Designing with Letters in Chicago: the aftermath

January 16–17 · Indiana University / Bloomington, Indiana
My January trip to the Midwest began with a stop in Bloomington, Indiana to visit Paul Brown, Tom Walker and the Department of Art at Indiana University. Tom and Paul had invited me to do a one-day workshop on calligraphic tools. But first Tom took me to the Lilly Library to see manuscripts, incunabula and material accumulated by the Chicago engrosser Coella Ricketts. Tom and librarian Erika Dowell had ordered up a ton of items, far more than we could see in a few hours.

We began by rummaging through Ricketts’ uncatalogued papers in the bowels of the library. I was hoping to find some letters or ephemera related to the Frank Holme School of Illustration and maybe to Frederic W. Goudy, W.A. Dwiggins or Oswald Cooper. Ricketts was running a very successful engrossing firm at the same time that the school was in its brief existence from 1898 to 1904. But, although we came across some elaborately lettered letterheads and some intriguing correspondence that provided insight into the engrossing business, we struck out on what I had hoped to find.

We dashed through as many of the manuscripts and incunables as we could in an hour. Among the incunables we perused were books by printers Sweynheym and Pannartz (BR 65.92 C58 vault), Adolf Rusch (BR 65.Z3 vault), Wendelin da Spira (PA 6297.A3 1469 vault) and Erhard Ratdolt (PA 3873.A2 1477); and authors Bessarion (D 173.B55  E54 vault) and Roberto Valturio (U101.V2 vault). The latter, with its elaborate engines of war, was easily the most fascinating. The Rusch proved to be the most disappointing as the printing was fairly crude. In contrast, the Ratdolt, with a page of backwards initial Qs, was quite beautiful. We spent most of our limited time looking at the Teuerdank printed by Johannes Schoensperger (PT 1757.P5 T7 vault) in an attempt to figure out how the swashes and flourishes were printed. Among the items we did not get to see were books by Jenson, Dürer, Tory, Fournier, Bodoni and William Morris.

We only looked at one manuscript, Poole 24, that was written out by a Sanvito imitator. The lone Sanvito leaf owned by the Lilly Library had been taken out by someone to use in a classroom and was not available for me to see, which was a big blow. Since then I have ordered scans of both sides of it. Fortunately, Poole 24 turned out to be very interesting as I discovered that several lines of the frontispiece—written out in polychrome capitals in the Sanvito manner—bore traces of pencil roughing out the position of the painted letters. This was something I had never seen before in a Renaissance manuscript.

detail, frontispiece, Poole 24 (Lilly Library, Indiana University). Second half of the 15th c.

The next day I led a calligraphy workshop for Indiana University students and two ringers, one of whom was a Parsons student of mine who hailed from Indiana. The session included a survey of the history of Western writing from Ancient Rome to the Renaissance and then a basic introduction to the principles behind broad-pen writing: pen angle, proportion based on pen widths, and ductus (stroke order and direction of letterforms). The graphic design students, who have spent their lives in front of a computer screen with their hands on a mouse, found that handling a pen (even a Pilot Parallel pen that contains an ink cartridge) with a chisel edge was a difficult experience. But they quickly came to enjoy it, since they could see the direct consequences of moving their wrists, hands and fingers: instant mark-making. They did not learn calligraphy in a single day, but some discovered the kinesthetic pleasures of manually made letters—a spark to further exploration and learning with the broad-edged pen.

January 18 · STA at Columbia College / Chicago
My trip to Indiana University was ancillary to my trip to Chicago where I was scheduled to teach two workshops, one sponsored by the STA and Columbia College (thanks Erin Borosin and April Sheridan) and the other sponsored by the Chicago Calligraphy Collective (thanks Karen Ness and Lisa Kivland). Both were on the same topic: Designing with Letters.

Designing with Letters was a class I developed in the early 1980s at the School of Visual Arts that was intended to convince graphic designers that type was fun, that exciting designs could be done using only type (or letters made by hand). In retrospect the idea that designers needed to be convinced of this seems laughable. But this was before personal computers, digital design and fonts had become widely accepted within the design profession. Designers were still greeking type in layouts and gluing down galleys of type in mechanicals. Most were taught in school to treat type as “gray” shapes to be arranged in concert with photographs and illustrations. They hated type!

