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Starting with the silent film era, the faces of movie actors were captured on film and screened later to audiences. Typography had its stars as well: the leading designers and the faces they created for film composition. The heyday of letterforms created with light and film took place from the 1930s through the 1980s. Just as Hollywood became a center of moviemaking and celebrity, in typography there were concentrations of commerce and creativity. Atten­tion to subplots and a tour of firms and techniques can give us insight into this era of typography.

H. Van Buren Magonigle lettering.

As the motion picture owed a debt to the theater and the zoetrope, photo­-typ­ography had its roots in prior graphic art. In 1553, Wolfgang Fugger authored a lettering manual for calli­graphers, typefounders and printers. Fugger illustrated a series of joined or ligatured roman capitals with specific instructions for combina­tions. This approach was to be echoed over 400 years later. Closer to our time, H. Van Buren Magonigle, whose work appeared in the 1902 survey Letters & Lettering, and Thomas W. Stevens, from his Lettering of 1916, experimented with letters that flowed into one another, prefiguring later taste.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, text could be com­posed from a keyboard by pre-­electronic mechanical marvels such as the Linotype and Monotype machines. Display typo­graphy, typically for sizes 14 point or larger, was not always feasible on these machines. Larger sizes were composed by hand, using foundry type. Yet even in foundry type not all typefaces were available, and those that were came in a restricted number of sizes. For someone creating an adver­tisement, having metal type fit a particular area as desired might be literally impossible.

Anyone responsible for typography, often an art director or designer, would be in search of a solution. Precisely rendered lettering could solve the typographic problem. Art directors and designers of the time received training in producing handlettering in various styles; they might sketch what they had in mind and some even completed the needed artwork themselves. But specialization made sense, and alongside illustrators and photographers, lettering designers arose to produce work that met high expectations. Skilled letterers kept themselves employed in the face of cheaper typesetting.

As far back as 1915, inventors tried to replace heavy metal type with letters exposed onto photosensitive material. By the 1930s, hand­-drawn alphabets were being duplicated by photo­ stats, then letters were cut apart and assembled into display copy. This became known as process lettering, but the final product was much closer to typography. At about the same time, a working photo-­typesetting system featuring master alphabets on glass plates was developed in New Jersey. Known as the Rutherford photo-­lettering machine, a firm utilizing this manually operated invention was proposed by a group including typographer Ed Rondthaler and lettering designer Harold Horman. The intended target market was the demand­ing art director found in New York advertising agencies. The Manhattan venture was launched in 1936 as Photo­Lettering, Inc.

The firm was first to commercialize display photo-­typesetting. The Rutherford’s glass plates were later replaced by film when a dimensionally stable plastic base was perfected. Another machine was conceived in France and brought to the United States, pioneering text photo-composition in the 1950s. Adrian Frutiger developed his Univers family as a systematic approach to sans serif typography while his French employer Deberny & Peignot supplied phototype designs for what became known as the Photon.

Film played a leading role in new technology and businesses. The innovative Filmotype enabled manual setting of display type from two­-inch-high film reels. This format was adopted by the 1961 Photo­-Typositor from VGC, becoming a standard in North America. International Typeface Corporation was founded in New York in 1970 by Ed Rondthaler, Aaron Burns, a leading typographer who promoted the Typositor, and art director Herb Lubalin. Master film artwork permitted ITC as an independent “foundry” to release new typefaces.

Two-inch film font reel, for display photocomposition.

For the public, and for the art directors and designers who hoped to entertain them, the most noticeable changes were in display letterforms. New York was a center of print and broadcast media. One estimate in the 1950s asserted nearly 300 lettering artists, working on both “comp” lettering (layouts and presentation purposes) and finished artwork, in the city at that time, along with a half­-dozen process lettering or type studios. Both men and women, some were freelance, while others were employees or partners in studios.

