Martina Flor: A Young Royal of Handlettering

July 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

Date of Visit: April 2017
Studio Martina Flor
Gerichstrasse 23
Berlin, Germany

MartinaFlorCrownMartina Flor wearing a crown made of her own lettering, surrounded by other Berlin women in crowns, (left) Beroloina the allegorical symbol of Berlin and (right) the famous Nefertiti bust in the Berlin Egyptian Museum.

What is a letterer? One might think all artists working with letters could fall under that umbrella term but in reality that thinking is too broad. Let me explain: There are type designers who design alphabet systems that work as interchangeable units; there are calligraphers who make letters with a few direct strokes using pens to write letters; but a letterer is a bit different, they draw letters— usually for a single unique application.

Martina Flor is an exceptional force in the current crowd of hand letterers. She executes glorious lettering and illustration projects, designs digital typefaces, lectures and presents around the world, teaches classes in person and online, recently published her first book and is introducing a new product line. Oh yes, she is also raising a young son. You might think she would be at least a little bit harried but when we met her in April we found a quietly confident and composed individual. It seems fitting to crown her with her own logo, a queen of her own kingdom.BerlinbyMartinaFlor

We met up with Martina at her studio in Berlin’s Gesundbrunnen section. Her address is comprised of a number of hofs with large artist lofts, each entrance awash in graffiti. Arriving at her section we walked up the stairs, passing yoga and tango studios on the way (some endeavors that Martina unfortunately is too busy to partake in at the moment).
Front door

graffiti wall
Lettering layered on the walls inside of Gerichstrasse 23.

Once inside her shared studio space, we sat down at the common meeting table for a chat starting with how she came to be settled in Berlin, her home for the past seven years. Martina is originally a native of Argentina where she grew up with a love for drawing. After her undergraduate studies she became an assistant in the graphic design program at the University of Buenos Aires. She also worked as an art director for Levis where she specialized in creating and selling the brand, a skill that she now applies to her own business.
Surprisingly Martina’s concentration on hand lettering is relatively recent, starting less than a decade ago when enrolled in the master’s degree Type Design Program at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. We were curious how someone who studied in an academic type design program veered in the direction of illustration and hand lettered type. Martina pointed out that her first fully realized typeface, Supernova (created while she was in school, 2010) already reflected her innate preference for the hand.



A Short History of the Resurgence of Hand Drawn Type 

The relative speed with which Martina has obtained international standing in the crowded field of hand letterers can be attributed to a fortunate combination of her talent, drive and the zeitgeist of contemporary typography. Why has the the digital era so enthusiastically embraced the hand lettering spirit? Hand lettering had been virtually sidelined in the early 1980s with the advent of the personal computer and digital typesetting. However it became apparent that the expanding catalog of digital faces was limited by the computer’s inability to replicate the ingenuity of novelty lettering. During the late 1980’s, in reaction to the limitations of the digital realm, designers and artists started experimenting with either 1. distorting existing faces (Wolfgang Weingart, Neville Brody, Zuzana Licko) or 2. outright drawing their own freehand version of type (Ed Fella, David Byrne, grunge zines).

Neville Brody blurred type (left) while Ed Fella drew letterforms incorporating his personal style (right).

These renegades received much media attention, creating space for other non-traditional yet more mainstream type offerings. One such venture was House Industries, a digital foundry that resurrected funky signage and lettering fonts from the 50s and 60s. Their early 1990s catalogs of retro/hand-drawn faces relied heavily on (and gave credit to) hand letterers of the pre-computer eraEd Benguiat and cartoonist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. This young foundry published humorously gaudy catalogs whose popularity contributed to and perhaps helped “legitimize” the ensuing flood of young type letterers.

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House Industries Catalog 12.

Martina recalled how House Industries deeply impressed her own thoughts on type design when Ken Barber (one of the founders of House Industries) visited her class…a realization that type could be less of a rigid system and more free and illustrative. She was not alone in this epiphany—by the early 2000’s mainstream design and type publications were full of hand crafted lettering. Mike Perry’s Handjob (2007, shown below) was an explosion of raucous anything-goes lettering by 50 illustrators and designers. Students fell in love with this work— unfortunately some of it was pretty horrible. The enormous enthusiasm for the handmade in this anti-computer revolt has lasted over a decade, without signs of disappearing any time soon.


Adding to the mix was the emergence of lettering/calligraphy artists such as Seb Lester (above) and Marion Bantjes. Calligraphy was also making a mainstream comeback after being avoided by the modernist designers of the twentieth century. (See Jerry Kelly’s The Calligraphy Revival currently on view at the Groliers Club in New York City.)

As a teacher during this resurgence I was presented with a fair amount of hand lettered projects of dubious quality; not equipped to teach hand lettering myself I allowed the student autodidacts plenty of leeway. But as hand letterers ran riot, typography experts started to critically evaluate the movement. Steven Heller  (“Cult of the Squiggly”,  Eye 72, 2009) lamented the overblown ornamentation that often came along with hand lettering: “… Illustrated letterforms – not calligraphic in the classical sense nor illumination in the medieval context – have complemented these new decorative tendencies. Lettering – stitched, scrawled, scraped, carved and more – has added an even more profound ornamental overlay to design of the 21st century. Sometime during the early 2000s, more than a decade after the computer became the primary design tool, squiggly serpentine, floral ornamentation was resurrected with a vengeance from its gilded-age crypt.”

Paul Shaw ruffled some feathers in his 2010 essay: Letter Centric: Thoughts on Spencerian Script (Print, February, 2010) when he critiqued the calligraphic skills of several high profile lettering artists, including the uber inventive Marion Bantjes. Bantjes defended herself, “I am not a calligrapher and in fact formal letter has never been my goal or my interest.So, how can one differentiate between a letterer and a calligrapher, and how do you evaluate the qualities of each?


Calligraphy vs Lettering?

Aware of the controversy and to demonstrate (and negotiate) the differences between two separate fields, Martina and calligrapher Guiseppe Salerno of Resistenza started their blog,  Lettering vs Calligraphy Website Challenge. ” They included a video, “She draws, he writes to help clarify their professions. Describing the project as an adventure, Martina wrotes their work “aims to explore the capabilities of the two technical approaches where they draw/write a letter or a word responding to a keyword given by a moderator. It takes place online and the visitors are invited to vote for their favourite execution. The result is a wide library of letters to inspire themselves and others, little seeds that might become bigger projects.”


