Veteran master letterer Tony Di Spigna has an exhibition, “Imported From Brooklyn,” now on view at The Grace Gallery organized by the Communication Design Department, New York City College of Technology, where he will be donating his archive to City Tech and it will become the department’s first permanent collection. I spoke to Douglas Davis, Associate Professor who conceived of the exhibit (curated by Sara Woolley-Gomez) about Di Spigna’s significance to lettering history and for today’s student.
Why did you select the work of Tony Di Spigna for this exhibit?
This exhibition is the generous gift of a City Tech alumnus who attended what was then New York City Community College (62-64) because he couldn’t afford to go to Pratt. Tony’s Spencerian Script work is timeless because it is so elegant that you can’t tell whether it was done yesterday of 40 years ago as is the case with the Imported from Brooklyn typography. In an interview, Tony wrote that he did this for an ad campaign 40 years ago and it just made sense to go with it because our B.F.A. program is in Brooklyn, where he attended and where the last 3 department chairs were his students. The work on display has special significance to our City Tech because it will become the Grace Gallery’s first permanent collection through subsequent annual gifts beginning with this show. We were really fortunate to benefit from his 50-year career in this way.
How do you feel the students relate to this work?
It’s always interesting to see how digital natives respond to hearing that this was all done by hand. To observe students examining the work closely, touch the paper and ask questions.
At the opening, I’ve observed Tony’s letterforms hold the attention of students that weren’t alive when he created them. I think it opens their minds because I remember being delighted as a student of his at Pratt watching his sketch during a critique. I hope they are inspired because drawing on paper to solve problems or for pure aesthetics is a constant in a field of constant change.
Do you think it is a stylistic interest or an appreciation of craft?
I think you can enjoy the work through either lens. From a stylistic perspective, the process sketches this show is comprised of are original hand-drawn type development sketches on tracing paper, and from that standpoint you can get lost in the craft. Tony shows you how he does it step by step and I couldn’t attempt the discernment and talent it takes to get to the perfection in his finished sketches.
And yet Tony is arguably the best Spencerian Script typographer in the world so if someone was looking for a unique signature style, this is it.
Among students is craft as important an issue as style?
I think it depends on where a student is in their career and how much patience they have. I think some students need time to develop their style so they understand craft a bit faster because they can create now without being completely deliberate about decisions about style. When I was a student at Pratt and as a young designer I was all about what things looked like and over time I became interested in the why behind what things looked like. I think style is something we all must find over time and that is clear from the 50 years of work in the Imported from Brooklyn show.
What was your ‘aha’ moment when you saw this collection of work?
There were two, one about the work and one about the man.