From Scrawl to Script

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for From Scrawl to Script

Michael Doret of Alphabet Soup recently finished his interpretation of Alex Steinweiss‘ eponymous “Steinweiss Scrawl,” called the “Steinweiss Script.” I caught up with Doret between pen strokes to ask about the difference between his revival and the original.

Steinweiss Scrawl has not been available since the demise of Photo-Lettering Inc. Why did you revive it?The Photo-Lettering library is now owned by House Industries and they retain the rights to “Steinweiss Scrawl” but have not reissued it. But the answer to your question is a bit complicated. Technically, “Steinweiss Script” is not a revival of “Steinweiss Scrawl.” Let me explain:

When Taschen Publishing contacted me to do lettering for the cover of their book on Alex Steinweiss, their request was that it be reflective of Steinweiss’ “scrawl”—the type of free-style lettering that Alex Steinweiss used on many of his album covers. They supplied me with reference on many of those covers and also with the character set of that font he did for Photo-Lettering. That character set was not that useful to me in designing the cover lettering, mainly because by its nature, it was much more static in feeling than the calligraphic lettering Steinweiss had done for his covers. Its letters didn’t connect, and so, in the end, couldn’t be useful in helping to achieve the free-flowing nature of his “scrawl.” There have been a couple of digital fonts done in recent years that have been more or less literal digital conversions of what Steinweiss had done for Photo-Lettering. In discussing this project with Josh Baker (the art director at Taschen), we talked about the possibility of my doing a new font for all the headlines in the book that would be closer in feeling to the true “scrawl.” But it soon became clear that with budget and time constraints that wouldn’t be possible. So I ended up doing just the lettering for the cover … and Josh Baker ended up using one of those recent digital conversions for the heads in the book. (Now that the fonts are done, Taschen is re-issuing the book, with my fonts used to replace the headlines they used in the first edition.)

You went from drawing one of a kinds to a complete font. Why?After having had the experience of studying the “scrawl” for this project, and trying to understand what made it so unique, I decided that I wanted to attempt the creation of a new font that might come closer to the feeling of the “scrawl.” This has become possible only in recent years with the advent of OpenType. The characters in the face I designed are reminiscent of the characters in Steinweiss’ font, but they had to be substantially different in many ways to be able to capture some of the character of his handwritten “scrawl.”

What did you do to the face that is different from the original?There are about 2220 characters in the font I designed. Steinweiss’ Photo-Lettering font had about 62 (plus punctuation). The letterforms I designed for my fonts are definitely “in the spirit” of Steinweiss work, but are in no way copies of the forms in his “Steinweiss Scrawl.” Many of the letterforms I created for this may in fact be quite different from what Alex Steinweiss might have done, but were necessary in order to facilitate connectivity between letters. I designed my fonts in three weights, and within each weight there are three variations which, to put it simply, are variations in the height of the caps and of the lowercase ascenders and descenders. There is also a full range of accents for European language support. What makes this font work are the huge number of alternates and ligatures which, when accessed through OpenType compatible applications, allow one to compose words with much of the free-flowing feeling and connectivity that Alex Steinweiss had imbued his calligraphy with. This, of course, was not possible at the time that he originally created his font.Did Alex Steinweiss, who is 93, give you permission? He still retains rights, correct?When I started designing this font, I had not had any contact with Mr. Steinweiss. I was kind of intimidated by the thought of trying to contact this icon of 20th century design. But then I thought about it, and realized that of course I had to contact him. I spoke to Nina Wiener, the editor at Taschen who had had extensive contact with Mr. Steinweiss throughout the course of doing the book, and she agreed to help me facilitate this. She told me that because of Mr. Steinweiss’ advancing age it was becoming increasingly difficult to communicate with him. So Nina put me in contact with Leslie Steinweiss—Alex’ son. I described my project to him, and sent him some samples of what I had developed so far. I told him that I would like to name the fonts “Steinweiss Script” as an homage to his father and would also like to offer Mr. Steinweiss a portion of whatever profits I might make from the sale of the fonts. He immediately told me that he loved the idea, but that it would be very difficult, if not impossible at that point for me to discuss this with his father because of his worsening hearing impairment and other problems. So I had to be content with the family’s approval of this project, and not from Mr. Steinweiss himself.

Was there any other collaborative issues?Well, I couldn’t have created the fonts without the expert OpenType programming assistance of Patrick Griffin from Canada Type.

Doing another’s typeface is like writing a biography. How involved did you get with Alex and vice versa?Well, like I said, I wasn’t able to have direct contact with Alex, so I had to be content with studying many, many of his covers. I did discover however, that we were both Brooklyn boys, he having attended Lincoln HS, and me just a short bike ride away at Sheepshead Bay High School. My art teacher there was Sol Schwartz (with whom I’m still in touch) who had studied art under Leon Friend—as did Alex Steinweiss.

[Original Steinweiss cover at bottom. All other illustrations by Michael Doret.]

See Saturday’s Daily Heller on Monkey
Business here.