One of the best-­known New York lettering designers was Tommy Thompson. In 1944 he was asked by the Saturday Evening Post to furnish display lettering for the weekly maga­zine. He and Photo­Lettering realized that a new phototype design made directly from his own renderings would solve the weekly production requirements, so a business deal was struck. In cities such as New York and Chicago, elite design­ers moved back and forth between roles in type and lettering. In Detroit, lettering artists Jerry Campbell and Richard Isbell created faces for phototype while servicing car advertising.

One stylish fashion was an enlarged body or x-­height. Types for lengthy text composition, such as in newspapers, appeared taller and easier to read at small sizes when cut with large x­-heights. Familiar types Goudy Oldstyle and Caslon 540, poster lettering and signwriters’ alphabets all tended to have reduced ascenders and descenders. Despite decorative types with intentionally small x-­heights such as Bernhard Modern or Nicolas Cochin, trends led in the opposite direction.

Art directors and designers embraced the look, stacking dis­play lines ever closer to gain impact. Classics, such as Caslon and Garamond, were freely reinterpreted. Techni­-Process Lettering, a midtown studio, showed a redesigned Caslon range in 1967 reflecting this aesthetic. Back in 1948, Lettering Inc. of Chicago showed a condensed sans serif range of nine weights with a large x-­height. The large x-­heights in early ITC faces reflected what other alphabets were wearing.

New Caslon series, Techni-Process Lettering.
Extract from Lettering Inc. catalog.

Over time, designers and art directors gained familiarity with older typefaces shown in specimen books; some were available, some discontinued. In search of distinc­tiveness, it was inevi­table that attention would shift to those locked-­up inside old pages. The Headliners type studio, with the Morgan Press, issued a series of display typefaces on film, many restored from nineteenth century wood type.

One typeface from 1914 inspired new fans. This was Morris F. Benton’s Souvenir for American Type Founders. Souvenir had an unusual combination of simplicity and Art Nouveau­ influenced curves. In 1969, New York adver­tising agency Young & Rubicam decided to commission a cus­tom Souvenir family for their client Eastern Airlines. Martin Solomon, of Larry Ottino/Martin Solomon Co., was responsible for creat­ing Eastern Souvenir in three weights.

Top line is ITC Souvenir Medium, bottom is Eastern Souvenir Medium. The v is flattened along the baseline in the ITC, while u and n serifs at the top are more sharply angled in the Eastern. Branching, where the curves leave the stems, is shallow or toward the outside in the ITC, yet deeper, or toward the interior, in the Eastern.

The Eastern Souvenir faces appeared in ads in the New York Times that spring and summer. Within two years, ITC had released its own revival of Souvenir; typeface designer Ed Benguiat had expanded Benton’s single design into a full family of four weights, each with matching italics. It provided an expressive counterpoint to the severe modernism that required sans serifs. Critics speculated Souvenir was popular because its rounded serifs and low­-contrast letters weren’t obviously damaged by poor photo-­typesetting. Nonetheless, it became a highly successful release for ITC, one today widely associated with the 1970s.

Phototype and scripts proved a particularly happy combina­tion. M.M. (Dave) Davison developed a joining Spencerian script for Photo-­Lettering. It achieved a rhythm and deli­cacy impossible to reproduce via foundry type. Similarly, Matthew Carter developed Snell Roundhand, which was inspired by eighteenth­ century English script. There was a specific intention behind Carter’s design; it was a demon­stration of the capabilities of the Linofilm photo-­typeset­ting system.

Emil Klumpp was responsible for the widely used metal Murray Hill script series, as well as Catalina in phototype. Klumpp, like Freeman Craw, also designed alphabets for Headliners. Separately, Freeman Craw had executed a custom display Didot for CBS, under the direction of William Golden. CBS Didot set a standard for elegant corporate type and was extensively deployed at the network’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue.

