Before one leaves the physical world for the astral realm, it would be prudent to specify the typeface that you want to have represent you for eternity (Paul Rand made certain of that). That is the message that artists Gavin Morrison and Scott Myles telegraph with their archive of frottages of historic type designers’ headstones. A series of lithographs made from eight of the frottages is currently on view at Katherine Small Gallery in Massachusetts. Details of the project, along with images, can be found here. In advance of a forthcoming chapbook about the project, I asked Morrison to talk about type as memorial.
Gravestone rubbings are a common way to collect typographic inscriptions. Why and how did you take this to the next level?
Since 2010, the Scottish artist Scott Myles and I have been taking impressions from type designers’ gravestones. Although we do refer to these as rubbings and frottages, those terms are somewhat misleading. The technique we have developed is a variation of the Japanese printmaking method of Taku-Hon. It was originally developed to take impressions of text from monuments to make into prints and books. A specific type of paper, made with long fibers, is laid upon the stone and moistened; a dry brush is used to stipple the surface, which causes the paper to conform to the undulations of the stone surface; ink is then applied to the surface. The process isn’t as abrasive as a rubbing method would be, and it also provides a high degree of legibility due to creating sharp registration.
Our project began with a query as to the relationship between a type designer’s work and the form of lettering on their headstone. We are perhaps in the twilight of a history where practitioners are involved across the calligraphic arts, stone carving, and type design. Someone like Michael Harvey, who was a notable stone-carver, designed a hot metal type, and created digital typefaces; he crossed a moment of history where the primacy of the hand gave way to the computer. However, headstones are still, often, made by hand. With the Taku-Hon method, the gravestone becomes a de facto printing plate. The method carries the gestures and unintentional effects of its making, and the resulting frottages are therefore often quite painterly.
Were you surprised by any of the type choices?
This project began when I was in the cemetery of the Provençal village of Lurs. I saw there a couple of headstones cut with a variant of Roger Excoffon’s Banco typeface. It was incongruous and unexpected to see someone’s grave cut with a form of lettering perhaps best known for its use in the logo font of the skateboard magazine Thrasher. It made me wonder how Excoffon’s own gravestone (which we’ve yet to locate) looked. He had created a typeface, Mistral, based upon his own handwriting, allowing the possibility that the lettering on his grave—his last words—could be based on his own handwriting.
The headstones of type designers exist in a particular class. When Beatrice Warde was overseeing the design of Stanley Morison’s stone, she warned that, “anyone with knowledge of Stanley Morison writings might assume that he had designed the whole thing himself, while still alive.” His is a beautifully cut—by Reynolds Stone—memorial, that feels entirely consistent with his work and theoretical approach. Jan Tschichold’s also feels sympathetic to his style, however perhaps without intention. He is interned in a graveyard in the Swiss Alps, alongside other members of his family. The stones all have the same metal, raised, serifed style of lettering. It appears to be a form used throughout the graveyard. In their consistent simplicity and repetition, the memorials look like a row of book spines, an unintentional echo to the Penguin paperbacks which he created a typographical standard for in the 1940s.
In addition to the frottages, do you have plans to expand the letters into revised alphabets?
The expansive nature of the archive does offer the potential to be realized and extended in a variety of ways. From the prints made in Barcelona to projects with magazines, different iterations allow focus upon different aspects of the archive. It is exciting to think that these could be pursued in even more ways, such as creating new alphabets.
For me, one of the most important goals would be to realize a book, a sort of anthology of the lettering and the stones. The project is based on a great deal of research, not just to locate the stones, but also into the intentions of those that made and determined the gravestones. A book would allow the contextualization of the frottage archive.
How did you locate all the type designers on your wish list?
This archive is idiosyncratic and somewhat arbitrary. The research required to find the location of headstones has both been simple and arduous. At times a person’s final resting place is mentioned in biographies or obituaries. At other times, enquiries to friends and colleagues of the deceased have had to be made. The series of lithographic prints, which we made with Poligrafa in Barcelona, is titled A History of Type Design. It was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the limitations in being able to find the type designers’ headstones (some don’t have a marked grave, and some prove harder to locate); the work’s title also alludes to the idea that all histories are necessarily contingent.
The 18th-century English type designer John Baskerville would be quite high up on our wish list, especially as he started as a carver of gravestones and composed his own epitaph. However, a combination of his atheism and the construction of a canal led to his remains being moved various times. Now interned in catacombs, no headstone remains.
What did you feel as you were paying homage to the dead?
A couple of years ago I was in the Cimetière de Loyasse in Lyon looking for the grave of Louis Perrin. It was cold and grey, with light flurries of snow. When I eventually found the stone, it was almost blank; the preceding 150 years had eroded any lettering that had been there. I suspect that had this happened when beginning this project, I would have been disappointed and frustrated. The project began more in the spirit of trainspotting, but now the process of making the frottages has increasingly become more reflective. The project is underwritten with a reverence and pathos.