The website’s masthead speaks for itself (above). Also this phrase from the website… “The craft of drawing letters and the art of writing.” Two examples are shown below.Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 8.47.19 PM

Flor has an advantage of a rigorous academic training in type design which elevates her work above the masses. She understands the structure of each letterform, and commands the letterfit, spacing and connections. She applies that knowledge over a myriad of projects including many book covers.

Flor’s sketch development is lettering, drawing and lots of redrawing on tissue before getting on the computer.

“How to” Lettering Books by Women 

By 2015 Martina had risen to the expert level of the hand lettering field. She was one of three artists interviewed for an article by Angelynn Grant in the AIGA 3 Typography Experts weigh in on the recent hand lettering boom. (Subtitled How to tell good lettering from wannabes). Ken Barber (Martina’s earlier source of inspiration) and Ale Paul (a fellow Argentinian). When asked to elaborate on the features of good lettering, Martina replied, “When judging a piece of lettering, focus should go primarily on the letter shapes and legibility. When I look at a lettering portfolio I set my eyes on well-drawn letters, good pieces of artwork, and a high level of detail.” She echoes what the much esteemed Edward Johnston wrote in his Writing, Illuminating and Lettering one hundred years earlier as “the essential qualities of Lettering are legibility, beauty and character.

Recognized for her expertise, she frequently is invited to conduct workshops. After five years of presenting her “tricks and techniques” she thought “Why not compile them into a book?” An opportunity arose for her to pitch the idea to Thames and Hudson and her idea was accepted. The resulting book was released in German as “Lust auf Lettering” (which Martina translates as something like “Feeling like doing lettering.”

Martina gives a generous amount of credit to her editor, Helmut Schmidt for helping her develop the content. English readers can now purchase the book entitled, The Golden Secrets of Lettering, from Princeton Architectural press. A Spanish language edition is coming next.

The English version of Flor’s book, as seen on the Type Director’s Club website. She was in New York on June for a book signing and workshop, and in late August 2017 she will give the keynote address at the TypeCon Conference in Boston.

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Two spreads on from Martina Flor’s book. Wonderfully instructive and full of beautiful illustrations.

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 10.14.40


Other Women and Lettering Manuals

Publishing her book was a major undertaking which included writing and illustrating the entire content. We diverged into a short discussion about the long tradition of calligraphers who published writing manuals. I pointed out that while historians often refer to the manuals of male penmen (Arrighi, Cresci, Bickman, Johnston, etc) there were also manuals by women (such as Marie Pavie and Marie Strick in the 17th century) who supported themselves by their calligraphy, teaching classes and publishing writing books.
The earliest writing manual by a woman, Madame Pavie’s Le premier essay de la plume de Marie Pavie, 1608. Only one incomplete copy remains. (Newberry Library Link)

The Dutch calligrapher Maria Strick published four substantial writing books in the early 1600s, all engraved by her husband. In later centuries women such as Nicolette Gray’s Lettering as Drawing, Irene Wellington, Shelia Waters, and Jessica Hische  published “how-to’s” of their methods.Strick

Handwriting and Flor’s font “Wonderhand”

We again returned to trying to understand why hand lettering is so popular in this moment. Apart from the above mentioned anti-computer aesthetic, it may be that it is now perceived as the skill of a special few. Handwriting is given little to no importance in basic education and the once widespread practice has been lost to the general population. (If you were to look back to earlier generations, even individuals with only primary school education could produce lovely handwriting.) Today the majority of students graduate with barely legible writing skills and are awed by skilled lettering.

As a child in Argentina Martina learned to write using the Palmer method (as we did in the United States). The Palmer Method (Austin Norman Palmer, 1888) was developed for business writing with an emphasis arm movements over finger movements. It was used in primary schools because of both its simpler style and because its writing drills were believed to foster discipline and uniformity — though not necessarily better handwriting. This early training ingrained important muscle memory in Martina.


Samples of the Palmer Method, 19th-20th century.

This lack of general handwriting ability makes fonts that emulate such in high demand. While most of Martina’s work is in making one-off custom pieces she also has released Wonderland, a script face based on handwriting. She explained the process in an essay on the I Love Typography blog, remarking that a script design requires “decisions about the style, the width, the weight, the sort of tool, and of the hand that is going to ‘write’ the ductus…. But can handwriting be made to fit into a type system? Can we, with the systematic approach of type, produce the variability and variety that is inherent to handwriting? Wonderhand, her new family of scripts, comprising many hand variations into one type system, answers those questions in the affirmative.”

In her design approach for Wonderland, was to create a type system that accommodated handwriting. She began by looking for rules or constants within handwriting’s many variations and identified three parameters or axes: Widthslant and weight. She based the ductus on her own handwriting, a ‘Bastardilla’ from a simple non-decorative handwriting model. To imitate the fluidity of writing, she made three sets of alternate characters for lowercase: a connected version, a non-connected alternate, and a ‘swashy’ decorative alternate. OpenType features automate their replacement. The result is a type family with 63 fonts in seven different widths, three weights, and three slant degrees.

Ultimately Wonderhand blurs the line between two worlds often set apart: merging the principles of both roman typefaces and script typefaces into one system. At a time when handwriting is going out of fashion, type design can surely save it and carry it to the next level. 2

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 1.47.23 PM

A few of the 63 Wonderland faces available on

Before long it was time for Martina to pick up her young child and,as a mother, I respect those priorities, especially on a Friday afternoon. It was gallery weekend in Berlin and she was looking forward to seeing some shows. I recommended she see the work of Sharka Hyland who was showing at Gallerie Dittmar, in the city center. Hyland, a graphic designer also draws letters by hand but in an completely different way.

How you can learn from Martina Flor
If you have an inclination to learn hand lettering from Martina there are several platforms from which Martina teaches. Of course you can buy her book, take classes on skillshare or in person in Berlin at the end of July or at private, in-house workshops.



All photos, unless noted are property of

“Letters in Wonderland”, Martina Flor, I love typography, November 18, 2014.

Typography Now: the Next Wave, editors, Rick Poynor, Edward Booth-Clibborn, Internos Books, 1991.

