We easily associate typefaces with a particular moment in history, or an entire era, and there’s typography that forever refers to a specific place. Gill Sans + London comes to mind, and other examples abound. Although in the case of Gill Sans, we associate it with the place because of the way it’s been applied to London, not because of where or how it was created.
And so I’m wondering about typography that comes out of a place, somehow derived from highly specific geospatial coordinates. Can a typeface be created from a corner of a room, or from a particular building? (Is geotypography a thing? It should be a thing.)
Back in 2010 I created Ding Dong, an amusing sketch for an alphabet in Venice, and I drew Divieto in Rome in 2011. In each case, something vernacular and of the place (local, casual, conversational) inspired me to create letterforms. In Venice it was the doorbells, and in Rome a particular street sign. I treat these chance finds like evidence — inspirational cues to the language and history of the place, embedded in the culture of the street. I’ve discovered that creating these alphabets is an essential part of my work in a place. The find is like a scrap, or a cell, and I grow something from it.
These alphabets tie the work to the place, and refer to my presence in the place.
So I knew I had caught something again when I photographed this photograph of a sign in a shed behind the Weymouth Historical Society in Massachusetts. I drew it out and sketched the Stetson alphabet and decided it had to be a part of the Weymouths book project (the Stetson Shoe factory was at the heart of Weymouth, MA from 1885 until 1973). Creating a working font is not my expertise, so I’ve teamed up with the awesome Thomas Jockin and we are now collaborating on Stetson (one of his sketches, above).
I’ll use it for Weymouths and then make the OpenType font available for free download.
I love this idea of geotypography, and in this case I want to go further and call it geohistorical typography. Perhaps this opposes the Modernist idea of “timeless” design (think of Helvetica and the ability to associate it with anything, anywhere). Stetson is of a highly specific dual-spatiotemporal moment — it locates itself within the original photograph (late-nineteenth century New England), and more importantly, in the shed — with me, on January 11, 2012. From this grows something new.
Stetson Shoes was one of a number of shoe factories in the town of Weymouth. The Stetson Shoe Company closed its operations in 1973. The factory building has been converted to office space. Location is on Route 18 south of Route 3.
There’s a long history of typography that evokes time and place, usually in broad strokes—a decade, an era, a nation. Since creating Divieto I’ve had this on my mind: how personal can typography be? What if letterforms could evoke a narrower scale of memory—a specific moment, a building, a corner of a room. Shapes grabbed from within a photograph of an image of a photograph. Several layers of memory at work here. I want to extract something and bring it to the surface—letterforms carrying something along. Or perhaps they carry nothing at all. Inducing an association—the place, the moment, a deep history. Maybe I can re-draw the letters and resurrect a (new) alphabet, evoke something onto a working surface. Like sighting a ghost. This isn’t about technical accuracy or details; it’s about quickly throwing up the scaffolding around a ruin. A place to look. “Here is an artifact.”
A few notes from Matthew Carter‘s “Genuine Imitations” talk at Type@Cooper tonight. What a remarkable man! The legendary Mr. Carter spoke about his approach to typographic revival, using Big Caslon, Snell Roundhand, Miller, Yale, Vincent and others as examples.
- “My attitude to history is purely predatory.”
- “If you want to use history, you need to know more than history.” (Speaking about technology, context, motivation, etc.)
- On using both 18th and 19th C. versions of Caslon to design Big Caslon — “Walking the line between crudeness and blandness. A revival of a revival.”
- “Accuracy is not the truth.” (Quoting Henri Matisse.)
- On interpretation — “Too accurate and you end up with taxidermy.”
- On the type specimen as a musical score — “Everyone who revives Caslon ‘performs’ it differently. Each performance is a critique of the original.”
- On creating Vincent for Newsweek and a special “disaster face” headline version after JFK Jr.’s death —”Typography of the news follows the news.”
- “Newsweek today looks like a magazine that wants to be a website.”
- On typographic revival — “However large our forebears, and however puny your stance, you’re able to see further — at the very least, you have a slight advantage — when standing on the shoulders of giants. I feel a responsibility to use our technological advances to perfect what was possible in the past. The ghosts would approve — to innovate to the degree that’s possible.”
- “Tradition is produced by the innovators who keep it alive.”
