Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tutorial no. 2—Marian Bantjes

Tutorial no. 1 was not meant to be a showdown between Tony DiSpigna and Marian Bantjes or a referendum on the entire body of work of either individual. My goal was to use single pieces by each of them to explain what I see as the hallmarks of a good piece of lettering. The tutorial is part of an ongoing discussion I have been having with calligraphers, letterers and type designers for over twenty years about the concept of good and bad letterforms. This addendum to Tutorial no. 1 is a continuation of this conversation.

Marian Bantjes: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

When I focused on Marian Bantjes’ Valentine’s design for Saks Fifth Avenue in Lettercentric, my blog at www.printmag.com devoted to lettering and type, I was worried that my criticism of it would be taken as criticism of Marian’s entire body of work. It was not meant to be that. However, it has drawn a sharp rejoinder from her.

“Well, Paul, first I will say that I am on record many times over as saying that I am not a calligrapher, and in fact formal lettering has never been my goal or my interest. The work I did for Saks is one of the very few pieces of lettering I’ve done that approaches calligraphic formality... and yet, no, that was not its intent. My direction from my clients, Michael Bierut at Pentagram, and Saks was to find a midway between the very formal Spencerian script of the Saks logo, and the energy of Saul Steinberg’s scrawl. It was meant to be vector smooth, but casual with an over-the-top freneticism of “wanting it.” A kind of madness. When I give presentations of this project, I note my own dissatisfaction with the lack of structure, but again that was the point. I much prefer the 18 “want-it” items I created for the rest of the campaign, for this and many other reasons. However, I take great umbrage at being called a “squigglist” let alone the head squigglist. Anyone who even glances at the projects on my website (www.bantjes.com) from the past couple of years would find very little of the squiggly genre, and even prior to that, nearly every “squiggly” project approaches it from a different perspective. No ... I do not squiggle. I plan, I draw, I work on grids, I carefully nest and echo elements, and then I re-draw in Illustrator, point by point, and adjust, adjust, adjust. I have no interest in squiggles, and I have a waning interest in flourishes. But I have great interest in lettering, pattern, structure, ornament, optical illusion, complexity, illegibility, invention, juxtaposition, hidden messages ... etc. You might want to rethink that description of me once you actually look at my work.”
Marian Bantjes, printmag.com, 4 April 2010

There are a number of issues that Marian’s response raises, not only about her work but also about our attitudes toward lettering in general. Making letters—whatever the method—is an art that requires skill just as other arts do. But we often forget that because letters are such an integral part of our culture and, by extension, of graphic design. There is very little graphic design that can function without letters. Yet, because we all know how to write and type, we believe that making letters can be done by anyone. Indeed, it can. But it is the quality of those letters that is at issue.

There are good letters, there are bad letters and there are ugly letters. These are subjective terms, but that does not mean that criteria cannot be marshalled to support such characterizations. The term “squiggly” —coined by Steve Heller in “Cult of the Squiggly”, Eye 72 —sounds negative and condescending, but I did not mean for it to be taken that way when I used it. I considered it a term to be used alongside curlicue, curly, flourish and swash; a term that suggested less formal flourishes than those associated with Renaissance or Baroque calligraphy.

Squiggles are not inherently bad. They are simply different from Spencerian flourishes or cancellaresca corsiva swashes. And as such they can be done well, done indifferently or done poorly. A good curve has a sense of inevitability. It is part of a circle, an oval, a parabola, a hyperbola, a ramphoid, etc. It can be mathematically explained, though one does not need to know any such formulas to make a good curve. (For the mathematical underpinning of curves see: http://www.2dcurves.com/ and
http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Curves/Curves.html). That is because good curves are the result of physical movements: of the fingers, the wrist, the arm, the shoulder, the whole body. In this, they are like the movements of athletes and dancers, whether a serve in tennis, a swing in golf, a jump shot in basketball, a gymnast’s tumbling routine, a leap in ballet. And if we can describe those actions as good or bad, then we can do the same to the movements that underly writing and lettering.