3 Recent Typography Experts Weigh in on the Recent Hand-Lettering Boom“,

AIGA Eye on Design, Angelynn Grant, March 9, 2015.

Stylepedia: A Guide to Graphic Designer Mannerisms Quirks and Concerts, Steve Heller and Louise Fili. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2006.

Maria Strick, Schoolmistress and Calligrapher in Early Seventeenth-Century Holland. Available from: [accessed Jun 4, 2017].

Carol Twombly, 20th century type designer, the book.

December 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

November 2012
Adobe Headquarters
San Jose, California

December 2016
Oak Knoll Press

New Castle, Delaware
Carol Twombly: Her brief but brilliant career in type design.

There haven’t been any posts on this site since early 2016 because I have been concentrating on finishing my first book, Carol Twombly: Her brief but brilliant career in type design. It is the biography of a talented type designer who worked at Adobe Systems during the decades when type first became accessible to the general public. The book includes a survey of women type designers in the 20th century (such as Gudrun von Hesse, Fiona Ross, Elizabeth Friedander, Freda Sack, among others) and outlines Twombly’s education at RISD (under type designers such as Gerard Unger), an apprenticeship with Bigelow & Holmes, and graduate work in the Masters of Type Design Program at Stanford. It also attempts to describe how digital type technology developed. (Oak Knoll is currently taking preorders  shipping if you are interested in purchasing a copy.)

Why did I write this book and why choose Twombly for my topic? As a former professor at Moore College of Art (an all-women’s school) I lectured on the history of graphic design for several decades, but it was a history overwhelmingly populated by men. It was all so one-sided that I sought to find a way to expand the historical record. I began by looking at women designers and type designers I knew from my (now aging) generation, hoping to capture their stories directly from the source, not from research or second-hand accounts.

I began by contacting several women but, unfortunately, the initial concept of writing about a group of women type designers grew too complicated and it seemed simpler to tell one story in greater depth than many in a more glancing way. David Lemon at Adobe kindly arranged my introduction to Carol, but warned me that she was unlikely to respond to my request. Although reluctant to be the sole focus, she agreed to let me tell her story once the group approach failed. Fortunately, I made contact with enough significant former classmates and colleagues of Carol’s to place her within a group, using her story as the thread that bound them together.

I traveled to Adobe’s headquarters in 2012 to gather some original images. Two terrific Adobe employees, Ernie March and Nicole Miñoza, guided me through the type archives. Ernie and Nicole had dug into the many boxes and sorted out Carol’s work. I had a precious few hours to mark items that would later be photographed for me by Adobe.


Adobe Headquarters in San Jose, California.



Ernie March and Nicole Miñoza in the Adobe type archives.


Most of the work was gathered into binders. In this case wood type development with lots of red handwritten notes by Carol (something I would see on my own work with her).

I also traveled into the mountains to visit Carol at her home. I felt it was important that I connect on a personal level, even though we frequently corresponded and exchanged a few phone calls. It is now 4 years later and the book has been edited, is in the process of printing and binding and is available on the Oak Knoll website.


The dust jacket with paragraph from E M Ginger.

In the next few weeks we will resume regular posts from Lisbon, Portugal— Ricardo Santos type designer; Montreal, Canada—Papeterie St-Armand; and Toronto, Canada–Patrick Griffin of CanadaType. In the meantime have a great holiday season. Peace, Nancy.

The Grolier Club’s “The Calligraphy Revival 1906–2016” by Jerry Kelly

July 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Date of Visit: June 19, 2017
The Calligraphy Revival 1906–2016: An exhibition of the art of beautiful writing
May 17-July 29, 2017
Grolier Club first floor gallery
47 East 60th St., New York, NY, (212) 838-6690

” …The artistic expression of this utilitarian creation [calligraphy] can rise to the level of fine art, just as architecture, photography, and other expressions of the human mind can, in their highest form, be appreciated as an art.” –So is the argument in the introduction panel to the current show in the downstairs gallery of The Grolier Club in New York City. Curator (and calligrapher) Jerry Kelly had the difficult task of selecting a small group of calligraphers (about 70) to illustrate the calligraphic revival from Edward Johnston’s influnece (1906 Writing & Illuminating & Lettering) until today. Adding to the difficulty was the need to limit each artist to one piece. Kelly gives us not only the historical and important, he adds some artists that are less well know or are just new on the scene.

The exhibition is divided into sections, starting with “The Early Pioneers.” Included are the scribes who learned from Johnston’s book; Graily Hewitt, Eric Gil, Heather Child, Anna Simmons, Gudrun and Hermann Zapf plus Rudolf Koch, F.H. Ernst Schneider and Jan Tschichold. It is rare to have a chance to appreciate this original work in person.

Curator (and calligrapher) Jerry Kelly speaking to the visitors at the Grolier Club exhibit.

Anna Simons “Titles and Initials for the Bremer Press”, 1922. She was a student of Edward Johnston and translated his Writing, Lettering and Illuminating into German, in turn influencing many important German calligraphers.

Eleven cases in total are filled with thematic examples from Europe and the United States— titles on dust jackets for publishers, engraved letters, European and American masters up until the present day. A number of them were from Kelly’s personal collection. Below is a small sampling.

Jesse Marsolais, 2016 (United States).
Jovica Veljović, 1984 (Yugoslovia) and Brody Neuenschwander, 2016 (Belgium)

Luca Barcelona, 2014 (Italy)

Susan Skarsgard, (United States) 2007 A lovely single letter on silver paper from Twinrocker.

Lynne yun
Lynne Yun, 2016 (United States). Ms Yun, a type designer at Monotype, is a graduate of Type@Cooper.

Stephen Raw c. 2000 (England)

Make plans to see this soon as it closes in the near future. There was another bit of happy news I gleaned from the labels—there is an upcoming show at Grolier featuring the work of Gudrun Von Hesse. Really looking forward to that!

See more of the show on The Grolier’s FlickerThe G



A Simple Method for Moving Your Vandercook Press.

May 24, 2017 § Leave a comment

A few years ago I had to move my 1,200 pound Vandercook Sp20 press out of my husband’s warehouse and home to my barn. (It was the third time I would be moving this press.) The cost of a professional equipment mover was quite high but luckily I was able to enlist my friend, Alan Rutfeldt of the Excelsior Press Museum for help. Serendipitously Bill Dorney (a really strong guy who knows about moving equipment) was stopping by to see his wife, Barb, and he joined in with the move. They made a fabulous team and the move went smoothly. I decided as a public service I would publish the process for others who were in a similar predicament.

