It was 50 Years Ago Today …

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This is the year to look back at 1968 when the counter culture made its mark and almost the same year lost its impact. I’ve decided to revisit this past that defined my own life and career. The following is an excerpt from a recent talk I gave for The Type Director’s Club’s “Type Drives Culture” day-long conference at the SVA Theatre. The theme was Type Underground, or how handlettering, Lettraset, Typositor and other alphabetic forms were done with and without forethought.

Robert Hughes described the weekly paste-up night at New York’s East Village Other (headquartered on the second floor above the fabled Fillmore East on 2nd Ave and 6th Street) as “a Dada experience,” and while none of us who were toiling into the wee hours of the morning at one of America’s oldest underground newspapers (founded in 1965) knew what Dada was, we assumed that for Time magazine’s newly appointed art critic to spend his first nights in America with us, it must be important.

The Other’s original office was a storefront on Ave A across from Thompson Square Park … just a block from Ed Sanders’ Peace EYE bookstore, where he published his proto-underground Fuck You: A Magazine for the Arts. … and another block from the Psychelecatessen, a landmark of the East Village where underground papers could be readily found.

When I was 15 or so years old, The East Village Other was where I wanted to be, work and make cartoon drawings. There was The Rat, Other Scenes, The Free Press, Avatar and others. But EVO was the big time.

EVO was the cream of radical comic art, the ground zero of anti-establishment insurrection. I was a wannabe with no sense of design, designers, type, typographers, lettering or letters. I didn’t know what a mechanical or a velox was, or how newspapers and magazines were made. But I was inextricably drawn to what was becoming a phenomenon that would transform mass media in the way the digital revolution has done today. Underground papers were the blogs of the day. Unfortunately, the folks at EVO did not want me. I had more to learn. The East Village was the East Coast hippie capital. By the way, The Underground Press was also the alternative press. And before continuing I must make an important disclaimer. Although the papers I’m speaking about attacked convention—and were targets of police and legal investigations—no one was risking their physical lives, like the underground creators of World War II.

Real undergrounds were literally published in secrecy, hidden underground in basements from the authorities, susceptible at any time to murderous reprisals. Dutch, French, Czech and other occupied country’s anti-Nazi undergrounds were bombs waiting to explode. Some were set up in type and mimeographed; others were made from typewriter with text and headlines hand drawn. American undergrounds paid homage to the real thing. Which is not to diminish the 60s Undergrounds. These were also continuously surveilled by police and FBI and deemed contraband by the U.S. Army. And yet there was little sense of danger. Even when I was twice arrested, I still was convinced this is America, after all, it can’t happen here.

A year after my EVO rejection, I joined the ranks of New York’s Undergrounds. I was still in high school, accepted into NYU as an English major. But working on underground papers captured my interest and passion. So, I never went to class. Instead I learned to make layouts. This is my start. I wanted to be a cartoonist and writer. Lettering came with the territory. I wasn’t very good at it. My talents never improved. But I persisted.

What did I love? The naughtiness. The rebellion. The in-your-face arrogance. The paper, the ink, the printing. I did not have to be professionally trained to be professional. Just working on an underground newspaper was like learning a new language. The language that some of my friends called graphic design.

Although I used a lot of different lettering methods—including dry transfer Letraset—I was introduced to this wonderful Rube Goldberg machine called the PhotoTypositor. For those unfamiliar with it, you could set photo headlines inside this machine on strips of photo sensitive paper that would develop before your very eyes. I could smash, overlap, indeed do almost anything to the letters.

I also used the Varityper to set headlines. This was more cumbersome to operate. The results were not as good. Letters came on a plastic disk, and nuanced letter spacing was almost impossible to achieve. Also, the selection of faces was extremely limited.

