By: Steven Heller
For almost thirty years, The New York Times Magazine’s resident linguist extraordinaire, William Safire, in his popular “On Language” column, analyzed hundreds of contemporary words and phrases—from jargon to slang and everything in between. In 2005, the magazine’s art director Arem Duplessis began assigning designers, typographers, and letterers to interpretively render the week’s showcased vernacular, each in their own distinctively customized conceptual lettering. What could be more appropriate?
Language is more than the words, and by giving visual form to these verbal constructs, the artists individualized the concepts, making each phrase into a veritable logo. While the letterers were given considerable interpretative freedom, they were still required to fulfill requirements of legibility and readability. As abstract as the lettering style could be, the result was not art for art’s sake. Total abstract form was proscribed by function.
The “On Language” assignment was one of the most prized of jobs, and over the past five years, the “curators” of the page (including, Kristina DiMatteo, Gail Bichler, Leo Jung, Hilary Greenbaum, Cathy Gilmore-Barnes, Aviva Michaelov and Robert Vargas) have assembled an impressive collection of known and unknown letterers, each with a distinct visual persona. In the digital age, when design templates often edge out design thinking, and computer generated precision has replaced quirkiness, this critical mass in Wordplay: The Lettering of ‘On Language’ of eccentric and eclectic lettering is as intriguing as the words and phrases they represent.
The opening of the exhibition is tomorrow, Thursday, April 22, at The New York Times Building, 620 8thAvenue, 7th floor. RSVP is required to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the work from “On Language” can be seen here and below.
(Lettering (from top to bottom): Julia Hasting, Ashley Snow Macomber, Phil Lubliner, Sam Weber, James Victore and Thomas Lee Bakofsky.)