Art meets type

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Published:  November 19, 2010
Art meets type

Words: Jack Yan

There is an increasing crossover between disciplines these days as technology allows us to examine fields that we otherwise wouldn’t touch. Many graphic designers who trained with creating static images are quite happy to experiment with film and animation, we have car designers looking at doing interiors and homes, and fashion designers are doing colour collections for paint.

In late 2009, Desktop looked at how counter-less type has re-emerged in the late 2000s – and the early 2010s – and how the cycle resembles the trends of the late 1970s. One such design that exemplifies current thinking is the VAL font from Fontfabric, released in June 2009. With 215 glyphs, VAL has numerous counter-less forms, and its creator, Bulgarian designer Svetoslav Simov, envisages applications such as t-shirts and pictograms.

Svetoslav Simov's VAL is a freeware typeface from FontFabric that is typical of 2010 trends

Svetoslav Simov's VAL is a freeware typeface from FontFabric that is typical of 2010 trends

Yet economics and cycles aside, art may be the other reason for the quirky type of these times. In the 1990s, grunge type was popular, driven in part by technology, but this time, cross-discipline typographer/artists have brought a lot more to the typographic palette. The forms are more structured and logical, replacing the chaos of the ’90s – a time when type designers were trying to break free of centuries of tradition and the restraint of modernism. This time, it is as though artists are heading into the confines of the Latin alphabet.

Thanks to the widespread use of digital photography, a great deal more of this work is captured for posterity. Artists’ sites, such as the Behance Network, are quite happy to feature traditional type alongside art and photography.

The fact that typographers, designers and artists congregate is nothing new, except that the internet has become the primary medium in which this happens. In the early 20th century, design and art trends ran parallel; and one may say that they still did through the latter part of the century, too. Neither exists in a vacuum. There are plenty of practitioners creating type as art, who are quite inspirational, and get us focusing on some of the current trends.

Examples of counter-less forms include a rubber band alphabet by Nicolas Queffélec, and an origami one by Emma Downing, made from A4 pieces of card. Both are heavily structured, although neither is suitable for reading. On a similar note is Vladimir Tomin’s folded paper design, again counter-less (Tomin made his font available for free download, and the component letters are PNGs). Nicholas Davies used cut paper for his design, Papercraft (2009), which relies on the outer shape of the uppercase letter and the cuts made to it. Bank Associates’ Das Patent, dating from 2008, asked: “Is it possible to build an object, which shows all the letters of the alphabet depending on the angle at which it is viewed?” A neon one was also developed along similar lines. The object is angular, but, in practice, it works. Some characters are harder to decipher than others, but there is no denying the design’s cleverness.

A,B,C. Vladimir Tomin's folded paper type

A,B,C. Vladimir Tomin's folded paper type

Liverpool-born, Long Beach-based Andrew Byrom is a graphic designer, but he has been pushing the envelope with his work for some years. A multiple award-winner with recognition from AIGA and the Type Directors’ Club, Byrom has been creating typefaces – though in this context it may be better to call them letterforms – using some of the most unexpected media.

At 16 Byrom had an apprenticeship at the local shipyard before heading into design and obtaining a first-class degree. He began teaching design in the mid-1990s, but it’s his experimental typography that has brought him notice. He has teamed up with like-minded people in California to help create ANDLAB, a branding and design company that has a gallery where its art is displayed. The Byrom Temporary Signage System (2007), for instance, comprised letters fabricated from nylon, wrapped around a fibreglass pole frame. The poles were then linked inside by an elastic cord, which allowed them to be collapsible. The uppercase letters rested on the grid that the poles created, similar in principle to numbers in early LED calculators.

Byrom followed the original design with TSS2, again with collapsible boxes, this time in corrugated plastic. Here, however, the boxes did not form a grid. The front sides were flat, with a grid of tiny triangles and squares (it should be noted at this point that Byrom had thought about which parts needed to be triangles and which parts squares, reducing the number of elements required). Each could be peeled off, revealing letterforms that were reminiscent of basic large block lettering on early computers, and those of you who experimented on Commodore 64s and Apple IIs would have found the styles quite familiar.

