Tough Breaks

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Designers embrace the workaday beauty of stencil letters.

Stencil letters, those industrial workhorses, are getting new respect these days. Designers are looking beyond the form’s functional aspects to the peculiar beauty of the letters themselves. Font makers are releasing new typefaces designed in stencil style. And earlier this year in Antwerp there was “Between Writing and Type,” an exhibition of stencil lettering curated by Eric Kindel and Fred Smeijers. Along with displays of artifacts and ephemera, the show launched three new stencil fonts: Smeijers’s delightfully named Puncho, Maurice Göldner’s calligraphic Standing Type, and Pierre Pané-Farré’s whimsical Orly Stencil, all released this year by OurType.


Stencil lettering can be traced back to large French and German liturgical books of the 17th and 18th centuries, but for designers it has long been associated with more workaday things, like wooden crates and military vehicles. Despite their widespread industrial use, there are no stencil typefaces in Nicolete Gray’s exhaustive survey, Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces (1976). However, Ray Nash, in his addendum on 19th-century American decorative typefaces, showed an undated Stencil Gothic from Mackellar, Smiths & Jordan. It presumably preceded George Auriol’s eponymous Auriol (G. Peignot et Fils, 1901), an emblem of art nouveau and a typeface not usually thought of as a stencil, even though it clearly has the hallmarks of one.

Stencil letters are distinguishable by their breaks, a result of the ties that hold the physical letterforms together. The letters are cut or stamped out of metal, paper, acetate, or other material; ink or paint is forced through to produce images on a surface—paper, wood, brick, or metal. The ties retain the counters, or negative spaces, of the letters. The gaps they create are rarely filled in, since stencils are usually considered quick-and-dirty solutions in which speed trumps aesthetics.

Seen in this light, stencil letters are merely inadvertent variants of existing (solid) letters. But such a view would disqualify Auriol, as well as Paul Renner’s Futura Black (Bauer, 1930) and Hans Bohn’s Allegro (Ludwig & Mayer, 1936). These typefaces all have letters that are broken in one manner or another, yet they are original designs. This is in contrast to the two (or is it three?) quintessential stencil typefaces: two named Stencil (one by Robert Hunter Middleton for Ludlow, and another by Gerry Powell for American Type Founders, both in 1937) and Tea Chest from Stephenson Blake (1938). These latter designs are original, but they look as if they were derived from existing slab-serif typefaces, such as Clarendon for Stencil.

Futura Black (top) and Glaser Stencil

Futura Black (top) and Glaser Stencil

Although Futura Black seems to bear no relation to its forebear, it actually makes some sense. Whereas Futura is a linear geometric design, Futura Black—surely inspired by Josef Albers’s modular glass Kombinationschrift alphabet (1926)—is a planar geometric design. Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and circular lines have been replaced by circles, triangles, squares, and parts thereof. A more direct stencil interpretation of Futura is Glaser Stencil (Photo-Lettering, 1970) by Milton Glaser.

The crucial avant-garde and industrial alphabet is perhaps the metal Didone used by Le Corbusier from the 1920s onward. Made by Thévenon et Cie. since sometime in the 19th century, it first became type as rubdown letters through the efforts of James Mosley (Rapitype, c. 1970). Lineto offers a set of digital fonts (1999, 2004) named after Corbu’s stencils.

Most stencil typefaces today are in the vein of the two Stencils, throwbacks to the industrial age, or simple spin-offs of existing designs made by whiting out a few strokes. Genuinely innovative stencils, though rare, do exist. Two are from the English stonecutter, book-jacket artist, and type designer Michael Harvey: Conga Brava Stencil (Adobe, 1996) and Balthasar (Fine Fonts, 2002). Conga Brava Stencil might appear to be an offshoot of the regular Conga Brava font, but it is actually the root design, having emerged from stencil experiments Harvey did in the 1980s for silk-screened jazz texts. It is a sloped “partial slab serif” with some subtle curvature to its stems—a contemporary take on an egyptian. Balthasar, which began life in the 1970s as a lettering style for dust jackets of books by Hans Urs von Balthasar, is an even more original conception. It is unclassifiable: a condensed casual roman or an upright, unjoined script with some serifs. A truer stencil script is Concrete Stencil, a pointed pen style, by Ryoichi Tsunekawa (Flat-It, 2009), accurately described as lovely by its creator. Its thick crossbars on f and t give it an awkwardly endearing charm.

Conga Brava Stencil (top) and Concrete Stencil

Among the many egyptians and grots, there are quite a few avant-garde designs reprising or based on experimental and art-deco lettering of the 1920s. The Foundry has brought back the Kombinationschrift alphabet as part of its Architype series, which also features an adaptation of Bart van der Leck’s 1941 lettering for the magazine Flax.

“The trouble with the look of texts made with fonts based on stencils is that they lack the irregular spontaneity which is one of the charms of the medium,” Mosley has complained on his blog. Similarly, in his book My Life with Letters, Michael Harvey waxes poetic about the tingle that stenciled letters give him: “Even the most modest wooden crate is enlivened by words crudely stenciled by unskilled hands.” Mosley cites Just van Rossum’s Flightcase (Letterror, 1992), a Didone in the Corbu manner, as the first stencil typeface that sought to bring back the messiness of real stenciled letters.

While most stencil typefaces are single-weight, all-caps, bulky sans or slab affairs, there are a few based on old-style serifs, with a family of weights and a lowercase. These include Raphael Boguslav’s Visa (Visual Graphics Corporation, 1965; revived and expanded by Font Bureau as Avia in 2000), Nikolas Djurek’s chic Typonine Stencil (2008), and Paul Barnes’s swashbuckling Dala Floda (Commercial Type, 2010). These designs contradict our expectations of stencils. They are graceful and delicate, better suited for elegant magazine headlines than rough-and-ready crate labels. Here at least, stencils have gone from the wharf to the Waldorf.

This article is from the August 2012 issue of Print, which is devoted to trash. You can also view the table of contents, pur
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