A Typographic Detective Tale

Marcel’s Letters by Carolyn Porter (Sky Horse Publishing, 2017) is part-memoir and part-detective tale about the creation of a type font and the twelve-year search for its namesake, Marcel. Porter, a graphic designer living in White Bear Lake, Minn., purchased five letters in an antique store believing that the flowing script might make a good typeface. These letters became more than mere inspiration but a cause célèbre fueled by passion and compassion. Written by Marcel Heuzé, a Frenchman conscripted into compulsory labor (STO – Service du travail obligatoire ) during World War II and sent by NAZI law to Berlin to work for Daimler making tanks, these artifacts were love letters to his wife and children. The book chronicles a sometimes heartbreaking, lengthy search to learn of Marcel’s life before and during his service and  fate thereafter. Porter’s mission to learn all she could about the man whose name she uses for her font resulted in a unprecedented confessional and surprising journey.

I received a reader’s copy of the book more than a year ago, although it sat unread until recently. I’m glad I finally did read it. I was struck by the emotional power and unfailing commitment to Marcel’s memory, a life that would have been anonymous—just one of many individuals forced by the NAZIS to forever alter their lives. From simple font design to human drama, Marcel’s Letters inspired me to contact Porter for this interview.

Marcel’s Letters is an unusual hybrid. A memoir, biography of a font and a detective story. It was hard enough making the font. How difficult was it to write this complex tale?
The thing I had going for me was that the book is a retelling of actual events. By the time I started writing it, the font was done, and I knew Marcel’s fate. The biggest decisions I had to make involved deciding what would, or wouldn’t, be included in the narrative.

It would have been inauthentic to position myself as a World War II expert or as an experienced type designer. The only solution seemed to be to take the reader on the same journey of discovery that I went on: first to design a font based on this beautiful old handwriting, then to try to understand why Marcel had been in Berlin, then to find out whether he survived.

Back in 2011, when I had the first letter translated, I could not have imagined this story would turn into a book. When I began searching for answers, I didn’t keep detailed notes. There was no reason to. So, one of the first technical hurdles was to rebuild the timeline of events: when I learned what, when I established contact with various people, when I found specific clues or answers. Thankfully, I had emails, receipts, phone records, photos, etc. Still, it took nearly a month just to recreate the timeline.

I’ve never read anything like this in the design sphere. What inspired you?
Marcel’s letters are filled with the best and the worst of humanity; words of hope and love share space with descriptions of life inside a labor camp. As each letter was translated, he became more real. Marcel was no longer just a man who had lovely handwriting. The love and longing he expressed for his wife and daughters was palpable. Yet, as month after month went by and I still couldn’t find out what happened to him, it seemed as if Marcel had been lost to history.

This might sound odd, but writing the book was less “inspiration” and more of a feeling that I had a responsibility to tell his story.

You write with such grace. Your structure is so fluid and literary. Have you always written?
Wow. Thank you for the compliment. As a kid I wrote a lot, but my parents told me I needed to choose a career that provided financial stability. Graphic design offered the right blend of creative and technical thinking, and I was intrigued by combining words and images.

You know this better than anyone, but graphic design and writing require many of the same skills. Both require paying attention to structure, order, pacing and tone. Both require research and paying attention to detail. I’m surprised more graphic designers don’t write!

As I drafted the manuscript I took a number of classes at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. A couple of classes focused on technical skills, others helped me refine the arc of the story. (For those located elsewhere, The Loft offers an array of online classes; check them out at www.loft.org). Later in the process I worked with a Book Development Editor, who further helped me refine the story.

What for you was the main lesson derived from doing the font and the book?
I don’t think I can narrow it down to just one, unfortunately. Embrace curiosity. Be tenacious. Make time for passion projects. Don’t pass up the opportunity to tell someone you love them. Finish what you start. Be your own biggest advocate. And do those big and scary things despite the fact they are big and scary.


CATEGORIES
Daily Heller, Steven Heller, Typography
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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.

2 thoughts on “A Typographic Detective Tale

  1. rosehoff

    Nice story as always. Steven Heller profiles one of my favorite books of 2017, interviewing Historian, Author and Type Designer Carolyn Porter. “Marcel’s letters are filled with the best and the worst of humanity; words of hope and love share space with descriptions of life inside a labor camp. http://www.empire-broadcast.com also provides the thrilling experience.

  2. Argoty

    Fascinating story as always from Steven Heller, re the article “Marcel’s Letters by Carolyn Porter ”
    Really look forward to your articles. They illuminate what a rich history the design and print trade in the past, present and future offers to those, who look around them. The people that made a difference, the work of groups and individuals. It is a rich and rewarding -not just in financial value discipline that we have chosen to work in. Steven Heller does an invaluable service in opening up treasure chests of articles like this one by Carolyn Porter.

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