Andrew Byrom's Interiors Light font

Andrew Byrom's Interiors Light font

Yet it is Byrom’s creations in unexpected media that fascinate typophiles. He has created type as furniture, for example, with a digital font called Interiors. In one case, Byrom used a chair, which, at a certain angle, resembled the lowercase ‘h’. From there he created the alphabet’s 26 characters in lowercase, generated as a font. Afterwards, the font was recreated in three dimensions using tubular steel. It won AIGA’s Certificate of Excellence in 2004.

As with TSS, Interiors spawned a follow-up, and Interiors Light began life as a rounded, chrome, tubular steel version of the earlier design. Byrom eventually decided that it would work in neon, though the original design had to be reworked, and Interiors Light was shown first in 2008.

Grab-Me, from 2006, used bathroom handrails, or at least, the principle behind them. The rails, made from stainless steel tubing 1.5 inches in diameter, had 90-degree turns, and Byrom says that the breaks in the resulting lettering styles coincided with those on stencil designs. An illustration featuring Grab-Me then received a Type Directors’ Club award for excellence.

Staying with the home furnishings theme, Byrom also created, as a commission for Elle Decoration, a stencil typeface design called Venetian (2008), inspired of course, by the forms of a Venetian blind. Also in 2008, Byrom’s Letter-Box-Kite was based around what its name suggests – box kites – each fabricated into one of 26 letters, and made from thin nylon and fibreglass poles.

Ed Fella, who is likely to be very well-known to most Desktop readers and Sunook Park (the president of ANDLAB) are ANDLAB Gallery’s other exhibitors, both showing their love of letters. Fella’s work is more anarchic, and in two dimensions, contrasting with Byrom’s, while Park has experimented with single letters on rice paper.

Vladimir Koncar is another artist who uses unexpected media. Tea bags, leaves, bottle tops, paper clips, pills, rotten apples and even condoms form letters – one imagines the last gives French letter a whole new meaning… Koncar’s work is fascinating, even if the results are limited by the need to maintain some resemblance to a basic, sans serif form. There are counters, but there is also a structured feel despite some of the materials used.

Finally, New Zealander Dan Gordon did a series of smoke-and-type studies in 2007, where he mixed photography and typography. One of the pieces featured the Lucire logotype, using clever effects that have not been duplicated by others who have followed. Gordon has been careful to retain enough of the original word’s structure, to prevent it from becoming a smoky mess. Again that word ‘structure’ pops up. And Gordon, too, uses bold designs – this experiment would not have worked with wiry, thin types.

It’s hard to say what further influence an artistic approach to type will have. The obvious one is to hope that people will gain a better appreciation of typographic forms, thanks to the wider audience reached by these works. For instance, Byrom’s Interior typeface featured on the New Zealand design site Design Folio, which in print form tends to deal with interiors and gadgets, not graphics.

The growth of typographic art must also affect demand upon certain fonts. In 2009, one Desktop entry on the Type pages dealt with the popularity of heavy typefaces, and many of these artworks are of heavy styles. Future historians may be able to talk about the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s as a time when there was greater dialogue between disciplines. Certainly sites like Behance do not encourage the sort of mudslinging and insults that YouTube and certain blogs do. Instead, there is a collegial, supportive environment, much like what early ‘Netizens’ found in the 1990s. It allows people to understand that creativity is not a competence that needs to be directed at a single discipline, but that it can cross quite readily into others. What a pity, then, that the printed page does not allow me to demonstrate examples where type has crossed over into music.

Thumbnail image: Gummi Bear Type. Vladimir Koncar is an artist known for using unexpected media, including hair, condoms, paper clips, pills and other materials.

All images courtesy Jack Yan.

From Desktop magazine.

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