Then there was this little beauty. It was one component of a larger magnetic tape typesetting machine. To rent the entire gizmo was expensive; but this could be rented cheaply. How it worked? You’d type line by line on the left side, which would give you a numerical measurement that was dialed into the machine. You’d retype the same line on the right side according to that measure, and it automatically justified columns. It was a pain. That’s why text was usually unjustified.

The type was produced with these type balls, which became standard on many IBM business machines and allowed a certain versatile selection of styles. Break one and you’d have one less style to use.

I was 17 when I started working for the New York Free Press. I knew nothing about typography and layout. When I got the job I was called a mechanical artist; that was a mystery too. But I muddled along. I wanted to be a cartoonist/illustrator, but sometimes we are just not born with the talent to fulfill our desires. Even with my limitations I was promoted to be the so-called art director of The Freep. The display type I used here was IBM body text blown up and pasted on layout board. I never even heard the words spacing or kerning.

At a certain point, someone introduced me to a type specimen book from which it was possible to spec or specify any style I wanted—it would be photo-set and returned on galleys for paste-up. What a revelation. Paste-up was done either with glue (two coats) or wax. In addition to all our other political, social and cultural content, sex played a big role in Underground papers. That was the taboo of taboos.

This ad was a milestone for me. It’s not great, but I had a concept (make it like a newspaper), and I used News Gothic Bold, a face I set on a typositor.

The political underground press evolved into the Sex Press. And the motto for Screw was “the first and best in the field it created.” I guess had I gone to art school I would have known how to do knock-outs, and surprints, and crop photos so they did look like junk.

In 1968, just shy of my 18th birthday, the Freep folded, and I became publisher and art director of The New York Review of Sex. I was designing more seriously, you might say. But I had this idea that good typography was always flush with something. So when designing this masthead, I included the black bars to fill up the empty space. Actually, I could do anything I wanted because …

… My two older partners, did not care about the design, so I was free to wreak havoc. As it turned out the paper failed after 20 issues. But for those issues I began to learn about type and its voices and personalities.

Because I was getting serious about type, I looked at models. Monocle magazine designed by Phil Gipps blew me away. It was not sloppy or slap-dash but it had character … and looked old and new at the same time. I wanted to do that! For 25 cents a piece, I bought dozens of the 1962 magazine that I found on used book tables of local book Village stores. I’d cut them up to use the type, ornaments, dingbats and whatever else I could salvage for my layouts.

Those old wood and metal faces (although I didn’t know what they were at the time) came in handy for vintage-looking headline treatments. Another huge evolutionary revelation was Morgan Press Types. They were the wellspring of Monocle’s typefaces. Douglas Morgan, an inveterate typeface collector, had an infinite variety of antique novelty and display faces. Like Dan Solo, another bottomless resource for vintage faces, Morgan Press supplied type to dozens of Undergrounds, if only because his catalogs were easily copied and cut-up. It was my privilege decades later to write Morgan’s obituary for the Times.

Another influence for many Undergrounds was Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD comics. Mostly for the irreverent and parodic comics but …

… The circus-like bifurcated slab serif MAD logo in its post-Comics Code iteration as a magazine was my type design inspiration.

You can see a little of the influence with the headline here.

Type took a psychedelic turn in the mid 60s. Victor Moscoso was the master. He combined Victorian and Italianate slab serifs with Art Nouveau and Jugendstil to make typographic patterns. By adding vibrating colors, he made his concoction readable yet illegible and helped invent the psychedelic style.

Much of the inspiration for this lettering style came from here. Sacred Spring was the journal of the Vienna Secession; here lettering was integrated into and expressed the aesthetic of anti-academic art. The letters were as organic as the decorations. Some were readable, a few were not. But once the visual code was deciphered, it was easy for the initiated.

Pure brilliance—vibrating colors and Italianate lettering.

The curvilinear art nouveau aesthetic became the official letter style of the Underground movement.

