Founder of Photo-Lettering Inc. Dies at 104

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Ed Rondthaler (below) was quite the character in the world of characters. As early as 1936, he founded Photo-Lettering Inc., the go-to font shop in New York (and the East Coast). He died this week at 104, and his legacy is ensured: In 1936, he and a colleague invented the Rutherford
Photo-Lettering Machine, the first photographic typesetting device. It
enabled printers to use hand-drawn letters instead of being limited to
metal typefaces.
 
He wrote the book Life With
Letters
and co-authored The Dictionary of American Spelling, a
phonetic spelling dictionary. He also was the editor of the “Alphabet
Thesaurus,” a three-volume compilation of types. Just watch this wonderful video by House Industries to see Rondthaler’s wit in action.
 
So by way of a farewell, here is an anecdote: When I was the 17-year-old art director of Screw magazine, I wanted to have a “professional” masthead typeset by a professional type house (not one of those 50-cent-a-word places). So I roughly drew out the word “Screw” in some approximation of a Victorian slab serif face and trekked over to Photo-Lettering Inc., where I looked through their catalog with a helpful counterman to find the perfect face.
 
Once decided, I paid the $25 and was told it would be ready in two days. Upon my return the counterman was not as friendly; what’s more, he told me that Photo-Lettering would not set the word “Screw,” as the magazine was deemed obscene. I was dumbfounded, yet able to sputter out the question, “Who said so?” The answer was “the boss.” 
 
The boss was Ed Rondthaler, and given that his father was a Moravian minister (which I only learned yesterday), I see his point. When we met many years later, I reminded Ed of the incident, which he did not remember. In fact, he said it was odd, since he never turned down a job.
 
Photo-Lettering Inc. was the essential link between hot-metal and digital typesetting. Without Rondthtaler’s business, it is hard to imagine what New York advertising and editorial design would have been like in that critical era.
 

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Daily Heller, Imprint: Print Magazine's Design Blog

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

3 thoughts on “Founder of Photo-Lettering Inc. Dies at 104

  1. FinalEyes

    As a former typesetter and now an editor/proofreader for graphic designers–as well as a student of history of the English language, I found this to be just plain cool!

  2. FinalEyes

    As a former typesetter and now an editor/proofreader for graphic designers–as well as a student of history of the English language, I found this to be just plain cool!

  3. FinalEyes

    As a former typesetter and now an editor/proofreader for graphic designers–as well as a student of history of the English language, I found this to be just plain cool!

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