The stems of Gerbera daisies are notoriously weak, so at the corner florist they wrap tacky clear plastic all up and down the stems. The last time I bought them, I took the plastic off, only to find the heads drooping in a matter of hours. Today I tried making an armature from a coat hanger using needle-nose pliers. I like the linear quality of the wire against the stems.
In one of the computer labs where I teach, there are wall-mounted cameras that feed a live video stream into the manager’s office. The rules of the computer lab are strict—no food or drink, no cell phone usage, and no use of any tools such as X-acto knives or scissors. From time to time the manager of the lab will spot an infraction on his monitor and come in to the classroom and confiscate contraband. I have come back from breaks to find my things confiscated (Did the manager wait until I left the room? I wonder).
To enter the lab, you have to swipe your ID card at the front desk. Your picture pops up on a monitor manned by the student on duty. Next to your picture your name, employee ID number, and other details appear on the screen. All this information is displayed until the next person swipes their card. The monitor is positioned—cluelessly—so that anyone passing by can see your details.
The technicians who have set up this regime of surveillance and control are blissfully unaware that any of this could be a problem. The relentless logic of data capture and “security” trump any other concern.
In discussing this with my students, I came up with an idea to expose the hierarchies of control that define the room as a social space.
The computer work stations are aligned around the perimeter of the room. In the center of each wall is a large monitor on which I can display images from my master computer. There is a large conference table in the center of the room where we can gather for crits.
I devised a series of movie titles that I could display on the large wall monitors, large enough to be read from the surveillance camera. In effect, this would transform the video feed—which I cannot see—into a movie directed by me. The movie is called The Empty Banquet. The titles were created as a pdf that automatically displays the titles in sequence.
Although I showed this to my students, I have never put the full plan into execution. But this is the overview with selections from the title sequence.
One of the assignments I give is the design of a Chinese take-out box. So while the titles play, I would begin to lay out objects on the central conference table: sixteen individual place settings. Each setting would be composed of a closed chinese take-out box, a paper coffee cup with a lid, a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks, and a napkin. None of the containers would have any food or drink in them.
The nature of these place settings is ambiguous. Is it a class party? Am I serving food? Or is it like a trade display, showing various forms of packaging? Or is it a design lecture?
Would the manager come running into the room to shut down the “class party”? Would he reveal himself? What kind of conversation would transpire when he realized that he had been induced to enter the room?
My friends tell me I will be fired if I ever try to realize this movie.
Issue 29:2, The Process Issue, just arrived from the printer.
It’s a special issue. It’s entirely dedicated to projects and the processes of the artists who made them. Twelve lettering artists agreed to participate, and the range is enormous—from personal projects to commercial work, and from tiny ceramic bowls to huge metal installations.
The projects featured are by Carl Rohrs, Sue Hufton, Amity Parks, Liesbet Boudens, Martina Flor, Louise Grunewald, Brody Neuenschwander, Lawrence Wheeler, Mike Gold & Stephen Rapp, Yukimi Annand, and Tracy Mahaffey.
As the editor and designer of the magazine, it was a huge challenge fitting in so many diverse projects. But it was great working with all the artists. (Hat tip to all of them!)
Here’s a tease—one spread of the first project, by Karl Rohrs:
I’m working on a project at the moment that examines New York City’s water supply. Using the names of the towns and reservoirs in the watersheds north of the city, I’m creating labels for bottles from which to serve NYC tap water. The aim is to raise awareness about the incredible resource our tap water represents. It’s very much in process at the moment, but I thought I’d drop some sketches here. These are screen grabs from my Illustrator files as I work from sketched lettering to finished vector-based art.
As you can see, these are all in various stages of development. Eventually, each label will be covered with details and texts explaining the water system. They will look like expensive mineral water labels when they’re done. The aim eventually is to use them at events. I’m working with a caterer for the launch of the project.
[Note: This is the last in a series of posts about Letters From New York. The first one is here.]
After seven issues of LFNY I felt that I had done about as much as I could. My colleague Holly Cohen joined me as editor for the last two issues, while I continued to design and produce the books. But with LFNY7 I knew it was time for me to bring it to a close. It’s better to go out on a strong note than to continue soldiering on.
