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by Ben Kiel

Maret isn’t alone in collecting non-typographic sources of inspiration. Though Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones famously out-bid each other for rare type specimen books before partnering as designers in 1999, one of their firm’s more famous typeface designs, Gotham, came from Frere-Jones’s photographic collection of New York City façade lettering. Until the middle of the twentieth century, this lettering was often created by engineers or draftsmen fulfilling a specification for a building's signage. Focused more on the need to make legible letters and less on traditional typographic tradition, this lettering style has what Frere-Jones calls the “mathematical reasoning of a draftsman.” Combining this practical typographic naiveté with the tempering hand of a typeface designer, Gotham takes from those lettering forms and makes them work as a typeface family without losing the warmth they bring to the design.

Three stamps from Mike Davis’s collection: (from left) unknown designer; stamp design by Lance Wyman; and unknown stamp designer.

From hot-rod magazines to modern furniture, Andy Cruz, co-owner of House Industries, has fueled the output of the studio with his various collections; his collection of tiki mugs, started at thrift stores, flea markets and the early days of eBay, is just one example. “The names and logos of Polynesian dining establishments were often sculpted in clay as dimensional lettering or stamped somewhere on these majestic appropriations of Oceanic art. The mugs and the stories they told about glazed clay and America’s love for sucking up booze from ceramic idols in South Pacific-themed restaurants supplied the fuel for a font collection in the 1990s,” Cruz says. The mugs’ typographic forms became the basis of the Tiki Type typeface collection and the associated T-shirt packaging that mimicked the mailing tubes for the mugs. The influence of Cruz’s collection didn’t end there. “As with most nerds who obsess over their collections, I soon became fascinated with the kilns/manufacturers and studied the production techniques of these ceremonial imbibing artifacts,” he adds. This interest in ceramic production lay dormant until recently when it found application in a number tile project with Heath Ceramics—almost two decades later.

Like Cruz, Mike Davis, designer/illustrator/letterer at Burlesque of North America, looks to both production technique and period style in his collection. He collects remnants of popular culture from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, searching after ephemera, records and design books. “The creative envelope was getting pushed so far just before computers became available,” Davis explains. The influence of pre-digital production techniques is the foundation of his work, which either employs similar techniques or mimics them digitally. Of all the ephemera in Davis’s collection, postage stamps are his favorite: “There are folks who collect the rare ones, the upside-down airplanes, the kitten stamps, etc., but I’ve been more interested in the stamps from the ’70s with really heavy graphics, all very indicative of the era. There are some absolute gems out there, some of which you’d never expect to see showing up in your mailbox. Big name designers like Peter Max, Israel’s Asher Kalderon and Dan Reisinger and Bulgaria’s Stefan Kanchev have cranked out some truly breathtaking designs—all printed on about one square inch, not for an art gallery, but for an everyday throwaway item.” The influence of this collection, which he shares at So Much Pileup, can be seen in Davis’s poster designs. He employs the same technique of bold lettering, bright color and graphically simplified illustration to make his posters pop off the wall in much the same way that his favorite stamps drew attention when affixed to envelopes.

Andy Cruz’s collection of tiki mugs inspired the glaze selection for a partnership with Heath Ceramics.

Russell Maret’s 2011 New Year's card using his non-tyographic alphabets. The card is a preview of Specimens, a book of his typeface designs to be published in the Fall of 2011.

Mike Davis’s poster for Arcade Fire was loosely inspired by the styles he found in his collection of postage stamps.

A collection says something about a designer’s body of work and what they value in the work of others. For all I spoke to, collecting is a way of focusing one’s attention on the tradition in which they are working. Collections influence not only aesthetic choices but also give inspiration for production methods and ways of working. They encourage exploration and research into related fields as the collector's interest and knowledge grows. A collection reinforces the idea that no one works in a vacuum and that influence can be found in the common or the rare. And not least of all, collecting provides the thrill of the chase, of rounding a corner and finding something that stops you in your tracks, be it something you'd been searching for, or an unexpected treasure. CA Kiel
Ben Kiel is a typeface designer and developer at House Industries. He also teaches at MICA and the University of Delaware. Before working at House Industries, he worked both as a graphic designer and as an apprentice letterpress printer in St. Louis, Missouri. Kiel received an MA in typeface design from the University of Reading, UK in 2005.