Step 1Press all ready for removal of rollers and securing the carriage. The wooden box on the right is the box I use to store the rollers during moves or for shipping for resurfacing.1PressinPlace

Step 2
: Place a jack under the press and insert wooden blocks under the legs. Careful, these presses are very top heavy and are easy to tip over.Jackunderpress


Step 3: Use metal rollers to move the press along the floor.rollers

Step 4Work the press up into the truck (or whatever you are using to transport the press) with a cinch. Again be sure to secure the press because the tipping over threat is even worse as the vehicle makes turns. Fortunately we only had to travel about 7 miles. moving



At the other end reverse the process and you are in business! It looks quick but it probably took about 4-5 hours to complete. Hopefully no more moves in the near future!

Exploring Portuguese Typography: A Visit with Ricardo Santos in Lisbon

March 3, 2017 § 1 Comment


As a child, Ricardo Santos often spent Sunday afternoons visiting his grandfathers in the Belém district of Lisbon. Walking along the local seaside parks he absorbed the history of his city and its part in the Age of Discovery when Portuguese explorers such as Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator), Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, sailed out to the Atlantic Ocean and along the coasts of Africa and the Americas until they found what they were seeking—a sea route to the spice trade centers of India and China. For a time in the 1500’s Portugal ruled the seas and established distant colonies as one of the most powerful nations in the world.1024px-torre_belem_april_2009-4a(left) A section of the Monument of Discoveries (right) The Tower of Belem. (below) Praying before heading off into the challenges of the uncharted world.praying

Santos’ early experiences continue to influence him today, as in his Lisboa typeface, an homage to his native city. Lisboa (pronounced Lish-bow-a) includes a series of elements drawn from the vernacular of the city—antique sailing vessels, tiles, castles, crosses and the raven. We were drawn to these charming symbols and wanted to learn more from their designer, so we organized a short interview in Lisbon in April, 2016.

lisboa_symbolsThe Raven appears throughout the city (a flock are said to have protected and marked the grave of the martyr Saint Vicente) as do icons of Christianity and from the Crusades against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. The Lisboa Dingbats symbols sets are available in a free download at Santos’s web site, Vanarchiv. 


Mr. Santos greeted us at his home studio where first discussed his education, starting with an undergraduate degree in design from IADE (Instituto de Artes Visuals, Design and Marketing) in Lisbon. He has also studied with Portuguese type designer Mário Feliciano. Santos traveled to EINA (Escola de Disseny i Art ) in Barcelona for his master’s degree in type design. To the uninformed it might seem as if studying in Barcelona would be akin to studying in Lisbon, but Santos noted that outside of the Iberian Peninsula people wrongly think that Portuguese are identical to the Catalonians and the Spanish. We may seem the same because of geographical location but in fact we are different cousins, we have very different languages and cultural habits. We Portuguese are more quiet, more shy, not as outgoing and flamboyant. Our geographic position kept us oriented to the ocean because the landmass of Spain blocked our natural passages to the rest of Europe, so Portugal has had the influence of many sea-going cultures including the Phoenicians, Romans, Jewish (Sephardic), Arabs and Christians.”

Maritime culture permeates the country’s, art, food and music. Fado, a ballad form distinctive to Portugal, is centered on the melancholy of departing ship crews and the sadness of long separations. However Santos readily admits that he has no affection for Fado—he finds it too mournful and nostalgic. Santos’ music interest is more electronic, he plays guitar with his group Twilight Void.  Listen here.

The Twilight Void “Dub Sky” 1995. (Played and Recorded by Ricardo Santos and Rui Martins).

studio-cat-copyA watch cat patrols the design area in this quiet and peaceful design studio in Lisbon.

Early Sans Serifs

Santos’ first job after graduation was in architecture offices, T-Raso and Insectos, where he developed way-finding programs. His research introduced him to the  typefaces of Adrian Frutiger whose sans serif approach greatly impressed the young designer. Santos emulated the German’s approach in Van Condensed (1997-2004). The clarity and compactness of this face is especially useful for displaying information, such as specifications in TAP airline’s on-board publication Upmagazine. TAP’s use of his face doubly pleases Santos as he is an aircraft enthusiast—an inheritance from his grandfather who was one of the naval aviation mechanics for the first plane to connected Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

frutigervansComparing sans serifs Frutiger and Van Condensed

Van Condensed used for specifications in onboard magazine for TAP (Transportes Aéreos Portugueses).

Santos (2016) typeface Aircrew, a highly legible font family for signage.

postersSantos’ fonts in use, Van Condensed (left) and Lisboa (right).

Portuguese Letterforms in History

It is understandable that Santos was initially influenced by the German and French models because at that time there had not been a lot published about early type designers from his own country. More recently however the work of early Portuguese calligraphers has been unearthed and digitized. Writing master Manuel de Andrade de Figueiredo (1670-1735) published his own exemplar for the Portuguese calligraphic letter in his treatise on letterform and language rules, Nova Escola para aprender a ler, escrever, e contar/ New School to learn to read, write, and count (1722) It is likely that Figueiredo was influenced by similar works coming out of Italy and France during the same period.

Figueiredo.jpgFour pages from Figueirdo’s treatise on letterform and language rules. You can see the full copy at the BNP (Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal).

Near the end of the same century, António Jacinto de Araujo proposed his New Art of Writing (1793). On the title page Jacinto is described as professor of writing and mathematics. There certainly seems to be a lot of math going on in the descriptions (below) to configure the best angles for controlling line weights and letterform shapes.cutting-pensAntónio Jacinto de ARAUJO, New Art of Writing [1793?] You can see the entire work on line at the Portuguese National Library site, (BNP).

In the 1880’s calligrapher Joaquim José Ventura da Silva (1777-1849) furthered the Portuguese letter by incorporating influences of the open “roundhand” style of English calligraphers George Shelley and Charles Snell into his Methodical rules for learning to write letters in the English, Portuguese, Aldine, Roman, Italian Gothic and German Gothic styles, (1819). (I took at short look through the book—it seemed mostly involved with how to line up numbers in mathematical formulas.) Internet Archive link

The designs of both Figueiredo and Ventura have been made available in digital revivals by Portuguese type designers. Dino dos Santos of DS Type foundry offered Ventura (2007), Pluma (2005) and Andrade script (2005).

