The Daily Heller: The Calligraphy Community

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Since launching in 1974, San Francisco’s Friends of Calligraphy has published a newsletter with in-depth articles. In those first years it was bound with loose stapled papers and edited by Georgianna Greenwood, Sumner Stone and Don May. In the early 1980s, John Prestianni made the switch to a magazine format, and that's when it became Alphabet. Different editors have included Paul Shaw and Christopher Calderhead, and the editor was almost always designer, as well.

The commercial lettering artist and sign painter Carl Rohrs edited the publication from 1989–1992, and returned to the job in 2015. Under his watch each masthead is different, inspired by a subject or artist featured in the issue. I asked Rohrs to discuss the relationships between type, calligraphy and typography.

"As obvious as it oughta be, a type designer with a calligraphic education or background has a thousand-fold leg up on one who doesn’t," he says. "Be it Helvetica, Futura, Antique Olive or Blippo, a calligrapher understands those letters, and the non-calligraphic leaps that had to be made, so much better than the guy who walked in cold with a ruler, a compass and a drafting class." Read more below.

Is it my false impression that there has long been a schism between modern graphic designers and calligraphers?

Never noticed too much. Design trends come and go, and I’ve heard from designers who had used my calligraphy services that it didn’t fit for a few years, only to come back for more after a while. Honestly, it’s never mattered to me; I've always followed my interests around and luckily made it work somehow. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and when combined with other interests, demands for the task at hand, and your own psyche, there’s always a chance something with a little bit of a new slant can occur.

So much type derives from handlettered forms. Such a division seems silly, but there are designers who will not use calligraphic type. Can you explain why?

Steven, that’s their problem. If their aesthetic keeps them from allowing it in, I say more power to them, and good luck—what a wonderfully rich and gigantic world of possibilities they are ignoring! I don’t think modern design demands a soulless sans serif every freaking time, and I hope it’s clear in the magazine’s design that I’m really curious if a bit of modern design can be achieved using calligraphic-influenced type. I’m afraid that the unbelievable amount of beautiful work that I’m able to discover issue after issue (the greatest thing about this job) and the limited amount of pages I have to work with results in overstuffed layouts too frequently—I want the readers to see as much great work as possible, so a spare, open design is maybe a rare occurrence in our pages. But isn’t all design about making decisions about what you’re willing to sacrifice to achieve the more desirable effect? Shitty spacing for a justified column, f’instance (a choice I’ll almost always pass on). Accepting a crowded layout in exchange for lots of eye candy seems to be my choice seven or eight times out of 10. Making it work is the constant challenge.

Back to your question, though. I love letters and type that aren’t necessarily calligraphic, but this is a magazine aimed at calligraphers, so working with stuff based on that origin is one of the delightful challenges of this post—although I wouldn’t hesitate for a second using a more geometrical type if it fit with content or even a whim. But I do love calligraphic type, so it is prevalent every issue.

Because it’s not a newsstand publication, I am liberated from the normal conventions of a repeated look. I change the typefaces and the masthead every issue, reflecting aspects of the story subjects covered, if possible.

Where is such a line drawn, so to speak?

After all we’ve all been through down the years, I’m certain of about only one thing in design life—you and I both get to draw the line wherever the hell we want to!

The calligraphy community seems to have a very tight core. What contributes to that degree of cohesion? And why are magazines like Alphabet unknown to, say, most designers and students of a certain age?

That, I think, you would find in any place where folks who gather with other folks around a common love or pastime. That shared interest is a fantastic breeding ground for friendship and study. Those who are committed enough to keep coming around to improve their skills and cultivate their knowledge get the huge bonus of friendships of decades with people in far-flung places who are crazy about the same stuff, all of us in love with something that is fundamental to the history of communication, u
nbelievably rich in depth and detail, but still feels a little obscure and specialized. Look how much there is to attract a certain but diverse species of participant.

Can’t say why to the second question. For one thing, Alphabet is just the publication for the calligraphy society in SF—it’s not after a larger audience, although all are invited to join us. I’d be happy if more people saw our magazine, but it is very comfortable to write and design the mag aimed at that same group of folks just mentioned, knowing that we all have an interest and love of letters at the core of being in our club, even though the specific interests of each member can be based on so many different aspects of our craft.

Speaking of age, what is the median age of your community?

Hard to say. Around the turn of this century, there was a term—“the graying of calligraphy”—because the demographic in North American calligraphy societies and the annual conferences was aging (as well as skewing female), but this century has seen a resurgence of interest in younger practitioners, in combination with interests in graffiti lettering, signs and type design. Some of the most forceful youth movements were abroad—Italy was an amazement to me, that there were so many young men in my classes there, and of course all of Latin America has been experiencing explosions of interest in lettering arts of all kinds and their interconnections. Even here, in my local classes at the community college, I see lots of interest in hand-done lettering of many kinds—graffiti, sign painting, calligraphy—from a broad spectrum of ages. And I love to try to get the students to let influences from wherever their other interests are to mingle with other inspirations.

Is there more or less of an interest in calligraphy owing to the rise of digital typefounding?

I’d say yes. There have definitely been classes teaching digital type design at calligraphy conferences by type designing calligraphers—Jovica Veljovic, Stephen Rapp and Julian Waters, to name a few. There has also been a steady demand for calligraphy classes in type design programs like Type@Cooper, Letterform Archive, Reading, etc.

Is there a crossover today, say the way Koch was expert at both calligraphy and type design?

Of course—those three mentioned earlier, Carl Crossgrove, John Stevens, John Benson, the wonderful young Mexicans like Gen Ramirez, South Americans like Max Sproviero, and many more. Scandinavians, Russians, Africans—the world over there are more and more people bringing unique new sensibilities and coupling them with a serious study of the gorgeous history of lettering. The world may be spinning out of control, but the magnitude of so many people looking at our letters and finding their own paths to expression makes this as beautifully exciting a time for lettering-based design as the world is mad.

Do you believe that calligraphy and type will merge or overlap more in the future?It’s inevitable.