• Ellen Shapiro

The Handwriting Is on the Wall

The walls in studios on two floors of the historic Cooper Union building are filled with hand-drawn studies of letterforms.

“I love typography!”

That’s the way Chavelli Tsui answers the question, “What brought you here?

Tsui is a graphic designer born and raised in Hong Kong who recently received her BFA in communication design from Carnegie-Mellon University. With 28 cohorts from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, and around the U.S.A., she’s finishing up the intensive Type@Cooper program at the Cooper Union in New York City this week. The students have been immersed in the history and mysteries of typography and the art and science of designing a digital typeface.

Digital output of sample character sets, headlines, and text set in Chavelli Tsui's italic

“I’m working on an italic based on hand-lettering done with broad-nib pen,” Tsui explains. “We did calligraphy to start, and I’m taking it deeper. I want it to have rhythm and structure, and to create lots of alternative characters, swashes, and ligatures to spice it up.”

Program chair Sumner Stone (Stone Informal, Stone Sans) works with student Rolando Alcantara of Mexico.

This is the “condensed” summer program, in which each of the students—most whom have already earned their MFAs and work professionally in the graphic design field—spend 11.5 hours a day in class for five weeks, working with each other and with a faculty headed by Sumner Stone, the former director of typography at Adobe Systems and the founder of the Stone Type Foundry in Northern California. Faculty members who guide each student through an individual typeface design project include graphic and type designer Stéphane Elbaz, who recently relocated from France to New York; Hannes Famira of Kombinat-Typefounders, Germany; Jean François Porchez of Typofonderie, in France; and Just van Rossum of LettError, the Netherlands.

Instructor Just van Rossum works with Tom Conroy from Australia (left), and Bruno Mello from Brazil.

Instructor Jean François Porchez (left) gives a hands-on demo to student Manuel Olmo, from Puerto Rico, who has degrees in finance and visual communications from Purdue University.

“This is a motivated, sophisticated group,” asserts Cara Di Edwardo, the program’s director. “Of our 29 students, 21 had typeface designs in their portfolios, ranging from first dabblings to serious published and award-winning fonts. The goal is that participants complete the program with the specialized skills to design professional-quality digital typefaces and lettering.”

Lara Captan transforms her sketches into digital type with FontLab software.

Arrighi's 16th-century lettering (left) and Captan's sketches for her Cancellarecta typeface

“My passion is Arabic type,” says Lara Captan, a Lebanese-born graduate of Escola de Disseny i Art in Barcelona who speaks Arabic, Spanish, French, and English. Captan is bringing that passion to her “cancellaresca” Roman inspired, in part, by italic capitals drawn by the Venetian calligrapher and typographer Arrighi (1475–1527). “I’m straightening the angle and attempting to add an earthy feel to it in order to remove some of its romance,” she says. “I therefore named the face Cancellarecta because ‘rectus’ is the Latin word for ‘straight.’”

Sample headline and text settings of Ron Gilad's Nobilis

Ron Gilad attended an Israeli technical college, began his career as a programmer, and has been doing commercial design work in his hometown of Haifa. To get him started on the individual typeface project, the instructors presented him with a set of parameters:

1. Width: normal 2. Weight: book 3. Stroke endings: asymmetric serif 4. Ascender: longer than normal 5. Descender: longer than normal 6. Contrast type: between translation and transitional 7. Contrast amount: a lot of contrast 8. Stems: straight 9. Intended application: newsprint 10. Intended size: reading sizes

“I wasn’t sure at first how to handle all the contradictions in the brief,” Gilad admits. Now, just three weeks later, he’s polishing up Nobilis, a Vendôme-like roman, which he characterizes as “high-contrast, long ascender/descender, slight counter angle; best used for short paragraphs or headlines, identity (for classy, fancy things). It’s really shaping up,” he adds. And it does look très elegant when set in French, Gilad’s third language after Hebrew and English.

Unlike the undergraduate programs at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, for which each student famously receives a full-tuition scholarship, the Type@Cooper summer program is not free. It’s a certificate program, part of a continuing-education curriculum, and the fee is $3,880—plus the cost of living in New York City. “Students have done a fair amount of sacrificing,” Di Edwardo says.

For those without the means to sacrifice that much, the program hosts a number of public workshops. Type@Cooper can be for you and me too; enroll through the continuing education program by calling 212-353-4195.

You might also enjoy Alex W. White’s Thinking in Type: The Practical Philosophy of Typography, available at MyDesignShop.com.

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