Letter Centric: Thoughts on Spencerian Script

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A year ago, in an Eye magazine feature entitled “Cult of the Squiggly,” Steven Heller complained about the overabundance of embellishment in design “spiraling out of control.” He has now jumped on the bandwagon as the co-author with Gail Anderson of New Ornamental Type: Decorative Lettering in the Digital Age (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2010). The squigglists, led by Marian Bantjes—profiled in the Reputations section of that same issue of Eye—can be found throughout the book. There is Jessica Hische, Dustin Edward Arnold, Deanne Cheuk (all of whom have been profiled in Print), Alison Carmichael, Ian Brignell, and Si Scott. What strikes me about much of their work here and in other places—as well as that of others following Bantje’s path such as the letterer behind Tiffany & Co.’s current Valentine’s Day campaign—is not over-embellishment but a lack of skill.

Marian Bantjes for Saks Fifth Avenue

This is not the rant of a die-hard Swiss modernist feeling parched inthe absence of white space and feeling strangled by a riotous tangle ofswashes. Instead, it is the observations of a calligrapher/lettererwith over thirty years experience who has studied and admired the workof the great Spencerian letterers of the phototype era: Ed Benguiat,Tom Carnase, Tony DiSpigna, Jerry Campbell, Peter Horridge, Jean Larcher, and RaphaelBoguslav. Their work outshines that of today’s “new ornamentalists.”The difference is more than a matter of time—and yes, doing Spencerianproperly, whether by hand or by mouse, takes enormous amounts of time.It comes from an understanding of letterforms, borne both of longtimeexperience writing and drawing them by hand and of studying the writingmasters of the past from Lucas Materot and George Bickham to LouisMadarasz and William E. Dennis. Spencerian flourishing requires both an understanding of rhythm and space as the residue of physical acts and as a visual arrangement.

Westbury Hospital, by Jerry Campbell

When it comes to script, the squigglists have more enthusiasm than ability. Letters and their joins are clumsy (Bantje’s “Want It!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue, the Tiffany campaign, or Cheuk’s “The Lives They Lived” cover for The New York Times Magazine). The swashes and flourishes are often inept. They lack grace, rhythm and fluidity. Lines overlap awkwardly or crash into one another, negative spaces are unbalanced, and the overall design is weak. (See Carmichael’s unprintable self-promotion piece, Scott’s March/April 2007 Blueprint cover, or The Edit by Arnold for Big Magazine.) In fact, it often seems as if the mere presence of lots and lots of curling lines serve to hide a paucity of ideas on the part of the designer or art director. The decoration becomes visual camouflage.

“A Wedding,” by Tony DiSpigna

All of this can be seen in “A Wedding” by Tony DiSpigna from Love Letters, his book in progress. The letters are beautifully formed and evenly spaced; the curves are graceful, even sensuous, with a few thick strokes deftly placed for overall emphasis; the flourishes are not formulaic; and the overall composition is balanced with a pleasing shape. And, despite the wealth of swashes, the text is immediately readable. Clarity and ornamentation hand in hand.

Tony DiSpigna will be speaking about his four decades of work on February 24 at the Type Directors Club. See tdc.org for details and reservations. Go see the work of a true master of letter and line.