About a year a later, in discussion with a friend in the Society of Scribes, I thought perhaps the issue of the SoS journal should be revisited. She and I came up with a plan to continue LFNY, which we presented to the board of the society.
I had noticed one great flaw in my design of the original series. The name—Letters From New York—was great. And the photographs on the covers were very effective. As a journal designed for the membership of the society, it worked vey well. In bookstores for the general public, however, it was misleading. When issues were on sale at bookstores, I sometimes went down to see where it was on the shelves. At one book store it was very prominently displayed. But I watched as members of the public picked it up: They were attracted by the cover, but then they would leaf through and put it down.
And I knew exactly why. For a specialized audience, the word “letters” in the title was a clever riff off “lettering.” But for the general public, it looked like it would be a collection of the kind of letters you might send in the mail. The books looked too much like novels or essays about the city. No wonder people looked and didn’t buy.
The plan my friend and I came up with was to drop “Letters From New York” as the title of each book and to use it as the name of the series instead. Each book would now have its own title, directly related to the content. And each book would be designed around a single topic, rather than including a series of unconnected articles.
This new approach would also give opportunities for different editors and designers to step in. Instead of having one person continue to churn out issues one after another, now each one could be produced by a guest editor and designer. The whole plan was much more flexible, and actually better on target.
So Letters From New York now carries on. The eighth book in the series, entitled Ewan Clayton in Conversation, was edited and annotated by Holly Cohen and designed by Rosemary Kracke.
I’m no longer editor or designer of the series, which now takes on its own life. The irony of this new issue is that the person Ewan Clayton is talking to is me. Our conversation was recorded at a public meeting of the Society of Scribes at the Grolier Club in New York. But I’m glad to pass the baton and share anything I’ve learned from starting the series.
In this series of posts on Letters From New York, I’m focusing on the design challenges and decisions I faced as I laid out each book. This last post shows a few highlights from the seven-book series.
LFNY2 Was entirely dedicated to an article by Paul Shaw about lettering in public places in New York City. He had selected about fifty inscriptions and other examples of lettering. When the issue was came out, it led to a wonderful short piece in The New York Times by Christopher Gray.
Paul gave me many pictures to accompany the article, but I also went out and shot some of the sites he described in his long article. The photography challenge was immense—some inscriptions were high up on buildings, were obscured by scaffolding and street furniture, or were awkwardly sitting in half-shadow. To get the shot above of the Bowery savings Bank on 42nd Street, I made a joiner, taking sections of the inscription and kitting them together in Photoshop.
Because of limited budgets, every issue after the first was printed in black and white. Our paper was uncoated, so the images had to be high in contrast. I made another joiner of the (now demolished) Cheyenne Diner. To boost the contrast and show the lettering to its best, I ran it through a filter in Photoshop which emphasized the edges. The sign from the Collins Bar on the right is also a memento of a destroyed local business in the city.
Photographing the covers was also a challenge. I tended to create the props, choose the location, and rope in friends to be my models. But beyond that, there was a lot of trying out variations. On some shoots, I took as many as three hundred photographs. It was playful and fun. Below, I showed out-takes from the shoot for LFNY2.
The finished cover for LFNY2 can be seen in my first post in this series.
In LFNY4, we did a long article on the now-lost 5pointz, a factory in Long Island City that was once a world-famous venue for serious graffiti writers and street artists. We had permission from Meres, the man who was in charge of 5points, to photograph. The article was written by Bradford Winters. I took the photos.
[As an aside, I am adding in the picture below, taken on November 19, 2013, the morning it emerged that the artwork at 5pointz had been painted over by the owner of the building. I ran down and photographed people standing and staring at the blank walls in disbelief and anger. This picture did not appear in LFNY]
LFNY4 also featured images of Tibetan artifacts I took at the Latse Library in New York:
The structure of the page was carefully worked out. The trim proportions were in the golden section—at the time, I was rereading Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, and I wanted to try out some of his ideas about shaping the page.
