sometimes it’s just about typography and typefaces. i am not one who can look at a typeface and immediately identify it. although i did find myself looking a billboard and saying to myself that’s franklin gothic. the ‘g’ is the give away. it is harder and harder for me to distinguish specific fonts, the reason being…there are more good ones than ever before. i loved drawing letter forms when in school. i enjoyed the process of designing fonts too and having had the opportunity to study with matthew carter cemented that for me. these qsl radio cards of mine are from a small collection. i have maybe twenty, give or take. these cards are not rare. they are not hard to find, nor expensive. they are not particular special, though i expect they are to the specialist collector, but they do provide inspiration. a quick look on ebay and i find over six thousand listed, not a small number. when i attend paper fairs or flea markets, i see these cards often. i cannot help but to look thru the pile and see what i can discover. maybe i’ll find something that stands out or speaks to me at that moment. i think i gravitate to clean and more stark examples. i recall a few years ago paul share and danny gregory wrote a book called hello world: a life in ham radio, that featured qsl cards. i don’t often buy these types of books but i thought it was well done and i’ve been a fan of share’s for a long time. i urge you to buy a copy. the next time you see a pile of these cards, take the time to investigate and see what treasures you’ll find.
the letterhead is always exciting to me. i recall designing a letterhead for a company called milpark, when i worked in texas. i spent a few days on a design and created dozens upon dozens of layouts. i went to town using my ruling pen and red gouache. i just loved it. i pinned all the designs on the wall of the conference room, filled it completely. the creative director came in and was…..surprised. or was it overwhelmed? there was so much to see. too much in fact. i do not recall the specific design selected but the next step was to apply the design to a business cards. the design applicational process was and is thoroughly fun. the design of the business card is something i still enjoy. that finite space requires all your design abilities. i believe the business card is still the one piece of collateral that matters. i give out my card often and am interested to see if i get a reaction. i often do. mostly i hear, “you must be a designer”. i can live with that. i assume that means i did my job. i did communicate who i am, or at least what i do. our studio, design mw, has always had an interesting business card. our card is not the standard size of two by three and half. people notice this first. second is the paper and third the printing. i once had the oddest thing happen. i came into the office early one morning, it was my usually practice to arrive at my desk before everyone else came in and have a tea and a scone. on this occasion i checked my phone messages, there was a message from someone, a designer calling from miami. the message was left late the night before and the designer had a question. he has was calling from a bar and was with two other designers. they wanted to know how the card was made. the card was engraved on both sides, but since we had duplexed the paper stock, you could not see the bruise from the engraving plate. they couldn’t figure it out. you have to love that. another designer calling about your business card. these cards pictured are all engraved. all bought at the vienna’s naschmarkt. it’s about typography in the end. these are all exquisitely hand engraved and rich in detail. the subtle detail of information. i never tire of looking at these cards. enjoy.
my father died 18 years ago today. cancer. he was a smoker and drinker, both to excess. i have neither habits. another habit of my father’s was polishing his shoes. as a child i would sit and watch as he spent an entire sunday every couple of months polishing his shoes. when he died he had 56 pairs. all varieties of brogues, wingtips, and loafers. he polished them to a flawless high shine. sitting in his undershirt and a dirty pair of khakis, he would work up a sweat. i never saw him do any work about the house. i don’t think he knew the difference between a flat and a phillips head screwdriver. he thought me cocky and arrogant. i recall a fishing trip we took in 1992. we were staying at a roadside hotel—one where norman bates would have felt comfortable—in eufaula, alabama. we were arguing about something or other and he challenged me with the question, “what two ships fought in the civil war?” we southerners always try to bring up the civil war to test each other’s knowledge. if i didn’t know the answer, i wasn’t a true southerner and certainly not as smart as i thought i was. so i pondered for a few moments, thought of one ship—the monitor—but couldn’t come up with the other name. “see, you’re not so smart, are you?” i smiled and asked, “dad, which state is farthest east—new hampshire or vermont?” he looked at me, then walked into the bathroom and closed the door. a smart-ass i certainly was. he didn’t know the answer. what he did know was how to put a shine on a pair of shoes. his trick was not to buff but to use a damp rag and rub to a high shine. he did one thing in particular: he shined the soles. well, the instep of the sole. he served in korea and he told me that is where he learned to shine shoes and i know that the first thing he looked at when he met a man, was his shoes. he certainly believed, “shoes make the man.” i inherited his love of shoes, though i don’t own anywhere near 56 pairs and i don’t spend sundays polishing mine. i do polish as needed. after he died, i did something to remember him. rather selfishly, i went to john lobb in paris and order a pair of bespoke shoes. i’m embarrassed to say how much they cost but let me just say, more than the airfare. the experience of having bespoke shoes made is thrilling and a wonder. the smell recalls sitting in a new car. the feel of a fine piece of sculpture. brancusi? i loved the whole experience. and i came to treasure something unexpected: the john lobb box. it was a simple side-stapled box, with paper-wrapped board and a printed label. i expect once upon time this label was actually engraved. i love it in every way. now i have a few pair of ready- to-wear lobb shoes, and those came in a lovely heavy-duty board box with the john lobb logotype embossed on it. it is lovely, too, but the box for these bespoke shoes seems just right, truly unpretentious. it seems less about design and more about function and simplicity. i have learned that john lobb no longer uses this box. this makes me sad, but knowing it also makes me treasure mine that much more. my bespoke lobbs have been resoled twice and should last me twenty more years, provided i shine them often. my dad would be pleased to know that i honor him in this way. he loved his shoes. today i can remember the two ships that fought in the civil war: the monitor and the merrimack. i’m ready for that question now, dad.