Revival calligraphy by Dino dos Santos.

The Manueline Style

The ornateness of Portuguese calligraphy certainly feels in-keeping with a unique style of architecture that began during the reign of King Manuel I (1495–1521). Later known as Manueline (Late Gothic), this short lived (from 1490 to 1520) but highly influential style was financed by riches from Portugal’s spice trade. Dozens of new churches, castles and monasteries were built, many of which remain standing today. Inspiration for the ornate style came from several sources: Italian, Spanish and Flemish architecture, Indian temples and Arab mosques and tiles. Maritime elements (spheres, rope, shells, anchors, etc) are portrayed in undulating stone and gilded wood carvings—the gold courtesy of Brazil.MaritimeMan.jpg

A continually recurring motif in Portuguese architectural decoration is the armillary sphere, signifying dominance of the seas and alluding to a papal decree that divided new world discoveries (Treaty of Tordezilhas) between Portugal and Spain.

trainstationRossio train station.

manuelainchurchA Baroque church covered in gold brought back from Brazil.

A Portuguese Letterform?

manuelain-typeLettering along the walls of a Baroque style castle in Sintra, a magical park-town just outside of Lisbon.

lisbao-sketchAn early sketch for Lisboa (2000).

A challenge for Santos is how to get content into his designs. Today he finds himself less concerned with the commercial end of type and more interested in doing what he loves, creating designs with a story “because things without a story do not have much value.”

In early sketches of Santos’ aforementioned design, Lisboa, he sought ways to integrate the flavor of his decoratively styled city and calligraphic design approach (more human). He experimented with the hook-head terminals on his Lisboa, producing a “neo-humanist” typeface with both calligraphic and Iberian flavors (Latin).

While working through this design Santos connected with Swedish type designer, Peter Bruhn (d. 2014) of Fountain Type Foundry who encouraged the young type designer by offering to sell it on his foundry site. The final design is a full-featured typeface light, regular, italic, with OpenType type features and symbols published during 2005. It was selected as one of Typographica’s “favorite fonts” in 2005.

lisboacoverSantos designed catalog for Fountain type’s offering of Lisboa.


lisboa-swashTypeface details above (Lisboa and Lisboa Swash).
Below Lisboa Greek and Cyrillic.Greek cyrilic


Santos researched some cartography lettering from antique maps for his calligraphic Escritura typeface. There is a strong echo of the hand and pen in his wavy serifs, a more human-like feel than his earlier sans faces. Below is a photograph from his Vanarchiv website, showing how he extracted shapes for the letter a from a 1631 map.


escritura_penSantos’ Escritura design written in pen and ink (above) and digital (below).


table-samplesWhile developing Escritura, Santos drew with broad-nib pen, carved in wood and linoleum, all part of the research and development of the final letterform design. See a video with Ricardo working by Rui Martins below.

Tramuntana (2009), another typeface with calligraphic connections, was inspired by the late Renaissance and Mannerist spirit—Santos’ thesis for his Masters in Advanced Typography in Barcelona (EINA). He took his initial inspiration from Robert Granjon, Garamond and Sabon typefaces.traumuntana

pyrannesThe name tramuntana is the Catalonian word for the cold wind that comes from the Pyrenees mountains. Tramuntana in use on a poster, the Pyrenees mountains (photo: Marc Serarols)

Teaching & The Ruha Stencil Project

There was so much to talk about—however our time was short and I wanted to know about Santos as a type design teacher. He currently teaches the second year of typography (Book Design/Lettering) and then the 3rd year when his students design their own typeface projects at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design de Caldas de Rainha (ESAD.CR).

As part of his teaching philosophy, Santos and two other type designers, Aprígio Morgado and Ruben Dias (more on Ruben below), joined together to form Tipos das Letras. The trio developed a tool for teaching type design in the form of a stencil, a method Santos notes that were historically a means to add consistent and fast lettering to documents.

musicstencil-copyIn Santos’ collection, an antique stenciled Portuguese music score (from the 18th century).

The Ruha stencil goes beyond the creation of just one design, to a device for teaching letter construction, with serifs, stems and bodies that can be combined in a multitude of styles, plus aids for letter spacing and baseline alignment. It is available for sale at Check below for video of a workshop using this tool. Tipos das Letras (TdL)

ruhastencilstencil-workshopStencil as shown in use in TDL vimeo.

We finished up the evening over pizza with some of Santos’s comrades; of course they also were type designers! Rui Abreu of R-Typography, is the proprietor of a foundry for retail and custom typefaces (he designed the corporate face for Mount Blanc). His work has been selected for honors by the Type Directors Club and ATypi.

montblancMont Blanc corporate typeface by Rui Abreu.

 dinnerThe now and future faces of Portuguese type design, (from left) Rui Abreu, Ricardo Santos and Rúben Dias. We were joined by Berlin-based writer Jan Middendorp who was in Lisbon for a few days. See his extensive list of interviews with type personalities at Creative Characters for Myfonts.

diastypoDias is part of Tipografia Dias, a letterpress workshop whose Manual of Typography was just selected as a finalist in the Type Directors Club Communication Design Competition.  TDC website

Rúben Dias, also part of the Ruha stencil project, is pursuing his doctorate degree on the subject of the typefaces of the Portuguese Royal Printing House. He teaches, organizes conferences and workshops as well as designs typefaces from his Item Zero studio (

Although out visit was brief we were about to embark on two weeks in Portugal, and this encounter helped in viewing many examples of type in architecture, signage and print. Thanks gentlemen for a fun and informative visit!


All photography by Eric Allen unless otherwise noted in captions.

Interview with Ricardo Santos, Lisbon, Portugal. April 2016. Nancy Stock-Allen. (history of calligraphers)  New art of writing, National Library of Portugal, Nova arte de escrever, (cota COD-8055) plumes

Malsberger, Anna. Print Magazine, June 18, 2009.