Marian says that she is not a calligrapher or formal letterer. And her work is evidence of that. Her strength as she notes is in work that stresses pattern, structure, complexity, ornament, etc. This work is innately incompatible with calligraphy and writing. This is one reason her attempts at lettering often run aground. As she says, “I plan, I draw, I work on grids, I carefully nest and echo elements, and then I re-draw in Illustrator, point by point, and adjust, adjust, adjust.” Grids and systems are antithetical to organic letters. (By organic I do not mean letters that are loose, unrestrained, spontaneous or improvised, but letters that are dictated by the hand and eye and not by any measuring tool or mechanical device.) Planning and drawing are still part of much lettering however as they involve the hand, eye and brain. But often the use of grids and extensive guidelines leads to letters that are fitted to a system rather than allowed to evolve as the mind’s eye envisions them or the hand wants to draw or write them. The system, often unconsciously, takes over. This is also the argument agains the use of software programs such as Illustrator. They can, and are, used to create excellent lettering, but only in the hands of those who already have a natural talent for such work. For those who don’t the endless adjustments and refinements need to come before the design has entered the Illustrator stage not after. Marian doesn’t have those skills and she is not interested in pursuing them. Her skills lie elsewhere. She is an artist.

However, being an artist rather than a calligrapher or lettering specialist does not immunize her from criticism for the lettering she does. Her lettering attempts are fair game because 1. they are in the public sphere, 2. they have been commissioned by leading design firms and prestigious clients, and 3. they have garnered her awards and publicity. To give her a pass would be irresponsible.

My criticism of her Saks Fifth Avenue piece is only that. It is not a criticism of her entire oeuvre, which is quite diverse. I find her work to be a mixture of the brilliant, the ordinary and the awful. (The same can be said about the work of many designers from Paul Rand to myself.) Here are my thoughts on some of the works displayed on her website www.bantjes.com.

Despite her protestations to the contrary, the Saks Fifth Avenue piece is not an isolated example of curly lettering in Marian’s work. Her online portfolio has numerous other examples of work that relies on curls, flourishes and swashes.

• All of the headers on her site sprout Victorian curls. Similar forms appear in Pixiluminations (done for Rick Valicenti and 3st, 2004) and American Preview (Details magazine, August 2004). They are reminiscent of monoline ornamental forms found on New York City brownstones as well as in late 19th c. American typefounders’ specimens. For examples see MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan: Typographic Tastemakers of the Late Nineteenth Century by Doug Clouse (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2008): Minaret (1868), Card Text Ornate (1872), Filigree (1878), Lady Text (1884), Nymphic (1889), and especially the Combination Ornaments Series 5–9 (1878–1879) and 11 (1880). Most of these designs were the work of Hermann Ihlenburg. I find this stylized but minimalist ornamentation fascinating and, thus, I like that aspect of the American Preview piece. (The bitmapped textura is another matter. There is no rhythm to the letterspacing: the big hole after the r in “American” is accentuated by the tendril joining the i to the c. Furthermore, the two words are poorly integrated. The P overlaps the descender of the A in an awkward manner leaving its bowl to appear as an o floating above the r in “Preview” and the transition from vertical to curve in both letters is too abrupt.)

• Similar Victorian-style ornaments are especially well executed and arranged in her Bad Type poster for the St. Bride Bad Type Conference (October 2004). Here her lettering is perfectly suited to the overall design and, contrary to the title of the conference, is not an example of bad type. The letters bring to mind Copperplate Gothic and its related ilk, typefaces designed in the second half of the 19th c. to be used for social printing. Furthermore, the lace-like ornamentation also suggests electrical wiring giving the entire design a jolt that lifts it out of the realm of historicism. This is one of Marian’s most perfectly realized pieces, right down to the refusal to make the flourishes in the central space symmetrical.

• The letters in the Bad Type poster are one of Marian’s signature elements as they reappear in other pieces (e.g. the less successful Art and Design poster done for a 2004 Speak Up competition where they are at war with the flat, silhouetted central image). Stylized and griddable letters like these play to her strengths.

• The cover of her upcoming book I Wonder (scheduled for release Fall 2010) has flourished capital letters peeking out from a jungle of ornament. The swashes are simple and well disposed. Flourished capitals also appear in her poster for Design Matters (2007) where they copulate with one another (e.g. the A and R in “EARLS” or the two Gs in “EGGERS”). The type and the ornamental shapes (on different sides of a translucent sheet of paper) fail to properly cohere into a single design. In the end it is an intriguing design that failed.

• The Maya tattoo (2008), designed as a gift for Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio, to celebrate the birth of their first child is a nearly perfect pattern built from the name and yet disguising it. A few of the negative spaces are too open (above the M for instance and below the Y) or too tight (where the first A crosses the bottom of the M) but it is still a delightful design.

