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Facing the world, typographically

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On Dec. 1 & 2, Stanford University hosted “Face/Interface,” a small conference on “Type Design and Human-Computer Interaction Beyond the Western World.” The conference was held in conjunction with an exhibition at Stanford’s Green Library: “Facing the World: Type Design in Global Perspective.” The exhibition, organized by Becky Fischbach, runs until March 24. (Go see it!)

The organizer of Face/Interface was Thomas S. Mullaney, an associate professor of Chinese history at Stanford who has spoken at ATypI and who wrote the canonical book on the history of the Chinese typewriter. Tom is an indefatigable organizer and a generous host, with a clear idea of what is required to make an event like this a success (and a ruthless way with a stopwatch, if speakers run over).

The roster of scheduled speakers was impressive. I knew this would be a notable event, but, as everyone seemed to agree, it turned out to be even better than we had been expecting. There was not a single talk that I was willing to miss, even first thing in the morning, and the interplay among them, dealing with varying languages and technologies and cultures, wove a rich tapestry of ideas. Which is exactly what a scholarly conference ought to do.

Not surprisingly, there were a number of references to an earlier typographic event at Stanford: the famous 1983 ATypI Working Seminar, “The Computer and the Hand in Type Design,” which was recently written about in an article by Ferdinand Ulrich in Eye magazine. That 1983 seminar had been organized by Chuck Bigelow, who at the time was an associate professor of typography at Stanford (the only person ever to hold such a position there – so far). And Bigelow was one of the closing speakers this year, thus tying together these events 33 years apart. (Donald Knuth, also a key figure of the 1983 seminar, dropped by on Friday for a while, though he had no official involvement in this year’s event.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Face/Interface didn’t figure as prominently in future typographic memory as the 1983 gathering has over the last three decades. It felt like a pivotal moment.

Highlights for me included Thomas Huot-Marchand on the contemporary successor to the Imprimerie nationale; Bruce Rosenblum’s highly personal account of “Early Attempts to Photocompose Non-Latin Scripts”; Liron Lavi Turkenich‘s visual tour through trilingual signage in Israel; Lara Captan’s tour-de-force performance, “Facing the Vacuum: Creating Bridges between Arabic Script and Type“; Gerry Leonidas on Adobe’s treatment of Greek typefaces; and the other two closing talks (mine was sandwiched between them), by Chuck Bigelow and John Hudson. Other notable memories include Tom Milo projecting his ground-breaking live-text Qur’an technology on a wall-sized screen in the Stanford maps collection, upstairs from the exhibition reception, and a lively conversation with Chuck Bigelow over breakfast on the last day.

For those speakers who didn’t have to rush off on Sunday, there was an informal brunch and tour of the Letterform Archive in San Francisco, where Rob Saunders showed off his collection and ended up selling off some of his duplicates to eager collectors such as myself.

[Images, top to bottom:] Chuck Bigelow, John Hudson, & John D. Berry after the closing presentations (photo by Chen-Lieh Huang); Chuck Bigelow at the podium; Sumner Stone, asking a question from the audience; John D. Berry at the podium (photo by Eileen Gunn); Becky Fischbach & Fiona Ross outside the hotel in Palo Alto; Rob Saunders’s hands showing off the original Depero bolted book at the Letterform Archive.]

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