Middendorph, Jan. Interview of Dino dos Santos, for Creative Characters, 2007,

Outposts of Handmade Paper in 21st Century North America

January 29, 2016 § 1 Comment

No. 1 of three separate posts…

Huun Paper
Calle 19

Merida, Mexico
Date of Visit:  January, 2015 + 2016

Coming later in 2016
Part 2. Le papeterie Saint-Armand, Montreal, Canada
Part 3. Dieu Donné & Paper Think Tank, Manhattan and Philadelphia

The Mayan pyramid of Izamal

The Mayan Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal, south of Merida.

mexico map copy

Paper was an integral part of the ancient Maya civilization, used for clothing, maps, official records, books, tribute payments and as a vehicle for casting magic spells. But unlike the stone pyramids that remain from the same civilization, virtually all Maya paper artifacts have been lost, leaving historians without significant resources and a loss of continuity with the ancient craft of papermaking. Researchers have pieced together that around the fifth century Mayans developed a bark proto-paper, called Huun, from the white tender material found between the dark bark and the woody center of a wild fig (ficus cotinifolia or padifolia) tree. Bark was collected on the new moon when the sap was in the root, allowing the tree to recover from the harvest. The inner bark was stripped away and boiled in a soda ash solution for softening and then pounded flat with a stone. Sheets could then be fabricated up to many meters in length.


(Left) The Wild Fig   (Right) the Jonote tree.*

The Aztec version of Huun, amate, (or amatl in the Nahuatl language) made in central Mexico utilized ficus, and mulberry and jonote trees. To fabricate the amate paper sheet strips of the inner tree bark were laid out to form a close grid and then pounded flat with a specially grooved flattened rock to form a sheet.

laying out paper

The Otomi Indians of Pueblo area still make paper in the traditional manner.

Beating the fibers with a rock

The fibers are pounded together with a flat rock.


Textured rocks used to pound the fibers to a sheet of pulp.

Textured rocks used to pound the plant fibers into a paper sheet.

The Maya Codices
The Mayans fabricated books from their paper in the form of screen-folded codices. The surface was made more suitable for ink and paint by a liberal application of white lime paste. Over centuries Mayan scribes produced thousands of codex books documenting their religion, astronomy, agricultural cycles, history and prophecies, but only 3 have survived— because they were among treasures shipped from Mexico back to Europe (where they remain today in museums in Paris, Dresden and Madrid). All other Mayan books were victims of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, when Catholic bishops embarked upon an aggressive campaign to dismantle the existing native culture and religious beliefs.

We were able to view a replica of a Mayan codice in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.

A replica of a Mayan codice in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.

mayan codice detail

In 1529 the first Bishop of Spain, Fray Juan de Zumarraga began a campaign of “spiritual cleansing” by collecting Aztec codices from throughout Mexico and burning them in the market place of Tlatelolco. A similar event transpired on the Yucatan in 1561, when Bishop Diego de Landa burned any remaining Mayan codices in front of the Catholic church in Mani, the seat of the Tutul Xiu (a Mayan chiefdom located in central Yucatan). The bishop wrote, “Among the Maya we found a great number of books written with their characters, and because they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods about the Devil, we burned them all, which the Indians felt most deeply and over which they showed much sorrow.”

Mayan codices were burned in front of the Catholic church in Mani

Mayan codices were burned in front of this Catholic church in Mani. We visited the now tranquil site but finding the church was difficult in 2015 when the town roads and main square were undergoing a massive reconstruction effort.
By 2016 we found that the work was complete.

Murals of the book burning at Mani appear on the walls of the Plaza is the Palacio Municipal in Merida.

A mural of Bishop Diego de Landa burning Mayan books in the town of Mani
is painted on the walls of the Plaza is the Palacio Municipal in Merida.

Huun Paper : A Community Paper Project in Merida by
Mark and Yolanda Callaghan
HUUN paper street facade

Mark and Yolanda Callaghan

Mark and Yolanda Callaghan

In the pre-Hispanic era numerous Mexican villages were devoted exclusively to papermaking however, due to the Spanish interference, the craft virtually disappeared by the end of the 17th century. Today artist Mark Callaghan and his wife Yolanda are revisiting traditional methods in a culturally and environmentally sustainable effort named, Project Huun.

We were able to visit the Huun Paper headquarters on a warm January afternoon in Merida. The rooms were full of Callaghan’s handsome original prints and a display of their Huun paper products. We were informed that we would not see papermaking in production there, the paper is produced in an undisclosed location to protect their trade secrets. They are naturally protective as it would be easy for others to exploit workers at a lower wage, undermining Huun’s goal of self-sufficiency for their workers.

Callaghan, an artist and papermaker, was born in San Diego but moved to Mexico with his mother and older brother when he was 16 years old in 1970. He studied under a local Merida artist, Emilio Torre Gamboa and later at the National School of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City before earning his BFA at the Instituto Allende (1980) in San Miguel de Allende. He began his career as a life-drawing teacher in the Bellas Artes school of San Miguel before moving back to Mérida in 1982. After the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 he visited his friend and colleague printmaker Alejandro Ehrenburg at his the famous printmaking workshop, Artegrafias Limitadas in Mexico City, and began experimenting with recycling paper using a small blender.

While in Mexico City, overseeing an exhibition of his paintings at the UAM University, Callaghan partnered with Ehrenburg to develop Plastigraphy, a new printmaking process that combines bondo or clay as a workable surface with plasticine used to make a plate. They were inspired by the Mixografia® technique that was earlier developed by the famous Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo and the printmaker Blade. Mixografia® allows for the production of three-dimensional prints with both texture and very fine surface detail. They are printed onto large thick sheets of moist handmade cotton paper. (See more details about Mixografia® here.)

Tamayo's Mixografia prints.  (Left) Luna y Sol 1990, (Right) Perfil amarillo, 1979.

Tamayo’s Mixografia prints.
(Left) Luna y Sol 1990, (Right) Perfil amarillo, 1979.

An inspired Callaghan returned to Merida in 1985 and began developing ways expand the possibilities of papermaking still based on ancient  techniques but using sustainable materials of the Yucatan. He visited the village of San Pablito in central Mexico to study the amate-huun papermaking process (discussed above) from the Otomi Indians. Then, back in the Yucatan, he identified communities of Maya-Yucatecs who were interested in developing papermaking as part of their local economy.

