set poetry and diverse digital use,” as Rimmer describes it. The angle of the slant is very slight, as befits an upright italic, but the italic forms of e, f, m, and n give it a calligraphic feel.The wide, two-storey a creates a tension with the italic forms and makes it look more like a text face; there is, however, an alternate, single-storey a for occasions when you want a more consistently italic look. The caps are upright, and come in four different heights: tall, mid-height, small Aldine, and small caps. It looks like mid-height is the default, or at least that’s what was used in the elegant little specimen booklet designed by Rich Kegler.

In metal, Stern is a 16pt font, a size suitable for spacious settings of poetry or short prose passages. It’s a light and delicate-looking typeface, in both metal and digital form; digitally, of course, that lightness can be scaled up for use at display sizes. But it’s designed for use at large text sizes, and in the right circumstances, with careful treatment, it could shine. At first it looks peculiar, but it certainly grows on you.

Incidentally, the exhibit of Chris Stern’s printed work at Design Commission in Seattle has stayed up through July, and many of the broadsides and prints by printer friends of Chris’s are still available for sale; all proceeds go to paying off the huge medical bills that don’t go away even when you die.

In the spirit of technology-spanning, you can play with bits of the Stern letter forms at a site called Typeisart, which uses interactive Flash to let you create your own collage out of elements of the typeface. Watch out – it’s addictive.

Steampunk, steampunk everywhere


What was once a recondite literary movement in the science-fiction field has blossomed into a popular-culture phenomenon, and as far as I can see it’s done so overnight. When the New York Times starts writing about “steampunk,” you know it’s attracting wider attention, and has probably already passed its peak. Written steampunk took a cyberpunk sensibility and injected it into a substrate of Victorian technology and sartorial style; it married our fascination with the brass-gears science epitomized by the Time Traveler’s machine in the 1960 movie The Time Machine with a noir-ish outsider take on 19th-century society. The extension of this into popular culture has been fun, though often silly. Some of the “steampunk” clothing appearing now just looks like retreads from The Wild, Wild West; and the application of clockwork skins to digital electronics is basically a matter of decoration.

This seems to have gotten up the nose of someone at Design Observer (that design website that I always intend to keep up with, but never do). Randy Nakamura wrote a screed about the humbug of steampunk; I noticed it when Bruce Sterling, who has some implication in the development of steampunk, quoted from it (“Design Observer Hates Steampunk”) and exclaimed, “Man, this is priceless. The backlash has begun!”

But my favorite bit, which makes this worth writing about, is a momentary fantasy that Bruce spun between quotes and comments: “Maybe Randy Nakamura would like ‘steampunk’ better if it was called ‘Eamespunk’ and involved making computers out of bent plywood.”

September in Peter’s town


Registration is open for the 52nd annual ATypI conference (St. Petersburg, Russia; September 17–21, 2008). In fact, we’re coming up on the cut-off point for the discounted “very early” rates. After July 18, you can register at the “early” rate (still a discount); after August 15, only at the full rate. So it pays to plan now. The preliminary program is online already, and the website has information and advice on planning travel, including visas, and accommodation in St. Petersburg. See you there?

This upcoming weekend, we’ll see the other major type gathering of the year, TypeCon2008 (Buffalo, N.Y.; July 15–20, 2008); in fact, the pre-conference workshops should be happening right now. Unfortunately, I can’t make it to TypeCon this year, but I’m sure it will be enjoyable (even if I won’t miss re-experiencing an East Coast summer’s heat and humidity). This year, as I pointed out to SOTA director Tamye Riggs, is the tenth anniversary of the first tiny TypeCon, held in an exurban hotel in Westborough, Mass.

And I just got off the phone this afternoon with Roger Black, discussing plans for next year’s ATypI conference, in Mexico City. Both St. Petersburg and Mexico City mark expansions beyond ATypI’s traditional heartland of Western Europe and occasionally North America; this seems appropriate given the widespread nature of type in everyday life.

Cow down


There was no typography involved, but there were a lot of different styles and schools of art. The mural was painted twenty years ago on the side of an utterly nondescript light-industrial building on East Madison Street in Seattle, the home of a locally owned icecream company called Fratelli’s. Its subject was cows, not unusual for an icecream manufacturer. But the cows that covered the side of the Fratelli’s building came in a collage of visual styles, each one reflecting the characteristics of a particular school of painting. There was the Cubist cow, the Impressionist cow, the Jackson Pollock cow. Looming behind them all was the outline of Mt. Rainier, the 14,000-foot volcano that dominates the horizon of Puget Sound. The forms interlocked and interacted in ironic and playful ways, all in the context of what, on the surface, appeared to be a pastoral scene. To walk or drive past this mural was to be reminded of how whimsically and creatively art can spring up.

Detail of cow mural

Fratelli’s went out of business years ago, and for quite some time the building has been awaiting demolition, to make way for some kind of redevelopment on the site. I’ve watched ivy grow over parts of the mural, and more recently large spray-painted graffiti tags appear on top of the lower cows. This past week, finally, the wreckers came, and the building was reduced to rubble.

Several years ago, when the building had already been abandoned for a while, I borrowed Eileen’s digital camera and took a bunch of pictures of the mural – close-ups of each cow, and each odd architectural feature (like the way the artist incorporated the protruding base of the concrete stairway into the mural), as well as some shots from across the street to capture the whole thing together.

Detail of cow mural

Detail of cow mural



When I googled the name “Zapfest,” to find something I had written about the 2001 San Francisco celebration of calligraphic type, I was startled to find a link to something called “Zapfest 2008.” It turned out to be a one-day music festival in Oxford; it also turned out to be, for reasons unexplained, canceled. (Well, these things happen.) I don’t imagine the reasons had anything to do with possible confusion with a typographic festival that took place seven years ago, but it’s an odd juxtaposition. Clearly, for the organizers of the Oxford music event, the name breaks down into “Zap” plus “fest”; the combination “Zapf” would have been a coincidental one. But for those of us who know and admire the work of Hermann & Gudrun Zapf, it’s hard to imagine not immediately thinking of them and their work upon seeing such a name.

Incidentally, the book that came out of the original Zapfest exhibition is still available.