Letter Centric: Thoughts on Spencerian Script

A year ago, in an Eye magazine feature entitled “Cult of the Squiggly,” Steven Heller complained about the overabundance of embellishment in design “spiraling out of control.” He has now jumped on the bandwagon as the co-author with Gail Anderson of New Ornamental Type: Decorative Lettering in the Digital Age (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2010). The squigglists, led by Marian Bantjes—profiled in the Reputations section of that same issue of Eye—can be found throughout the book. There is Jessica Hische, Dustin Edward Arnold, Deanne Cheuk (all of whom have been profiled in Print), Alison Carmichael, Ian Brignell, and Si Scott. What strikes me about much of their work here and in other places—as well as that of others following Bantje’s path such as the letterer behind Tiffany & Co.’s current Valentine’s Day campaign—is not over-embellishment but a lack of skill.
 

Marian Bantjes for Saks Fifth Avenue

 
This is not the rant of a die-hard Swiss modernist feeling parched in
the absence of white space and feeling strangled by a riotous tangle of
swashes. Instead, it is the observations of a calligrapher/letterer
with over thirty years experience who has studied and admired the work
of the great Spencerian letterers of the phototype era: Ed Benguiat,
Tom Carnase, Tony DiSpigna, Jerry Campbell, Peter Horridge, Jean Larcher, and Raphael
Boguslav. Their work outshines that of today’s “new ornamentalists.”
The difference is more than a matter of time—and yes, doing Spencerian
properly, whether by hand or by mouse, takes enormous amounts of time.
It comes from an understanding of letterforms, borne both of longtime
experience writing and drawing them by hand and of studying the writing
masters of the past from Lucas Materot and George Bickham to Louis
Madarasz and William E. Dennis. Spencerian flourishing requires both an understanding of rhythm and space as the residue of physical acts and as a visual arrangement.
 

Westbury Hospital, by Jerry Campbell

 
When it comes to script, the squigglists have more enthusiasm than ability. Letters and their joins are clumsy (Bantje’s “Want It!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue, the Tiffany campaign, or Cheuk’s “The Lives They Lived” cover for The New York Times Magazine). The swashes and flourishes are often inept. They lack grace, rhythm and fluidity. Lines overlap awkwardly or crash into one another, negative spaces are unbalanced, and the overall design is weak. (See Carmichael’s unprintable self-promotion piece, Scott’s March/April 2007 Blueprint cover, or The Edit by Arnold for Big Magazine.) In fact, it often seems as if the mere presence of lots and lots of curling lines serve to hide a paucity of ideas on the part of the designer or art director. The decoration becomes visual camouflage.

“A Wedding,” by Tony DiSpigna

 
All of this can be seen in “A Wedding” by Tony DiSpigna from Love Letters, his book in progress. The letters are beautifully formed and evenly spaced; the curves are graceful, even sensuous, with a few thick strokes deftly placed for overall emphasis; the flourishes are not formulaic; and the overall composition is balanced with a pleasing shape. And, despite the wealth of swashes, the text is immediately readable. Clarity and ornamentation hand in hand.

Tony DiSpigna will be speaking about his four decades of work on February 24 at the Type Directors Club. See tdc.org for details and reservations. Go see the work of a true master of letter and line.

3 thoughts on “Letter Centric: Thoughts on Spencerian Script

  1. bantjes

    Well, Paul, first I will say that I am on record many times over as saying that I am not a calligrapher, and in fact formal lettering has never been my goal or my interest. The work I did for Saks is one of the very few pieces of lettering I’ve done that approaches calligraphic formality … and yet, no, that was not its intent. My direction from my clients, Michael Bierut at Pentagram, and Saks was to find a midway between the very formal Spencerian script of the Saks logo, and the energy of Saul Steinberg’s scrawl. It was meant to be vector smooth, but casual with an over-the-top freneticism of “wanting it.” A kind of madness.

    When I give presentations of this project, I note my own dissatisfaction with the lack of structure, but again that was the point. I much prefer the 18 “want-it” items I created for the rest of the campaign, for this and many other reasons.

    However, I take great umbrage at being called a “squigglist” let alone the head squigglist. Anyone who even glances at the projects on my website (www.bantjes.com) from the past couple of years would find very little of the squiggly genre, and even prior to that, nearly every “squiggly” project approaches it from a different perspective.

    No … I do not squiggle. I plan, I draw, I work on grids, I carefully nest and echo elements, and then I re-draw in Illustrator, point by point, and adjust, adjust, adjust. I have no interest in squiggles, and I have a waning interest in flourishes. But I have great interest in lettering, pattern, structure, ornament, optical illusion, complexity, illegibility, invention, juxtaposition, hidden messages … etc. You might want to rethink that description of me once you actually look at my work.

  2. bantjes

    Well, Paul, first I will say that I am on record many times over as saying that I am not a calligrapher, and in fact formal lettering has never been my goal or my interest. The work I did for Saks is one of the very few pieces of lettering I’ve done that approaches calligraphic formality … and yet, no, that was not its intent. My direction from my clients, Michael Bierut at Pentagram, and Saks was to find a midway between the very formal Spencerian script of the Saks logo, and the energy of Saul Steinberg’s scrawl. It was meant to be vector smooth, but casual with an over-the-top freneticism of “wanting it.” A kind of madness.

    When I give presentations of this project, I note my own dissatisfaction with the lack of structure, but again that was the point. I much prefer the 18 “want-it” items I created for the rest of the campaign, for this and many other reasons.

    However, I take great umbrage at being called a “squigglist” let alone the head squigglist. Anyone who even glances at the projects on my website (www.bantjes.com) from the past couple of years would find very little of the squiggly genre, and even prior to that, nearly every “squiggly” project approaches it from a different perspective.

    No … I do not squiggle. I plan, I draw, I work on grids, I carefully nest and echo elements, and then I re-draw in Illustrator, point by point, and adjust, adjust, adjust. I have no interest in squiggles, and I have a waning interest in flourishes. But I have great interest in lettering, pattern, structure, ornament, optical illusion, complexity, illegibility, invention, juxtaposition, hidden messages … etc. You might want to rethink that description of me once you actually look at my work.

  3. bantjes

    Well, Paul, first I will say that I am on record many times over as saying that I am not a calligrapher, and in fact formal lettering has never been my goal or my interest. The work I did for Saks is one of the very few pieces of lettering I’ve done that approaches calligraphic formality … and yet, no, that was not its intent. My direction from my clients, Michael Bierut at Pentagram, and Saks was to find a midway between the very formal Spencerian script of the Saks logo, and the energy of Saul Steinberg’s scrawl. It was meant to be vector smooth, but casual with an over-the-top freneticism of “wanting it.” A kind of madness.

    When I give presentations of this project, I note my own dissatisfaction with the lack of structure, but again that was the point. I much prefer the 18 “want-it” items I created for the rest of the campaign, for this and many other reasons.

    However, I take great umbrage at being called a “squigglist” let alone the head squigglist. Anyone who even glances at the projects on my website (www.bantjes.com) from the past couple of years would find very little of the squiggly genre, and even prior to that, nearly every “squiggly” project approaches it from a different perspective.

    No … I do not squiggle. I plan, I draw, I work on grids, I carefully nest and echo elements, and then I re-draw in Illustrator, point by point, and adjust, adjust, adjust. I have no interest in squiggles, and I have a waning interest in flourishes. But I have great interest in lettering, pattern, structure, ornament, optical illusion, complexity, illegibility, invention, juxtaposition, hidden messages … etc. You might want to rethink that description of me once you actually look at my work.

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