New York Findings

  • By OSNS

    Published on 12 December 2014

So, I am back here in Melbourne. When  I first emerged out into the mid day heat of the Tulla airport after a fortnight in the dusky NYC twighlight light , the bright summer light of Melbourne burned my retina and it was a shock.  Yes, I have just returned from a short trip to NYC, and what is the most important thing that I have taken from my trip? 

Type and Lettering in NYC is taken very seriously  with what feels like greater consideration than here, with a clear distinction made between illustration and lettering. Lettering is lettering, and NOT illustration. Design is design ! and kiddish cartoons in bright primary colours are for the kids and get little respect, because it's all about the craft !  Especially at the Cooper Union and the Lubalin Centre. 

What an incredible bridge and an incredible feat of engineering, built in 1870 all by hand !

It's something to think about. I asked Ken Barber of House Industries what he thought of Marian Bantjes work (which I have always admired). He told me (very respectfully) that he views Bantjes as more of an illustrator than typographer or letterer, because her work does not focus on the perfect spatial arrangements of stroke weights and counterform, it is also about flowers, and patterns and creative illustration. It is a purists point of view which  course convenor at Cooper Union, Cara Di Edwardo also holds about some of our Australian lettering favourites. 

John Downer is a typographer and letterer of which we hear little in Australia. More the pity for us, because his knowledge of type and skill in drawing beautifull word marks, and sign painting perfectly spaced and lettered compositions was jaw dropping. And such a friendly, humble and down to earth person he is. There are so many true craftspeople in NYC to learn from, who focus on the pure craft.  Celebrity and trends seem to belong elsewhere and it would be so great to just work alongside John Downer for a month.

I came back feeling empowered, with steel in my belly to continue along my path, knowing that OSNS is so valuable and I want to make it better. My vision for OSNS is to stay true to the mission of craft for OSNS, and avoid the distraction of froth and bling.  I have started by re writing a workshop I had already planned for Supergraph before I left. Original plan was typo speed dating, and the new plan is a Black Letter Workshop.

Slow Typography at Parsons

I was contacted and invited to run a Slow Typography Workshop at Parson's new School for Design by Andrew Shea, (pictured below). Andrew is also writer and publisher of the very well known and useful book called Designing for Social Change. It is worth getting a copy of this book because it explains in simple language what we can all do to use our skills to help create positive social change. 

Parson's New School for Design educates  international students mainly from Isreal and South America, and the application process is tough. This meant that the students to whom I taught Slow Typography using Copperplate technque were extremely focussed and hungry to learn. They were curious about the whole philsophy and vision of the School, and most relished the opportunity to learn to craft letter forms with pen and ink. 

At Parsons, it was odd to find a sign painter hard at work lying on his back on a lilo in one of corridors  sign painting the ceiling with some complicated letterforms. The work was painstaking ! 

Ken Barber of House Industries 

House Industries' Ken Barber is driven and focussed with the piercing eyes of an intelligent and driven person. His stories about the historical origins of Brushscript which emerged from the "continuities" of the Advertising industry of the 1930's to become headline feature of the ads of the 1950's and 60's was interesting. In this era, most of the advertising letterers were men, as the Ad office was considered to be no place for ladies due to all the debauchery, dirty talk, and consumption of hard liquor that took place in the workplace! 

I found it a little challenging unlearning my curly Copperplate habits, when the brushscript lettering takes a different angle, and once the basic strokes are learned, can also be adapted like a drawing. I have really found his teaching approach very adaptable, and his approach has been useful to apply to Type Carousel students  here at OSNS.

Ken Barbar Workshop

 Ken Barbar

Empire State

No visit to NYC is complete without a visit to Steve Power's Icy Signs (where mistakes cost extra:). The man is a rockstar, and I was fortunate to meet this fellow big haired person. His way with words is legendary, and I am not really sure how much of the physical painting of signs he does, (I suspect as many as Andy Warhol  actually screen printed back  in The Factory). The colours were incredible, and font of choice is Gotham, because it is based on traditional gothic sign painting of NYC. 

I look as terrified as I felt, but Powers kindly shared some Thanksgiving Pumpkin pie with me 

This is the workroom at Icy Signs where there was alot to look at ! and where I shared pie with Steve Powers :)

But the main feature of NYC (apart from its fabulous delicatessons open 24/7) has to be its signage. Everywhere you look you feel as though you have stepped back into a 1953 Warner Brothers cartoon, or maybe even Popeye! In comparison, the drive home from the Melbourne Airport was insipid, and the vinyl lettering so plain and uninspiring. 

Subway Signage

Along with signage and architecture, what really makes NYC everything and then some more, are its people. They are big confident people with big personalities, who stand tall, and embrace life.  They are open and not afraid of strangers. I noticed that in NYC, you are expected to have an opinion, and it's ok to disagree. Whereas here, people can become quite shirty with those with whom they disagree. It is definitely a more open and inclusive society than ours, and I am not really sure why. When you go to a shop or to eat, the shop assistants are genuinely friendly, and they aren't being friendly just so that you will buy something. (or else they are very good at pretending). Waiters are polite and quick. One day when it was raining, I noticed that the delivery people were still running through the rain, and working. The work ethic is alive, and it generates a lively energy that is contagious.

Returning to the greenery of the OSNS garden felt nice though, as did crossing the rickety suspension bridge of the Merri Creek. And it felt lovely to hear the birds again, though I am sure there are birds in Central Park. But it would be great to spend a year or two in NYC !  Young design students, I say: make this your destination, forget about Australia. There's alot in NYC for you ! 

The week I returned was a full week, with three Workshop sessions held at the School. So thanks for waiting patiently for me to write this post, and I hope you enjoy it !