- On web fonts — “I pray that there will be good web fonts, to take the heat off of me. Everyone’s bored with Georgia and Verdana. Will be interesting to see what happens to them.”
- On Georgia and Verdana — “To design a typeface for a particular technology is a mistake. The technology eventually changes, and the face is ruined.”
- On Helvetica — “I think often of Helvetica. I love it. I remember when it came, when it arrived. I think it’s great that it’s revived from time to time. I just wish it wouldn’t be used at small sizes.” (Talks about creating small-size use Bell Centennial for the AT&T phonebook.)
- On knowing when a typeface is finished — “A poem is never finished. It’s only abandoned. If you’re persistent you can feel when it doesn’t gel. You change something, it’s not right, you change it again, and then you pick it up and you say, Hello typeface! It really is hard. You have to kiss it goodbye…but there’s a long, patient drudgery until it’s quite right. If you’re honest with yourself.”
- Nick Sherman asks — Have you given much thought to how your own work will be revived in 10, 100 or 1,000 years? MC — “I like the feeling of continuum. I would like to pass it on, but I have no idea what aspects of my work would lend themselves to revival. Life is short and art is long — type designers tend to like the sense that their work will outlive them. I don’t really think about this but the idea of handing things down is a very sweet one!”
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted something directly related to design/typography, and for various reasons this has been a nice evolution for me. The writing/posting in Rome and here in Greece allows me to open up a new kind of expression that sweeps over larger parts of my life.
But I have been casually examining Greek typography while I’m here. When I say casual I mean a more “in-the-street” view of the letterforms that surround me in Athens and elsewhere, rather than a deeper investigation. My focus lately has been on meaning — the words themselves, rather than what they look like (of course, how meaning and appearance relate to each other is a whole other matter).
Recently I stumbled upon the Greek Font Society. They have a generic, clunky website via 2005 that is in serious need of an update. But what’s remarkable is that they’ve written a simple history of Greek typography, with free downloads of several Greek fonts.
I saw some version of this typeface (Jackson, above) in and around Mount Athos — enough to think that it was part of a branding effort. The visitor’s visa, a few road and dock signs, books. When it’s hand-painted it takes on different personas, but there’s a formality to the digital face, plus the distinctive yellow-orange color and the two-headed eagle. I later discovered that these are the official identity assets of the Greek Orthodox Church.
It’s Greek uncial script, more commonly referred to as “Byzantine” style — majuscule letterforms that were a critical part of the evolution of the modern Latin alphabet. Here’s an overly simplified chart showing where uncial script fits in (please excuse my lazy use of Wikipedia, the Cliff’s notes of the internet, but it helps). Greek uncial script evolved from the 3rd to 8th centuries as monks transcribed key biblical manuscripts, like the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus — one of the earliest known Greek Bibles, found in a monastery in Mount Athos. Lovely how it all connects.
It’s interesting to note the differences. The C shape is used instead of the modern sigma Σ for the “S” sound, and I’m assuming that the zeta “Z” sound is produced by the last character, which does not exist in today’s Greek alphabet. Psi Ψ is missing, as is omega Ω.
It’s referred to as the Panathinaiko (stadium of the Athenians) or Καλλιμάρμαρο (kallimarmaro) — “beautifully marbled.” Indeed it is. Maximum intent, minimal means. The elegant information graphics are barely there. Each section rises vertically from the track with a single letter or numeral.
I’m counting down my last few days here in Rome so I decided to take to the streets and capture as much of the fantastic typography as possible. The quality and consistency of signage in the Roman streetscape is astounding. Signage isn’t quickly replaced here, the way it is in NYC. Every other street in central Rome has superb examples of many decades (or centuries) of type, happily in use and still getting the job done. Inscriptions aside, the type isn’t always as refined you might find up north, but even at its quirkiest, Roman typography seems to retain an elegance, a generosity, an expressiveness that reflects the spirit of the city.
Coming back to NYC’s generic mess of insta-graphics and plastic awning wraps is going to completely depress me.
Question for the internet: let’s say I want to turn this into a working font. Right now these are vector shapes in Illustrator. Obviously I’ll add punctuation, numerals, etc. Then what? I’ve never done this before.