•“OPEN ME FIRST”, a Christmas packing tape design for AIGA NY (2006), fails to match Maya which it resembles stylistically, though the strokes are thick-and-thin rather than monoline. The phrase is unbalanced. The right side is visually more crowded (and far more interesting, especially the inventive RST combination which, thanks to terrific counter-rhythmic whorls, demands to be “opened” or read first) than the rest of the text.

• “love”, a rejected design for a Christmas promotion (2004), is simple but well-realized. The pattern of the curlicues is not symmetrical, as one might assume at first glance, but subtly varied. Thus, the design is well-balanced (unlike the AIGA NY piece) without being monotonous. Marian has hidden several varieties of hearts within it. The heaviness of the textura lettering—which looks like the Black Text alphabet in the 20th edition of the Speedball Textbook for Pen and Brush Lettering (1972)—anchors the entire piece.

• Marian’s packaging for the Cocoa West chocolate box (2005) has beautifully sensuous broad-pen ribbony tendrils that complement the typography of the product’s name.

• Marian sends out Valentine’s Day and Halloween greetings instead of the usual holiday greetings. The Saks Fifth Avenue piece is only one of a number of “heart” designs she has done involving lettering. They range in quality. The 2006 Valentine “True Heart”has the feel of a tattoo with its text of seriffed capitals ligatured together and imprisoning a heart. The entire piece is schizophrenic. The letters are crudely done but they are edged in exquisitely drawn feathery lines that curl and flutter. These celia compare favorably in their beauty to the flourishes in DiSpigna’s Varcone.

There are squiggles (it is the most appropriate word), all ornamental, on some of the personalized doodled hearts that make up her 2007 Valentine’s Day offering. For instance, see the ones for Min, Susie, Adrian, Stefan, Gregory, Lorraine, Mark, Abbott, Kristina, Jessica, Bill, Jan, Adrian, Christoph, and Michael.

The lettering—“Everything I do, I do for love” is the text— in Marian’s Valentine 2005 piece is simply awful. On her website it is proudly labeled “Drawn by hand.” This is not a mitigating factor. The text swirls about and embraces a heart composed of flourishes. The heart, with the words “You” and “me” hidden in it as the left and right ventricles, is beautifully done. One wishes it could be ripped out of the piece and enjoyed on its own.
Fortunately, that can be done since the heart as “You me no. 3”, originally existed by itself. This drawing, done in two colors using ballpoint pens, sings. The quality of the letterforms is immaterial as they are simply integral components of an illustration. Marian deserves all the acclaim she gets when one sees a piece like this.

• The Speak Up t-shirt (2006) has the same kind of pixel blackletter lettering as American Preview but the spacing and rhythm is much improved. There is no troublesome r and the a is unambiguosly a single-story form. Overall, the flourishes are asymmetrical but some symmetry is hidden within which gives the design some subtle tension. The one (minor) shortcoming is the flourish under the S that joins to the following p which feels out of place, as if it should have done a loop-di-loop instead to match thoses above and below “Speak”.

• “Creatives care”, a t-shirt Marian designed for Veer (2006), has bâtarde-like lettering sporting flourishes. Some of the curves are quite elegant (e.g. the swooping line that emerges from the c in “care” and loops up and under to join the e in the same word which is paralleled by the line that comes from the c in “creatives” and links to the same e in “care”), but others are forced (e.g. the middle curve, in the series of three that end the piece at the bottom, has been carelessly tacked onto the curve that comes off the bottom of the c in “care”). The letters themselves are a mixed lot. They are unresolved, forms that are intriguing but which need more adjustment. The ti combination is jarring, the space between the i and v awkward, no attempt has been made—and it can be done—to resolve the spacing problems that both rs present, and the two as are ambiguous (double-story or single-story form?). A good design, waiting to be released, is lurking in this piece. Comparing “Creatives care” to DiSpigna’s “Varcone” is instructive in seeing the difference between an artist dabbling in lettering and a lettering artist.

• Marian’s Creative Review Monograph (August 2008), entitled “Love Stories”, is one of her most sustained pieces and as such it is an excellent introduction to her strengths and weaknesses. The brush-written title is shows no feeling whatsoever for the rhythms and cadences of calligraphy. It is leaden as well as difficult to read (note the o in “Love” looking like an a and the one in “Stories” looking like a u).

