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Keepin' It Casual
Informal Script Lettering in Mid-Century American Advertising and Design

by Ken Barber

The scholarship of dedicated letterers was matched only by the ingenuity with which they approached their craft. Experimentation with tools and techniques was de rigueur for the trade. For brush lettering artists, the dependable Winsor & Newton Series 7 was the principle workhorse in the professional’s creative arsenal. Despite its prized status, and considerable cost, professionals occasionally barbered or mitered the brush, carefully coiffing the tip in order to provide a particular effect. James Wood customized the albata handle of his favorite, notching it with “finger positions like a six-shooter.” Other trusty standbys included Osmiroid, Gillott and Speedball brand pens, the nibs of the latter often cunningly reshaped. Worn out and retired ruling pens gained new life after being filed down and cleverly customized to create varieties of unexpected letterforms. While Benguiat utilized this method for Suzie-Q and a handful of his Photo-Lettering alphabets, he credits the multi-talented Morris Glickman with originating the idea. Ray Cruz learned similar tricks from his years working with John Schaedler and Larry Ottino: “Larry used all kinds of materials for writing, even Popsicle sticks. Unusual tools have different types of restrictions that force you to work in new ways.” It was this unorthodox approach that gave a distinctive flavor to scores of lively headlines and logos.

Though no typeface has yet to match the uniqueness of hand-lettering, Underware’s Liza typeface attempts to capture some of the idiosyncrasies that make brush script one-of-a-kind.

“Finished lettering”—reproduction-ready as opposed to preparatory comprehensive lettering—was generally executed in one of two ways. Built-up lettering was meticulously drawn, while the knocked-out variety was written with a pen, brush or other tool. The real secret of free scripts is that they only appeared to be dashed off spontaneously; actually, both methods usually required extensive editing. Knock-out lettering was routinely created by piecing together the most successful and attractive letterforms from various takes. It could take dozens of write-outs to arrive at a finished piece of lettering. In some cases, significantly reworked script lettering demanded more time and attention to produce than a comparable job lettered in another, more conventional letter.

Left: Car emblems echoed the informal lettering fashions of the day, while attempting to express the essence of the automobile, be it leisure, speed or style. Right: Although influenced by mid-century brush script lettering, Martijn Rijven’s vector wordmark exhibits an unmistakably modern feel.

Despite the enthusiasm and resourcefulness of lettering artists in their pursuit of mastery over the casual script, the 1960s saw an apparent downturn in its use. The ensuing International Typographic Style, which emphasized restraint and uncompromising simplicity, appealed to the changing sensibilities of graphic designers. In 1969, David Gates assessed the situation this way: “...brush lettering either ‘says it’ exquisitely right or terribly wrong. Perhaps for this reason art directors and designers tend to avoid brush lettering. They can see how a typeface ‘speaks’ in their type specimen book, but they cannot be sure about a brush lettering caption that is yet to be produced.” Ruth Guzik, a gifted finished letterer who worked alongside Gates in Julian Mansfield's studio, attributes the decline to the changing currents of fashion: “By the time I started working for Julian in 1953, that trend had already started to fade; there wasn’t as much of a demand for it anymore. It’s like everything else. Things move in cycles—they die out, and then they’re back again.”

The 1955 Photo-Lettering Inc. catalog featured popular brush script styles from leading professionals like Ed Benguiat and Tony Stan.

Though casual script letters never left main-stream graphic design consciousness, appreciation for them has seen a welcome increase over the past years. Veteran letterer Doyald Young, a former student of Mortimer Leach, continues to create meticulously sculpted work, drawing on centuries-old historical forms as well as from more recent models. Consistently pushing the envelope, avant-garde typeface designers Underware add a unique perspective to the field; their inventive, yet disciplined brush-inspired typefaces, demonstrate a resourcefulness evocative of Roger Excoffon's unprecedented Mistral. Drawing on his experience behind a brush, Charles Borges offers a sign painter’s approach to casual script fonts. Within contemporary art, Evan Hecox’s cut paper-like lettering conjures up images of Stuart Davis’s iconic canvases, while the artist’s washy brush lettering looks like a modern-day script complement to Pete Dom’s ad work for Swans Down flour nearly 70 years ago. A stroll down New York City’s Canal Street is enough to remind anyone how provocative and memorable Stephen Sprouse’s energetic brush-lettered patterns for Louis Vuitton truly are. If nothing else, history has demonstrated the staying power of the casual script. Yet, even though experts make it look all too easy, typographic theorist Maximilien Vox reminds us, “Easy, yes, like playing the violin.” CA Barber
Ken Barber is a letterer and type designer at House Industries, and partner in Photo-Lettering, Inc. His work is in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and has been honored by the TDC. Barber teaches at MICA and the University of Delaware, and has lectured at the Royal Academy, The Hague and The Cooper Union. He also manages, an online resource for his students. Barber wrote the Typography column.