what do you do with things you for which you have no categories, or even collections? i often buy the darndest things: labels, scraps of paper, stickers. some i don’t even know their original use. what do i do with them? they are filed in a book designed for stamp collectors. i place these oddities without regard to topic, style or category. maybe they should be categorized under ‘what’s left?’
in this particular book, i have an old ration sticker, revenue stickers and an assortment of oddities. all bought with one thought: ‘typography.’ these books for stamp collectors are great. i try and buy old ones as they have more character then the new ones. i believe fewer and fewer companies make these books and the richness has disappeared. i have many stories about finding these books. in this day and age, with ebay, it’s fascinating to me how everyone thinks what they have is valuable. i have heard this from other dealers, too. professional dealers spend much more time going to flea markets, yard sales and estates sales than i. many individuals think because something sold for x on ebay, that is the price. as we know, it takes only two people to bid up an item. when a dealer (i mostly buy from dealers) suddenly realizes that he may have priced something incorrectly, the reaction makes me smile (or roll my eyes). Usually i get a ‘that’s valuable?’ look. he has a chance to reassess and then i hear, ‘not for sale’. i have to be careful since i am a very particular collector who doesn’t just go for the familiar.
being a paper clip collector, i am intrigued by the many different shapes. i will be looking through a box of old documents and often there is more than one box. if i’m up for it and have my patient hat on, i will dig in. i start pulling out documents with paper clips that i may or may not have and the dealer will come over and start examining my selections. now, he has never gone through this box and has already said so, but out of all this paper i have selected five things. why? this is curious to him. how much? ‘a hundred dollars.’ i say to myself, ‘i only want the paper clips.’ so i walk away after spending over a half an hour. the dealer looks at me harshly. ‘well, how much do you want to pay?’ of course i want to pay five bucks. ten bucks tops. i don’t even make an offer since we are so far apart. right before i leave the show, i swing back by the dealer and see that the papers are how i left them. no one has even looked through the box, so i offer the dealer twenty bucks and tell him i just want the paper clips. he says ‘get lost.’ nice, right? this happened at the allentown paper fair many years ago. i have learned from these experiences and it has to do with this book that contains these oddities.
in paris there used to be a philatelic dealer on rue due madeleine. right on the corner. it was a good size. i would always go in there and use my poor french and ask for odd collections and such. often dealers will buy old collections and these collections will be in these books i seek out. there will be stacks of these with a simple listing of what’s inside. such as, ‘algeria’ or ‘german pre-war’. of course i’m not interested in the stamps inside, just the old books containing them. these collections can be quite expensive and often prevent me from buying the book, but i remember asking the dealer—the daughter of the owner—if she had ‘new old stock’ of these books. i did not know this phrase in french. i should have learned it long ago. anyway, she pointed along the staircase leading to the basement (needless to say, i so wanted to visit the basement) were there were shelf after shelf of these books. all sizes. my face lit up. i gave myself away. she handed me one and i nodded: ‘perfect, j’aime ça.’ i recall it coast about ten dollars. then i asked if i could by more. ‘no. not for sale.’ the books had been sitting on that shelf for 40+ years. but once someone comes along and shows an interest, they bear consideration. i guess one is better than none.
my motto, or one of them, is “you’re only a good as the obscurity of your sources.” when i begin a project—or, frankly, even before a even get a project—my head spins with ideas. what about this? no—that!? that’s too far out. where should the client take this? whom are they trying to reach? their brand is great but they have forgotten their core. i review myriad possibilities and have endless discussions with myself. generally i have a meeting with a client and gauge where they want to go, and that usually narrows down the avenues. many times, my collections come in handy as inspirations and a resource. i rarely buy things or books specifically as sources or references—“this book will be good for letterforms” or “this is good for patterns.” my collections serve me for visual stimulus and what i think will be the foundations for an interesting design somewhere down the line. my collections have also been a way for me to dream. i have dreamed of opening a store for years. (my daughter has even wished she would win the lottery just so she could give me the money to open that store.) many times my collections do aid in the design of a project or to just stimulate discussion with other designers. like this one: hundreds and hundreds of matchbook labels collected by one person. i love that this individual collector had taken the time to organize them topically and visually by color. i bought these because it was such a comprehensive collection, rich with design and history, and because i thought they would look amazing framed. imagine all the red, the black, each a blur of color, only to discover the nuances separating one from the next. many collectors of matchbook labels collect them topically; elephants, birds, deer, etc. but of course i love the typography, the illustrations and the color. we recently did a project for a men’s store in mexico city, silver deer. when the client came to us, he already had the name and a clear idea, however done by another designer, of what the store should look like. well, we tried (and i think successfully) to take him in another direction. we started here, looking at these old matchbook labels of deer, but after a while we felt it looked too specific and too familiar. we eventually presented a more clean and stark identity, a fresh canvas to sell the heritage brands the client was passionate about. i am proud of the design but my heart still has a soft spot for these matchbox labels. it’s wonderful to see the depth and richness that can be conveyed in something that is only 2 inches across. enjoy.
