I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar’s vibrating typeface that was used for the Electric Circus poster. The Circus was located in the middle of the block between 2nd & 3rd Avenue at 19-25 St. Marks Place in an old German music hall that turned into a Polish ballroom for weddings and events called Arlington Hall in the early 20th century. Just a few blocks from the Fillmore East, it was home to some of the same rock acts, like Sly Stone, Grateful Dead, the Allmans and more. The club was created in 1967 by Jerry Brandt, Stanton J. Freeman and their partners. It was designed by Chermayeff & Geismar, who designed the iconic poster. Ultimately, The Electric Circus became Andy Warhol and director Paul Morrissey’s space that featured the Velvet Underground as house band with the lighting effects by Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” experience.
The poster with its vibrating typeface was an East Coast alternative San Francisco psychedelia. But according to Tom Geismar, the origin of the face prefigured the poster and the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll aesthetic.
“I believe that the ‘Electronic Banking’ ad was the first use of this lettering (1959),” Geismar told me. “It was then used shortly thereafter, in a cleaned up form, for the ‘That’s New York’ experimental typography booklet that appeared in Der Druckspiegel, the German graphic arts magazine, I believe in 1960. The piece was one of a series produced under the sponsorship of The Composing Room. So its use for The Electric Circus was some years later.”
Geismar says “I would credit the design of the lettering to Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar. I think we all had a hand in it, but it’s not clear. By the way, the lettering is very simply made: it’s just two pieces of identical Kodalith film, slightly offset.”
“We never had any specific plans for the alphabet,” he adds. “We had actually designed a few different alphabets during the 1960’s, at a time when we often made up titles and headlines as paste-ups of photostat images of lettering. I always said that, for our rather eclectic approach, we had a ‘bag of tricks’ that we would apply as appropriate. This alphabet was one of those ‘tricks’. It’s very much part of the ‘word as image’ approach that we have always believed in.”
(For a recent reproduction of the Electric Circus poster created for the AIGA last fall, the alphabet was digitized.)