I spent ten weeks—the SVA course was part of the Evening Division—introducing designers and art directors to the joys of letters: letters made with broad-edged pens, pointed pens, chisel brushes, pointed brushes, ruling pens, Q-tips, lipstick and many other tools; letters carved into stone, wood and metal; letters made from torn pieces of paper; letters constructed on a grid or drawn freehand; letters in color and decorated letters; and much more. I showed them the work of calligraphers (the anonymous scribes behind the Lindisfarne Gospels, Edward Johnston, Rudolf Koch, Hermann Zapf, Friedrich Poppl, Rick Cusick…), letterers (Michael Harvey, Gerard Huerta, Tony Di Spigna, Jean Larcher…), graphic designers (Cassandre, Bradbury Thompson, Herb Lubalin, Rosemarie Tissi, Osvaldo Miranda, Victor Moscoso…), artists (David Jones, Ben Shahn, Hans Schmidt…), and much more. This was a class ahead of its time; most of this material can easily be found online in Flickr sets, websites devoted to “type”, and “typography” blogs.

Designing with Letters was broken down into eight basic concepts: Line, Rhythm, Shape (or Form), Negative Space, Pattern, Alteration and Mutilation, Decoration, and Color. Some of the principle concepts came from the writings of Nicolete Gray (Lettering as Drawing, 1971) but others were inspired by Ben Shahn (Love and Joy about Letters, 1963), Aaron Burns (Typography, 1960), Herb Lubalin, Bradbury Thompson and Edward Johnston. For the STA workshop I whittled the concepts down to four: Line, Rhythm, Shape and Negative Space. But in the end we spent the day focusing only on the first two.

We investigated the different types of lines that tools can make, depending on their features as well as the varying surfaces used to write on and the many motions made by the writer.  And we tried out many different rhythms to see how we could vary the appearance of a chunk of writing. The participants, all graphic designers or art directors, worked with Pilot Parallel Pens, markers, Automatic poster pens, and homemade “Cola” pens (that were actually made from offset litho plates rather than Coca-Cola cans). Check out Flickr to see some playful interpretations of the names of the workshop participants I did using these various tools.

January 19–20 · Chicago Calligraphy Collective / Chicago
The Designing with Letters workshop for the CCC was a two-day affair. Calligraphers, unlike designers, need no spur to discover the joys of making letters by hand. And the world of calligraphy has come a long way since its second revival in the 1970s. It is no longer focused on the broad-edged pen, but has come to embrace the pointed pen (formerly seen as the enemy by early 20th century calligraphy enthusiasts), the brush (both pointed and chisel-edged), drawn letters, and painting. What is often missing from contemporary calligraphy, though, is a sense of design. Tools, materials, and processes are dominant. This provided me with the opportunity to introduce calligraphers to the work of Fortunato Depero, Bradbury Thompson, Herb Lubalin, Armin Hofmann, Neville Brody, Ed Fella, Marian Bantjes and others from the world of graphic design.

My intent had been to cover the full eight topics over the course of two days, but as with the STA workshop, the participants got caught up in the early topics and so I decided to adjust the schedule. We ended up focusing on line, rhythm, shape and negative space with a quick exploration of alteration/mutilation. On day 1 we experimented with writing tools and on day 2 we used colored construction paper, scissors and glue to make letters. The assignment on the second day was simple—make an alphabet using circles, triangles and squares—but the results were incredibly diverse and some were surprisingly inventive. (See the CCC Facebook page.) This is what I enjoy the most about this particular workshop: seeing the solutions that participants come up with that go beyond those that I have seen before.

Luce Zolna, my chauffeur, brought a passel of ruling pens she had acquired on eBay over the years. I think she must have had fifty or so. I was curious to see how each worked and which ones worked the best. The five or six that I settled on as the smoothest and most pleasant to handle all had one thing in their favor: a long nose or ink portion. (In contrast the handles were often very short.) My theory is that a long nose allows the pen to be held on its side with less friction than a short nose ruling pen (as most of those available today are).

a sampling of Luce Zolna’s ruling pens.

Luce drove me back and forth to the workshop, held at the Irish-American Heritage Center, from the apartment I was staying in on North Lakeshore Drive. Along the way, I kept a sharp lookout for interesting signs. The one that captured my attention was a neon sign (in sans serif not “chop suey” letters) for Chop Suey, a Chinese restaurant on West Irving Park Road at Damen Avenue. The second morning—with the temperature around 10°—we stopped so I could photograph it. It was then that I discovered the two amazing neon signs for Cole’s Appliances around the corner on North Lincoln Avenue. I really need to take a trip to Chicago just to explore the signs in the various neighborhoods beyond The Loop and the North Side.

detail of neon sign on front of Cole’s Appliances (4026 North Lincoln Avenue)