Autumn 2005

Type week in downtown New York

TypeCon2005: Alphabet City

TypeCon2005: Alphabet City
Parsons School of Design, New York
20-24 July 2005

TypeCon this year was a celebration of the typography of New York City and its vibrant history of lettering in every form. The conference was co-hosted by its sponsoring body, SOTA (Society of Typographic Aficionados), and by the New York-based Type Directors Club. Through some shrewd publicity work, the organisers got coverage for TypeCon in The New York Times, both before and during the event, and persuaded the Mayor to declare July 18-24 ‘Type Week’ in New York – a nice touch.

Paula Sher kicked things off with a talk on environmental typography. Her work has been visible throughout the city for many years, especially in the poster campaigns she does each year for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’; she talked about how the crowded, intense, vertical nature of Manhattan influences the way she handles type – filling all the spaces, and using bold, vertical sans serifs, usually in all caps – and how satisfying it is when she sees her posters tattered on a wall somewhere, becoming part of the visual and physical texture of the city. Now she is working on a larger scale, incorporating type into the buildings themselves; these are not just signs or wayfinding systems, but integrated, sometimes spectacular ways of using written meaning as part of the built environment. Since most of the buildings she was speaking of were in New York, TypeCon’s attendees could go and take a look at them.

The emotional highlight of the weekend came at the end of day three with a three-person presentation on the legacy of the pioneering New York type company Photo-Lettering, Inc. Centenarian Ed Rondthaler, who founded the company in the 1930s with the late Harold Hartman, was a forceful and articulate speaker who delighted the audience. Ed Benguiat, who drew so many of Photo-Lettering’s typefaces in the 1960s and 1970s, showed a Brazilian television feature made about him while he was teaching for a week in Rio de Janeiro. House Industries’ Ken Barber explained how House had just bought the huge Photo-Lettering type library and was working with both Eds to bring it into the digital age.

The New York City theme expressed itself in other ways, too. There was a panel, which grew out of an online discussion in the weeks before the conference, on New York transit signage and ways it might be improved. Several people led walking tours of lettering and type around Manhattan. The Parsons venue, near Union Square and Greenwich Village, gave attendees from out of town an experience of the artistic heart of the city.

For the third year in a row, TypeCon featured the presentation of the SOTA award to an outstanding figure in the typographic community. This year’s recipient was Matthew Carter, whose career has spanned 50 years, from hand-cut punches to hand-hinted screen fonts. Presentations by Mike Parker and David Berlow filled in the context, from Linotype to Bitstream to Font Bureau to Carter & Cone, while showing embarrassing photos from years past.