Headliners had established branches in Atlanta and Chicago, while competitor Lettering Inc. expanded into New York. Head­ liners later grew to over 50 subscribers worldwide, developing into an early phototype foundry. Another contributor was John Schaedler, who later went on his own. The John N. Schaedler Inc. catalog of 1972 included brush, ruling pen and informal roman display styles, sold on film for the Typositor and other two-­inch equipment. In keeping with the expecta­tions of art directors and designers, these styles included alter­nates and ligatures, giving them the variety associated with handlettering. The few alternates that accompanied metal typefaces, combined with competition by letterers, probably encouraged handlettered phototype families to be as expan­sive as possible.

Perhaps the biggest cross­over success story began in Manhattan. Photo­Lettering presented a new informal brush­ written series in its 1950 catalog: three weights named Pete Dom Twixt, Husky and Darky (the last retains Segregation­ era overtones). Peter Dombrezian’s wet-­edged characters included numerous alternates. There were at least three versions of each capital and lowercase letter, and two sets of figures for the Twixt weight alone. Pete Dom Twixt attracted interest from ATF, and the more restrained instances were selected for a new metal typeface. The type was named Dom Casual and completed in 1952. Its jaunty strokes and bouncy baselines are now consid­ered indicative of “retro” genre typefaces.

Pete Dom Twixt.
Dom Casual.

Typography even indulged in risky behavior during the photo­type era, with the rise of tight spac­ing. This had many antecedents. Before the invention of printing, medieval scribes wrote a condensed blackletter, forming a dense texture on the page. Film composition was free of restrictions on touching or nearly touching letters. In this envi­ronment, sophisticated designers encouraged optical spacing to bal­ance the negative spaces between letters, and many art directors and designers experimented with the effects of closely set headings. Kern­ing pairs became automated on computer­-driven film typesetting equipment, while tracking settings allowed control over the snugness of text composition.

New display faces, such as Book Jacket Italic by Ursula Seuss, were created with very tight spacing in mind. Serifs and other extending forms were made modest and consistent, allowing them to meld into adjacent letters. In the extremes, display lines were treated as logotypes, knitting together new liga­tures and forming abstract shapes. In less­-than-­competent hands the vogue for “tight not touching” spacing some­ times led to unattractive letter combi­nations. Mindful of reality, typesetting firms distributed spacing charts to their clients, recommending open spacing for captions and taglines on television, since letters often bled together on the screen.

The cooperation of art directors, designers, compositors and not least the typeface cre­ators themselves, resulted in the achievements in photo­ type. As with on-­screen roles, sometimes the combi­nations proved memorable. Lettering and type designer Tom Carnase partnered with art director/designer Roger Ferriter on a campaign for bus advertising. This led to the unique titling series known as Busorama, reviving Art Deco glamour. In the 1960s, Carnase collaborated with art director Herb Lubalin, before their work together on Avant Garde magazine and the resulting ITC Avant Garde Gothic. It was the ligatures and alternates of the Avant Garde Gothic type family of 1970, combined with Lubalin’s flawlessly executed tight spacing, that garnered attention.

Although mentioned only briefly above, the use of computers in film typesetting proceeded in stages. When CRT screens were engineered that could expose letters, photo-­typesetting began its final evolution. Film fonts took up more space, were more difficult to change, and more easily scratched than vector or raster CRT alternatives. These hybrids still exposed film or photosensitive repro paper, but the images were now fully electronic, cul­minating in halftones and type on a single sheet.

When desktop software gave art direc­tors and designers full control of their type, typographers were forced to become first service bureaus, then printers or close. Custom lettering had become considered a luxury, and taste shifted away from handmade display styles. Typeface design had a much happier ending, making the transition to digital type. But that’s a sequel with an updated cast, as we consider the unique influence of film stars from the past. ca

Peter Bain is principal of Incipit, a Brooklyn-based firm whose practice includes wordmarks, digital typefaces, handlettering and typographic design. Studio projects have been selected by the AIGA, Type Directors Club and Letter Arts Review. He has collected, curated and written on typography; and lectured in New York, London and elsewhere. Bain is a member of ATypI and teaches at Parsons School of Design. He wrote the Typography column.


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