Although he trained the craftsmen in the traditional manner, Callaghan also began to experiment with papers made from renewable indigenous natural plants such as corn, kapok, sisal, sanseviera, grasses, banana and papaya stalk. Several organizations provided funding for Callaghan’s projects to re-acquaint the Mayans with their traditional craft; Sostenabilidad Maya, Ashoka and the MacArthur Foundation.

Several projects took Callighan outside of Merida to small villages on the peninsula. To help Mayans embrace their lost tradition Callaghan taught papermaking to a group of Mayan teachers and actors in the village of Oxkutzcab, with the hopes that it would be passed down to their children. In the aforemetioned village of Mani he taught papermaking history and process at the bi-lingual primary school and was then invited to witness a reenactment of the Bishop de Landa’s book burning in front of the church (held with the blessing of the local Catholic priest).

graphic Maya

Contemporary Mayan codice by a student.

Book making in the Huun Merida workshop.

Book making in the Huun Merida workshop.

Huun products

A display of Huun products available for purchase.

It became obvious to Callaghan that it was more environmentally friendly to use renewable plants than the traditional tree bark. Using the local sanseviera plant he devised a method that combines Japanese washi technique and the ancient Mayan Huun method.


Sanseviera plant (sometimes called Mother-in-law tongues)

For the last 25 years, Callaghan has devoted most his time to Huun, producing specialty papers with his environmentally sustainable formula. The production helps give many rural Mayan communities a lasting source of income—one that is not part of the pervasive tourist economy of hotel and restaurant work. Moreover, by teaching the lost art of Mayan papermaking, he hopes to help restore the Mayans’ sense of pride in their culture.

It is possible to see Callaghan making paper in a video by Elizabeth Upton, on youtube.



Stock-Allen, Nancy. Interview with Mark Callaghan. Merida, Mexico, 2015.

Van Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. (1944). The Aztec and Maya Papermakers.
New York, NY: J.J. Augustin Publisher.

Hunter, Dard. (1943). Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.
New York City, NY: Dover Publications, Inc

Sandstrom, Alan R. & Pamela E. Sandstrom. (1986). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

* Source of appropriated image of Jonte Tree. All other photos ©

Katherine McCoy : Thoughts on Design Writing

April 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

Women’s History Month 2016

Date of Visit: March 4, 2016

McCoy + McCoy
High Ground Design
Buena Vista, Colorado
Bend Before BuenaVista

Katherine McCoy is an internationally renowned graphic designer, design theoretician and educator. A few of her many accolades include the Medal of the AIGA, Election to the Alliance Graphique International and (jointly with husband Michael McCoy) the first ever Design Mind Award from the Smithsonian National Design Museum. She has held positions in the graduate design programs at Cranbrook Academy of Art and Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design; and has been the Hall Distinguished Professor at Kansas City Art Institute and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art in London. Some of her past positions include president of the Industrial Design Society of America, president of the American Center for Design, vice president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and chair of the Design Arts Fellowships Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts.

 McCoy’s influence on the world of design is significant, when she speaks or writes other design professionals take notice. She has produced a considerable body of writing that records her (sometimes controversial) opinions. We contacted her and asked her to share her thoughts on the development of design writing in the United States as well as her personal approach to the practice.

Arriving at High Ground
The drive to the McCoy’s’ studio/residence took us south along Colorado’s route US 285—a classic western vista of open plains spreading outward to meet the snow-covered Rockies. Our directions specified a particular highway mile marker but we easily spotted the McCoy compound, a cluster of roof lines clearly visible but blending with the surrounding National Forest of high elevation ponderosa and pinyon pine. Our vehicle scrambled up the steep, twisting driveway where the occupants, Katherine and Michael McCoy, greeted us. The couple had been my professors at Cranbrook Academy of Art four decades earlier so no introductions were necessary.copper western hat collection
Their rural dwelling is peppered with icons of the American west: wrought iron artifacts, Arts and Crafts furniture, antique taxidermy heads, Navajo blankets, and collections of copper and pottery. Interspersed are more contemporary design accents of lamps, molded chairs and tables in bright plastic compounds. Surrounding all are commanding views of the terrain—the San Isabel National Forest shown to its advantage from their perch at 8,500 feet.

The Impetus for Design Writing
We settled down to talk in a glass-walled room that gathered welcome warmth from the early March sun. It seemed logical to begin by asking when she first became aware of design writing. McCoy recalled that there was not much available to her while in school, “Writing was not something that (US) graphic designers did. They really didn’t read or write, they just made things. It was all about self-expression and there was very little theory or history.” Indeed, if one looks back at writing produced by our domestic graphic arts industry during that era we find it dominated by autobiographies dedicated to the magic dust, egos and techniques of advertising (i.e. William Bernbach’s A Technique for Producing Ideas, 1965, Leo Burnett’s Communications of an Advertising Man, 1961 or David Ogilvy’s Blood, Brains and Beer, 1978).K. McCoy in Colorado, 2015
Design writing was primarily coming from Europe, exported to the US in books promulgating the formulas of Swiss Design, layout and typography. McCoy’s first exposure to these authors, including Josef Müller-Brockmann, Emil Ruder, Karl Gerstner, and Armin Hofmann, happened in the library of the corporate design firm, Unimark International, her first employer after college. Those designers and their theories of design would shape McCoy’s work for the following decade.Ruder_Muller-BrockmannI was curious if she was involved in Unimark’s leading edge design publication, Dot Zero. Her answer was “No, I was only a junior designer of 21!” But the articles in Dot Zero, chosen by its editorial board, Herbert Bayer, Mildred Constantine, Massimo Vignelli and Jay Doblin, certainly influenced the young designer and she was able to collect all five issues. She especially recalled one particular article, Visual/Verbal Rhetoric by Gui Bonsiepe (Dot Zero 2) as a great example of emerging design theory. [1] Unfortunately, the quarterly Dot Zero ceased to exist after only five issues.

Dot Zero cover (left) and Bonsiepe’s taxonomy of Visual and Verbal Parallelism and Associative Meditation.

Dot Zero cover (left) and Bonsiepe’s taxonomy of
Visual and Verbal Parallelism and Associative Meditation.

Initiating Writing, History, Theory and Criticism at Cranbrook

M. McCoy and K. McCoy, Cranbrook, early 1970's

The McCoys in front of their Cranbrook studio.

