Monday, June 15, 2009

Imaginary Alphabets

This article originally appeared in the magazine, Patterns of Creative Aggression

The suburbs of Detroit lack stimulation. They are gray and sprawling, with stretches of beige strip malls and occasional blips of town squares that hold the only ‘old’ buildings to speak of. The earliest of these were small hubs for early 19th-century farming communities on the outskirts of ‘the big city’. I grew up in Birmingham: an affluent suburb whose city centre is indulgently called ‘Downtown’ based on its ‘eccentric’ 1920s buildings.

An Australian passing through wouldn’t see the grandeur of Gold Rush architecture; a European might be surprised if they knew this place was, for a time, the home of Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll. But to a bookish child resident, ‘Downtown’ was a source of excitement and importance. I had never been to Europe or New York City, but I imagined this, only bigger, and not surrounded by any ranch-style houses. My favorite thing about these buildings wasn’t even the buildings themselves, but the large and dismissive companies within; the ones with their names carved above their revolving Deco doors. Or the small and exclusive restaurants, with gilded lettering on glass or wood panels. This was a city to me: the letters that told you where you were, or where you were supposed to go.

* * *

Of course, my idea of Europe and New York weren’t quite on the mark. No one can really prepare you for that. In France I fell in love with the red tin ‘Sortie’ and deep blue ‘Rue Saint Jacques’. In New York it was the faded yellow paint on bricks, whose black oblique brush strokes read ‘No Stick Ball Here’; it was the twin entrances of a Catholic school, with ‘Girls’ and ‘Boys’ carved dauntingly into stone. I noticed and craved to notice more and more, and not just the quaint colloquialisms but the signs and letters that showed neglect, decay and loneliness. My lifelong obsession with letters was getting an education beyond old typography classes. Their imperfection established personality, and it was about this time I realized that letters had become, in my mind, like people.

* * *

Walking by Punch Lane in Melbourne one day this winter, I spotted a sign for a restaurant I’d never seen before. It was hand painted, with confident but elegant strokes; boldly upright, white on black. As a script it looked so perfectly united—as if you’d never question the shapes of the letters or how they came to be standing next to one another. And I suppose this is what you want from a piece of lettering: for your word to look like one piece, as opposed to letters that just happen to be standing next to each other, like strangers in the bank queue.

When the word is a name, it’s even more important to maintain solidarity. After all, you wouldn’t want someone to look at your name and think, “jeez, wouldn’t his name be so lovely if not for that unfortunate ‘s’ hanging out at the end.”

I do realize of course that most people don’t have this kind of internal dialogue. But since I do, it was natural that once I passed this sign, I continued to think about it for the next several days.

So I went back and I took photographs of it, perching precariously atop a very narrow cement bollard. I wanted to know what the rest of the characters would look like if a whole alphabet had been made from this lovely script. This is what I came up with.

Above: introduction to the first in the series, Imaginary Alphabets.

Imaginary Alphabets is a lot of things for me: a way of procrastinating when I’m in between jobs, a way to promote and exploit myself and my skills, and perhaps most importantly, an exercise in my continuing self-education of typography. For others, I hope that the alphabets cause people to look up more, to notice their surroundings and how they are always and constantly changing.

I focus on found lettering rather than mechanized type because it calls attention to a craft that’s (mostly) functionally obsolete, but that is also essential for our understanding of type today. Hand-lettering has more identifiable flaws, and that is what gives it character. No two letters are alike in a piece of lettering, and what’s more is that each letter is shaped by the letters on either side of it: a letter’s past and its future are determined by its surroundings, which I suppose is a poetic way to explain why they are so humbly important.

* * *

Soon after completing the first Imaginary Alphabet, I spotted this fantastically faded, neglected script on a building on Smith Street in Collingwood. I’d been wanting to find some lettering in that area to explore because it was the first place I saw in Australia, and it was so far from what I thought Australia looked like that it still seems surreal to me.

I noticed the lettering on this building last September on Smith Street near Johnston in Collingwood. Its appeal was immediate—not only because of the letters’ deftly painted scrolls and faux-gilded depth, but also because it has that sense of old school, no-nonsense graphic design about it.

Sure enough, when I began researching it, I discovered a remarkable similarity between the lettering all along the shop fronts of turn-of-the-century Smith Street. It was a sign of the times, so to speak; a testament to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Australia.

It was interesting to me, looking through the old images of Collingwood and Fitzroy and what the beginning of capitalism really looked like; and it was ironic that I was investigating this while Wall Street was crashing in New York—it was as if I was seeing it all come full-circle.

Encouraged by the striking resemblances in sign lettering from the old photos, I started scrambling to find out who the sign writer was. My research at the moment has come to a dead end, however, and in the meantime, I learned that these alphabets are quite ubiquitous, and not nearly as infrequent and special here in Victoria as I had initially hoped.

So I decided instead to create an alphabetic response to my research, and to suspend my energy for a new and complete alphabet til something else presented itself.

* * *

The Process.

I finished the third alphabet yesterday. I had found the sheet music in a collectibles shop in the Yarra Valley and liked the variety of old Victorian penwork. Sheet music has such a distinct form; it’s regimented but has such energy and movement because of the musical notation. I also like that lyrics sort of get dragged through along the bottom of the fits and starts of notes and rhythm. The lyrics to this music are that kind of lame, innocuous old-timey music that fits so well with the sharp but bouncy letters in ‘Marguerite’.

I started by scanning the sheet music; then I quickly traced the letters in Illustrator. A lot of people ask me if these alphabets are ‘working’ fonts; the answer is no. They don’t need to be used in other contexts; the point is to make the letters exist basically as they were found, only with their other family members. I hate to think what people would do with these alphabets if they could load them up in Microsoft Word. Even the act of digitizing them would destroy a lot of their spirit.

After the existing letters have been made, the basic shapes needed to create the rest of the alphabet begin to surface. The ‘d’ and ‘b’ help create the ‘p’ and ‘q’. These shapes then define the ascenders for other letters like the ‘h’, which defines the ‘n’ and then the ‘m’. This process helps me identify letters for their similarities and differences. I can establish their height, thickness of strokes, and by experimenting with a pen and nib, figure out the various ways a letter can start and finish.

The overall goal is to capture the spirit of the found lettering. Like the buildings around me growing up, it is the personality and knowingness of the letters that — for me — give us our sense of direction, time and place. They remind us of what came before us, and hint at what could be ahead.