monday december 10th will be the last day of my exhibition at you who have stopped by and sent emails. i learned that facebook isn’t really the best way to invite people, so next time i’ll send a proper invitation. please come and have a beer and tell me what you think of the show. i hope to see you there.
how many times do you walk pass something and not pick it up? how often have you been to a flea market, looked and examined something and not bought it? then later, the next day, the next week even, you can’t seem to get that thing out of your head. sometimes you regret it, other times you go back and it’s still there, waiting for you. here is one such item for me. the mw studio was located on wooster street, just south of houston, for 13 years. we were on the fourth floor right below a manufacturer of brass fittings for bathrooms. they had been there for 30-plus years. at the time, we lived on ninth street in the village, and i would walk through washington square park almost every day. walking home one evening, past dusk, i crossed houston and as i reached the north side of the street something caught my eye. i looked down and just lying next to the curb was this set of keys, splayed out pretty much like this. i stopped and stared. i didn’t reach down. i just looked for a few seconds and let the image imprint on my brain and continued my walk home. not sure why i didn’t pick them up, but as i walked i kept thinking about these keys. i don’t collect keys, so i saw no reason to pick them up. just an interesting artifact. as i walked up la guardia place, there at the stoplight was a locksmith’s truck. i continued on walking north through washington square park and, as i exited the park, there was the same truck at another traffic light. well, those keys kept calling. as I walked up fifth avenue, i turned left onto ninth street, reached into my pocket and pulled out my own keys. i looked hard at them, then i turned around and went back for these keys. as i got closer to where i first saw them, my step quickened. would they still be there? as i hit houston street, i found myself running. i could see when i got about ten feet away that they were still there, and they’ve been sitting in my desk drawer ever since. lovely, aren’t they?
here’s a little bit of everything. a bit silly right? stencils. string. playing cards. packaging. labels. some things just don’t amount to much until they are accumulated. then what? one thing i always go for is dennison gummed labels. on ebay i have seen one of these little boxes go for sixty bucks. i kid you not. whenever i buy a nothing book, usually from muji, i put one of these on the cover. you’d be surprised how it changes the complexion of a simple sketch book. i also have a weakness for string, twine, cord, fishing line. weird huh. i received an email from someone, a teacher somewhere, who uses my blog as an example of compulsive obsessive disorder. glad to know i’m an example to someone. i am particularly fond of osram lighting packaging. is it the orange? the simple design is always appealing. at some point i should file, categorize or just organize these disperse items, (there are many boxes like this) then they will be something more than just an accumulation, say a collection.
i have written before about a particular category of my collections which falls under ‘i just like it.’ here is another item from that category, or maybe i should start a new one entitled ‘why did i buy it?’ unfortunately, i believe i have quite a few things that would fit into this category. this cover was bought because i thought it might be useful in a design one day. imagine what arcane piece of graphic design would use such an item. maybe it could be part of a background on a poster. i am reminded of trompe l’oeil paintings. i have always admired them, but when I see them today i wonder why people paint them. i guess i can see how technically satisfying a painting like this could be and i certainly enjoy looking at them. if i recall my art history and the antique road show, as well as refreshed by google, otis kaye always did trompe l’oeil painting with us currency. maybe just framing this piece of paper would be enough. the merits of its color. its folds. the little dash of color. am i projecting? most likely. maybe you can tell me what you see.
my collection of letters starts with the envelope. up until the nineteenth century, most of the letters were folded to make the envelope. here is an example: you can see the wax seal which was used to hold the folded letter shut. what makes this envelope special to me, of course, is the label, “353 from rathwnow.” i haven’t shown this to a postal dealer, so i have no idea what or why this label was attached to this letter. i just loved the letterforms. loving type is an odd thing.
there are so many of us who share this passion. what make a letterform special? what draws us to a particular font? how many new typefaces are designed each day? do we really need them? i always look forward to working with interns or new designers and they bring in their favorite typefaces. often these fonts are completely new to me. many i don’t like, but i try and set aside my prejudices and see what they see. how does that particular typeface add to the design where another doesn’t? this is certainly the case with these letterforms. the surprise of finding these numbers on a letter amidst a pile of other nineteenth-century letters said buy me. wonderful, isn’t it?