Tuesday, August 04, 2009


The art of lettering has disappeared thanks to the automated fonts that come with computer software. Graphic designers and font historians have noted the utter ugliness of our contemporary lettering landscape. We are surrounded by signs, quickly produced without any concern for graphic coherence or physical context. The golden age of American inscriptions corresponds to the golden age of American advertising from the 1930s to 1960s. The television series Mad Men makes this amply clear.

I have started to look at building inscriptions more carefully. Middletown, Conn., like most American towns, is a treasure trove of stone carving from the 19th and early 20th century. As I take my 9-month daughter for a walk every morning at 7 am, I stop at buildings around Wesleyan's campus and quickly sketch some letter forms. I can spend a maximum of 10 mins. on each stop before my daughter gets bored and cries out for us to keep on moving. I am concentrating particularly on medieval fonts tracing their style along five buildings from 1867 to 1969. I must confess, I know very little about medieval lettering, as I have little technical expertise on manuscripts, for instance. Nevertheless, I am trying to train my eye on the formal differences of the letter forms and the following blog postings will hence be experimental.

Before showing some of these transcribed letters, I'll mention two books that I'm casually consulting to understand fonts. Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, Version 3.1 (Point Roberts, Wash, 2005) is a fundamental introduction to the principals of typography. I am also consulting a drafting from 1929, a time when lettering was essential to architectural practice. Thomas E. French was professor of engineering drawing at Ohio State. His book, A Manual of Engineering Drawing for Students and Draftsmen, 4th ed. (New York, 1929) was used as a standard textbook from its first publication in 1911. For those interested, French's 2nd edition (1918) is freely available on Google Books. To understand the spirit of architectural inscriptions, I quote the opening paragraph from the lettering chapter:

"In a broad sense the subject of Lettering is a distinct branch of design. There are two general classes of persons who are interested in its study, first those who have to use letters and words to convey information on drawings; second, those who use lettering in applied design, as art students, artists and craftsmen. The first class is is concerned mainly with legibility and speed, the second with beauty of form and composition. Architects come under both classes, as they have both to letter their working drawings and to design inscriptions and tablets to be executed in stone or bronze." (p. 34)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States