The article shown above was about social calligraphy—wedding invitations, envelopes, and menus. It shows the style I adopted for headings and text. The books had a one-column grid for regular text; more complex grid lines allowed for variations when I had smaller pictures and captions. (The clear plastic menu shown above is by Rory Kotin).
The text was set entirely in Adobe Garamond Premiere Pro. That gave me lots of interesting ligatures to work with. I used the ligatures in setting headings, but kept them to a minimum within the text. It was a pleasure having the slightly heavier caption weight for smaller text.
One of the great challenges of the rather intimate page size was how to proportion the pictures. In a standard US Letter-sized book it’s easy to have a big picture that can show lots of detail. But in the small format I had chosen, I was forced to be more inventive. As I often find, limitations and challenges have a tendency to produce more interesting results. As I laid out LFNY, I often included a small picture showing a work in its entirety next to a very close-in detail shot. The effect was marvelous: whereas in my larger-scale book designs, I’m content with a single big image, in LFNY I brought the viewer’s eye right in to look at tiny, exquisite details.
In my design, I used the first spreads inside many issues for visual puns: a photograph of something taken in the streets was juxtaposed to a visually similar image from the history of lettering.
The title pages also bore frontispiece photographs. As the series progressed, the title pages evolved in their design. In the first LFNY were were fortunate to have four-color printing.
Letters From New York is a series of books I made for the Society of Scribes (SoS) in New York City. In 2006, the society had not published a journal for some time, so I approached them with a plan to relaunch their journal.
I thought it was important to break the mold a bit. Many calligraphy associations around the country publish journals. Some of these are very crisp, professional publications. I wanted the SoS to have a strong presence with its new journal. As a result, I wanted to give it a clear identity and a distinctive look.
A group of my colleagues met with me to brainstorm ideas for names, and Letters From New York was decided on. (Later, the SoS would relaunch its newsletter under the name News From New York, which gave the society’s print publications a nice symmetry).
Rather than going with the standard letter-size, 36-page format, I decided to make the books smaller and chunkier. They came in at 80 pages, with a page size of 5.25 x 8.375, perfect-bound. This made them stout enough to stand on a bookshelf. They weren’t magazines; they were books.
For the covers (shown above), I decided to use a photographic treatment, putting the title into typical city scenes, and integrating lettering and photography. I did most of the lettering myself, but the lettering for LFNY2 and LFNY4 were executed by Karen Charatan and Anna Pinto, respectively. I took the photos.
When the journal came out, we were fortunate to get it into the book shop at the Cooper-Hewitt and at Urban Center Books, which is now sadly closed. LFNY2 Also got a call-out in the New York Times.
In the next few posts, I’ll walk through some of the aspects of the design and some highlights of the seven issues I produced.
Graphic designers do many small things to help the wheels of business turn. This was a logo for a start-up car service that was looking for a visual identity in its planning stages. I helped create an initial branding scheme. Unfortunately, the financing didn’t come through. But I enjoyed working with the client on this logo, and I was sorry it was never launched into the world.
Commissioned by a friend who is a professional chef, this poster features the rich slang of traditional delis and luncheonettes. It exists in several iterations; the first was a present for her husband, the next was a gift for one of her colleagues. We’ve selected different terms each time we’ve printed it out.
In the upcoming issue of Letter Arts Review (28:4), which is now at the printer, I’ve included an article on the use of exemplars in teaching calligraphy. I interviewed a wide range of teachers and found a surprising variety of approaches. Some question whether we should hand out exemplars at all.
In my most recent calligraphy class at Pratt I decided to make a new set of exemplars. Instead of the classic alphabet marked up with stroke orders and directions, I decided to write a few lines of text in each script. These exemplars were made in one afternoon. Apart from a little cut-and-paste work, the writing was presented exactly as written, without retouching. After each quotation, I added a few extra words so that every letter was represented.
The texts are by Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, and the contemporary New York poet, Emanuel Xavier. Because I didn’t get copyright permissions, I didn’t publish these in my article.
I found it funny that not one student remarked on my choices of text.
Seen on the street in front of the studio:
And on 21st street in Astoria, there is what must have once been a Midas Muffler shop:
The same name is transliterated into the Urdu version of the Arabic alphabet in the front window: