• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Benguiat Period.

There have been a flurry of internet remembrances about Ed Benguiat, who died on Oct. 15 at 92. Sadly, there have been too many passings during this calamitous 2020: Keith Godard, Ralph Caplan, Milton Glaser, and now Ed Benguiat. Each man made significant contributions to our field and creative culture as thinkers and makers. Joyce Rutter Kaye, former editor of PRINT, who now heads the communication office at School of Visual Arts, wrote this timely story about Benguiat, followed immediately by Beth Kleber's post on the SVA Milton Glaser Design Study Center Archive blog. More tributes are on the way, and The New York Times' obituary appeared online as I wrote this.


Benguiat was an avid flyer. Courtesy SVA Milton Glaser Design Study Center Archive

I knew and admired Benguiat, yet regrettably never had the opportunity to undertake more than a superficial biographical peak into his career. So for more in-depth information, read the aforementioned coverage online, listen to Debbie Millman's comprehensive interview, and see the Type Directors Club Design Legends video. My own scant contribution is limited to this 2019 Daily Heller, and few random memories too.


I was introduced not to Ed Benguiat but to ITC Benguiat, the defining typeface of the late '70s and '80s, designed in 1977, and ITC Souvenir, designed in 1968. I was starting my "career" at an underground newspaper that rented (or rather, in hippie-speak, "borrowed") a PhotoTypositor. One of the film fonts in our limited collection was Souvenir. It looked nicer than most other characterless serif faces available to us. I used it often for reasons I cannot explain other than "it felt good." I had no idea how, who or why it was designed or that it had any precedent (i.e., it was designed in 1914 by Morris Fuller Benton for American Type Founders; it had Art Nouveau/Jugendstil origins and was specifically based on a 1905 German face called Schelter-Antiqua and Schelter-Kursiv). Back then, I had no idea that many typefaces were based on, derived or "borrowed" from earlier forms until later the rays of enlightenment arrived during my self-taught design life. That ITC Souvenir stacked nicely in caps and had a pleasing lowercase was enough for my untutored eye. Benguiat's name did not become known to me until a few years later.


My recognition of ITC Benguiat, his most ubiquitous typeface, came a decade after Souvenir. I did not realize that some typefaces were named for their designers. (Stay in school, kids!) However, I did notice that wherever I looked at that time, I saw Benguiat, a face loosely based upon the Art Nouveau style/period. It was on posters, records, advertisements and magazine covers—almost everything except in the publication where I worked: The New York Times (as art director of the Book Review, I saw it used on dozens of bestsellers). As a typeface can do, it defined (and branded) the times in general. I now call that historical typographic moment the Benguiat Period.


Note Silverstein's notation on the period. Courtesy SVA Milton Glaser Design Study Center Archive

Ultimately, of course, I learned who Ed Benguiat was, and the hundreds of faces he had designed or adapted for PhotoLettering Inc. and ITC. I finally met him by chance in late 1978 at SVA. I was teaching there for six years, and he was a respected presence and legendary teacher (who, even after the computer was introduced, only allowed students to draw letters with a pencil). It was around then that I learned he was more than a leading period figure; he had eliminated an iconic period: The full-stop at the end of the Times nameplate, a consistent part of the newspaper's front page from 1851 until 1967. I had never paid much attention to it, but in 1967 my future mentor and boss, design director/assistant managing editor Lou Silverstein, hired Benguiat to redraw and modernize the paper's "Old English" or Gothic nameplate and decided to put a full stop to the period (well-described here by David Dunlap). For me, it was a wonderful bit of trivia and an icebreaker at designer parties.


In fact, at the party where I met my future wife (38 years ago), designer Louise Fili, upon learning that I was a Times AD, she mentioned that at 16 years old she had saved the last edition with the period and the first without: "I knew something was different," she told me. Years later she took Benguiat's type class.


As one of his many virtues, Benguiat made old types new and new types different.


One day, he and I were chatting outside the SVA building on E. 23rd Street. I mentioned: "Silly as it sounds, I only recently discovered that you designed ITC Souvenir. I always loved that typeface."


"Really," he said, "well, come on up to my classroom and I'll show you how I draw it." I did. It is a memory I won't forget. (Period.)

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