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by Ben Kiel

“What did you find at the dirt this weekend?” is often heard first thing Monday morning in the House Industries office. The office is staffed by collectors, always looking for the odd magazine, book, poster or object to feed into a current or future project and “the dirt”—the local flea market so nicknamed because one finds the best deals in the dirt, not the paved, section—is a favored hunting ground. Given the preponderance of designers sharing their collections online through sites like Tumblr, FFFFound or Flickr, it’s clear that we aren’t the only ones finding inspiration in collecting. Whether it’s a working library of books, a file of reference images or a penchant for thrift-store finds, the tendency to collect provides fodder for design work. In the areas of typeface design and lettering, where the notice of a small detail may become a body of work, a collection can be a personal dirt—a place to go digging for treasure.

To see how other designers pull from their collections while working, I asked several typeface designers and lettering artists to share what they collect and to talk about how their collections have influenced their work. Common was the sense that the work they produce and the objects they collect were joined, neither coming first but both growing organically out of their interests. Each brings an original viewpoint to their collection, which then becomes the starting point for a project.

A sampling of Andy Cruz’s tiki mug collection, showing the various lettering styles that were employed on the mugs.

Books are the obvious objects that many spend time amassing. “As much as I hate to give the exact answer one would expect, the only thing I collect is type specimen books,” says Christian Schwartz, partner in Commercial Type. “The first one I bought was the famous 1923 American Type Founders specimen, and a bunch of other American specimens followed, before I branched out to European specimens.” For Schwartz, this collection has been essential to his practice. “I couldn’t have designed FF Bau, a faithful revival of Schelter Grotesk, without the c. 1912 Schelter & Giesecke specimen that was my primary source.”

Though he currently doesn’t work on such strict revivals as much, Schwartz’s work is still grounded in typographic history. For this, his collection of specimens has proven to be an invaluable resource. Schwartz gives his working process for Commercial Type’s Graphik as an example. “I thought it would be interesting to look beyond the graphic design canon and the icons that everyone knows—Futura and Helvetica—to see what else had been done with these genres. There are some very interesting ideas to be found in the lesser-known examples of the geometric sans and the grotesk. Some were much more inventive than others, but each had its own individual charm, even when they weren’t executed particularly well.” In finding details that had been forgotten or had fallen out of fashion in different eras, Schwartz placed Graphik outside an exact period in type history; he created a design that is wholly modern but that also seems to have been unearthed from a previously unknown archive. Schwartz’s skill in combining his references with modern ideas brings an echo of history to his work.

For others, collections ranged further from the typographic. The collection of printer and typeface designer Russell Maret focuses on “photos of letters, mainly mediæval European inscriptional lettering and fin de siecle signage; books about the history of lettering, principally pre-typographic lettering but also typographic lettering from 1450 until about 1830; writing manuals, mostly in facsimile; and photos and books about pavement designs.”

A sample of Christian Schwartz’s Graphik. Images courtesy of Commercial Type.

Unlike Schwartz, Maret’s typefaces are only for use in the books he prints for his private press. His current work explores his long-standing interest in early non-typographic alphabets. “One of my photographic archives centers on early syllabic alphabets, mainly early Greek, Cypro Syllabic and Linear B. In many of my non-typographic alphabets I reference forms from these older scripts that are not necessarily Roman characters but read as them nonetheless,” he says. Maret uses those alphabets to explore connections between the meaning of a word and the physical form of the printed word. In so doing, his books exhibit a love of letterform common among letter artists and typeface designers. His favorite piece from his collection is Emil Hübner’s Exempla Scripturae Epigraphicae Latinae from 1885. “In it Hübner, an epigrapher with the German Academy, meticulously redraws thousands of classical inscriptions, dividing them chronologically so that you get a real sense of the alphabetic changes that occurred between emperors. It’s also very charmingly obsessive.” Much like Hübner, Maret’s work pays homage to inscriptional lettering but also extends its history into his own time period. 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.