The 19th century integration of type and image was incorporated into the style. And split fountain, vibrating colors exuded the aura of the sex, drugs and rock culture. This is the San Francisco Oracle, the underground paper that led the psychedelic charge. The DIY methods of setting type were time intensive, requiring a lot of hand cutting and pasting, but effects like contoured body type were emblematic.

The split fountain was an essential effect; mixing two colors to get a rainbow effect as the ink rolled through the rollers was a common way to make more of limited resources. Some results were pretty chaotic, some were right on. The page on the left was by Rick Griffin, one of the lettering geniuses of the psychedelic poster group.

Here’s Griffin in all his spiritual-art nouveau psychedelic glory.

He also designed the first logo type for Rolling Stone.

And he incorporated it with ancient mystic iconography for ads, like this for the Grateful Dead.

Masthead or logo lettering changed often, and the quality was dependent on the talents of the artists.

Open City from L.A. was an extra large broadsheet, and the logo was smartly done.

Psychedelics became such a recognizable code for youth culture that Photo-Lettering Inc. could not resist putting out a catalog, designed by Ed Benguait.

But I’ll tell you a story: On two occasions I requested Photo Lettering to set mastheads for SCREW and The New York Review of Sex and they refused, citing moral objections.

Thanks to Letraset it was very easy to find novelty faces, and they too filled many an Underground.

Remember what Robert Hughes said about DADA? Well it wasn’t until I saw this Georg Grosz poster with the varying type style and sizes and the stock cut illustrations that I understood what he meant regarding underground press layouts.

In retrospect, its easy to pick out precedents. Can you guess what year this was done? Don’t look at the date. Wyndam Lewis’ THE ENEMY published in 1927 looks like it could be done in the ’60s or today.

Here are a few more of the well over 600 Undergrounds that are listed in the books I showed you at the beginning. Each has its own character but all fit the same mold. Newsprint, one, two or three color printing, DIY handlettering or poorly set type.

The East Village Other experimented with various approaches. This was by Fred Mugubgub, who with Pablo Ferro, were pioneers of on-screen motion design. This was meant to be animated and loses its kinetic power as a static image, but is none the less fascinating as a split fountain going from hard-to-see yellow to red.

Can you guess who designed this masthead? His initials are MG.

I later screwed it up by adding the balloon shading. Sorry Milton.

I designed the ACE logo after I learned how to use a compass and ruling pen. The artwork is by Skeeter Davis, a pseudonym for Art Spiegelman.

Having access to a typositor and IBM typesetter allowed me to open a studio on the side. On off hours from Screw I’d do freelance. A strange combo of Warhol’s interview, which I designed using Broadway and Busurama typefaces and Slim News with set in Stymie.

To end with, I want to pay my homage to Herb Lublin in his 100th anniversary year.

His typopictorial language orsmashed, overlapped, expressionistic, pictorial typography was a primary inspiration.

I just swoon over what he was able to do with letters. How they fit together as words that supplemented and complemented other content.

This, I’m afraid is as close as I could come to Herb. I designed the masthead and tried within my limited skills to approximate his typographic expression.

These were the un-undergounds, professional New Left magazines that followed less anarchic but no less inspiring typographic roads.

This was designed in an almost classical manner by the late Dugald Stermer to distinguish itself from the pulp papers.

This was Brad Holland, still one of the finest illustrators I know, doing his own version of Lubalin for an advertisement for The New York Review of Sex.

And this is me, more or less 50 years ago today. It was one year after Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play … going in and out of style … and it’s still guaranteed to raise a smile.


One thought on “It was 50 Years Ago Today …

  1. Everton

    This is all I was looking to read, but didnt know the right book for it right until now. Thanks a lot, this information here is gold.
    Also, didnt know that the vienna secession was such a concrete influence, I though it was just more of a general influence. And I though the “official” style of the underground was something like the psychedelic type, like victor moscoso’s, and not the curvilinear type from avatar. A lot to take in, and look out. So interesting and inspirational. I wonder if some of those styles could be used today, I am certainly trying now.

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