Yet, the first individual piece to follow (for her mother June) is fabulous, a well-modulated riot of colorful letters asymmetrically arranged. Note how she deftly handles the repetitive word “AND” that appears four times in a row on the left. This piece can hold its own against Paul Klee, Guillermo Rodriguez-Benitez and Hans Schmidt, all artists who have played with letters defined by their counters and coloration.

The two similar pieces for her friends Peter & Tasmin and Jan & Ken are instructive. The calligraphy in both is mediocre but that hardly matters as its vertical orientation scrambles our perceptioms and turns the writing into components in an overall pattern. We no longer notice its shortcomings as a cancellaresca corsiva but instead focus on its rhythm and interaction with the fat calligraphic swirls that separate each line. The total piece is more than the sum of its parts. The one for Peter & Tasmin, with its stronger color contrast is the better one.

The piece for her brother Michael is an interpretation of Spencerian that, although awkward in spots, has great potential to become a distinctive Bantjian alphabet (like the Bad Type letters). Many letters in it can be criticized for having ungainly curves (beginning with the opening M, but also h, n, m and v throughout), yet there are also elegant and unusual elements (the paired us in “used”, the top of the t in “Bantjes”, the er combination in “brother”). The closely packed lettering makes it difficult to fit in flourishes. Some are simple but perfect (see the l in “little” joining the t in “protector” or the n in “when” joining the s in “was”) while others make one cringe (see the t in “little” running across the top of the word or the d in “Rod” looping through the counter of the R). The use of graph paper as the basis for drawing these letters (made explicit on the right side of the piece) is responsible for these letters failing to reach their full lyrical potential. This could have been a drop-dead piece.

Marian’s tribute to her father Dennis, who was proud that he could “change a transmission in the afternoon the way some people would change a sparkplug”, appropriately simulates gears and other automotive parts. It is a design that can compete with Ed Fella for wittiness.

The problem with graph paper as a guide to non-geometric, non-mechanical letters is made painfully evident in the tribute to Doyald Young, the lettering heavyweight. Overall the piece feels like a mess, but buried within its tangles are some beautiful forms straining to be free—and being pulled back down to earth. Look at the str and gg sequences in “struggle” which are ruined by the flourishes from “calls” below and “to” the right banging into them. Or the g in “approving” whose loving embrace of the z in “gaze” below is interrupted by the e. Or “wicked”, with its gorgeous ck combination, being undermined by the huge ampersand gumming up the nimbus-like d. This piece is not a finish but a sketch, the first step in what may be several needed to achieve a fully-realized and wholly-integrated design. The solution to these glitches is simple: adjust, adjust, adjust.

The ampersand (made with a pencil crayon) that follows the Doyald Young tribute is difficult to decipher, but no matter. It is flat-out beautiful. This is art, not lettering.

• Marian says, “I LOVE it!” and so do I. It is her Practivism poster (2008) for the GDC/BC. It looks like nothing else on her website. It is a modern take on a 19th c. type specimen page of ornaments or flourishes or a deconstructed display of Nascar decals. What is notable about the poster is that there is no lettering in it. Instead Univers is used as a counterpoint to Marian’s decorative aerofoil forms.

By now it is obvious that I find Marian’s work both fascinating and frustrating. She has immense talent and imagination but in the arena of letters—my area of expertise and interest—she is often adrift. Yet, her outsider approach to letters results at times in forms and designs that are not only inventive but surprisingly beautiful—but then they run up against clumsy forms, often in the same piece, even in the same word. Sometimes this disjunction does not matter as the overall artistic concept or design of a piece takes precedence over the quality of individual letterforms. At other times, it does matter. Letters are details—and like details in other areas of life and art, getting them right is essential to getting the larger project right.
Marian’s lettering shortcomings cannot be dismissed simply by claiming she is not a calligrapher. And they cannot be used to brand her a squigglist, as I insensitively did. (I apologize.) But she is a letterer—formally trained or not is irrelevant—whether she wants to acknowledge it or not. Instead of denying that fact, Marian needs to simply work harder to make her lettering as consistently brilliant as the rest of her oeuvre.

Note: at the bottom of each page of Marian Bantjes’ website is the note: “Do not borrow or steal.” I am reposting some of the images from her site here to make it easier for readers to follow my comments about them. I believe that my reposting constitutes fair use and thus does not violate her warning.

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