Writing was an invaluable tool when McCoy and husband Michael became co-chairs of the Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1971. While seeking avenues to publicize the program and restore its once dynamic reputation, the couple discovered that editors of design periodicals were “dying for content and willing to showcase our teaching approach and student work. Back then editors were very proactive, encouraging us to make suggestions of what we’d like to write about.”Design texts circa 1970
Apart from some newly launched magazines and the aforementioned European books there was a distinct lack of literature from the nascent field of design, a serious disadvantage for McCoy as a teacher and a professional. “There was really only George Nelson’s Problems of Design (1979), Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design (1951) and Victor Papanek Design for the Real Word Human Ecology and Social Change (1971). As Massimo [Vignelli] pointed out, the three important areas of writing in any discipline are history, theory and criticism. More mature professions such as architecture or fine art have centuries of writing covering those areas but the absence of a similar body of work in graphic design relegated our young field to an amateur status.”

“There were no graphic design history books yet. Phillip Meggs‘ ground breaking History of Graphic Design would not be published until 1983.” To instill an appreciation of design history into the department she introduced a project requiring her students to research a designer and then produce a poster of images and text to help educate their classmates on their topic.

Writing in the 1970’s meant pen and typewriter. (right) The beginning of the McCoy + McCoy library.

Writing in the 1970’s meant pen and typewriter.
(right) The beginning of the McCoy + McCoy library. (Photo:Tom Wedell)

In 1975, McCoy initiated a design journal, Projects and Processes, with co-editor and co-designer (then Cranbrook student) Lorraine Wild. “That was an early realization that I liked writing about design.” The publication was distributed through an extensive mailing list compiled from “museums, magazines, art schools, undergrad and grad programs, design offices, alumnae— virtually anyone who wrote or contacted the us with an interest in design.”

“Another early student writing project was our trip posters. During the early years we would pack up the entire department (16 people) into a Winnebago and drive to places like Yale, RISD, Boston or Philadelphia to visit schools and design offices.” She laughs, “Today that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen! Afterwards the class used 3 by 5 cards to write impressions, quotes or topics to make a glossary of our trip. One student would design the poster incorporating the text and images. Ed Fella designed the first and I did the editing, writing and typography. That poster has had some recent recognition. Apparently Andrew Blauvelt at the Walker Art Center will be including it in an exhibition he is curating for fall 2015, Hippie Modernism, the Struggle for Utopia.”[2]Fella-CranbrookTrip1973

Map illustration detail by Ed Fella

Detail of  Ed Fella’s illustration

Writing became increasingly integral to the curriculum during McCoy’s tenure at Cranbrook. She required her students to develop extensive written statements and bibliographies to substantiate their visual design projects. Introducing design criticism was a bit more difficult. “The whole idea of design criticism was considered impolite (in the 1970s). Organizations, such as the IDSA (the Industrial Design Society of America) felt that design awards were wrong and elitist at that time.” However, by 1990, McCoy was comfortable with critique, perhaps after so many departmental critique sessions! She has written about her philosophy of critique “Nothing is sacred, everything is available for question and criticism. That occasionally makes for uncomfortable moments, but it also ensures that the Design Department continues to grow, to resist formula and dogma.” [3]

Uncomfortable moments became more public as McCoy explored areas outside the Swiss Modernist design dogma. Her influences came from all directions but much of it from writing; at first Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s Postmodernist theories, semiotics and later, Post-structuralism and Deconstruction from French literary movements. Katherine explained her new work, “Coming out of literary theory, visual phenomena are analyzed as language encoded for meaning. Meanings are deconstructed, exposing the dynamics of power and the manipulation of meaning.” [4] She visually expressed her new theories on posters advertising various art departments at Cranbrook.

McCoy’s 1980 posters for the Architecture departments at Cranbrook were organized with the Modernist grid but beginning to show other influences, including her exposure to Cranbrook Architecture chair, Daniel Liebeskind, who drew from a wide range of theoretical and philosophical works.

McCoy’s 1980 posters for the Architecture Department at Cranbrook
were organized with the Modernist grid but beginning to show other influences,
including her exposure to Cranbrook Architecture chair, Daniel Liebeskind,
who drew from a wide range of theoretical and philosophical works.

She brought these explorations to her students who embraced them without hesitation. One particular design class earned notoriety, good and bad, from a project that merged French literary theory with typographic composition. In a special issue of Visible Language the students designed eight essays in which they “attacked the assumptions of the text design much as the authors attacked language” [5]. The students visually interpreted the content “by systematically disintegrating the essays by expanding the spaces between lines and words and pushing the footnotes into the space normally reserved for the main text.” [6] The student’s rejection of linearly arranged content generated tremendous controversy in the design world. Venerated Modernist Massimo Vignelli abhorred the new work, classifying Cranbrook as one of the “most dangerous design schools in the world.” [7]


Visible Language, French Currents of the Letter
8 essays (Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 1978)

The publication precipitated a flurry of writing to defend and explain the work. Katherine, the primary spokesperson, wrote long essays about the evolution of the field and the need for graphic design to differentiate in the new world of computer graphics. “This new work is smart and cerebral, challenging its audience to slow down and read carefully in a world of fast forward and instant replay, USA Today and sound bites. The emphasis is on audience interpretation and the construction of meaning, beyond raw data to the reception of messages. This direction seems aligned to our times and technology, as we enter an era of communications revolution and complex global pluralism. Desktop publishing is placing the production of low-end print communications in the hands of office workers and paraprofessionals. Even the simplest corporate report is now typeset and formatted, raising the visual expectations of our audiences. To distinguish high-end graphic communications from the vast output of desktop publishing, a new demand for highly personal, interpretive and eccentric design expressions is surfacing.” [8]

Perhaps one of the best critiques of McCoy’s experiments was Ellen Lupton’sThe Academy of Deconstructed Design, in Eye Magazine. Lupton lucidly explains the various evolutions of Cranbrook Design in a greater context.

Katherine McCoy’s design at a stylistic peak in the early 1990s. The use of opposing terms (binary opposition ie. material immaterial) is a reflection a literary component of Deconstruction.

Katherine McCoy’s design at a stylistic peak in the early 1990s.
The use of opposing terms (binary opposition ie. material immaterial)
is a reflection of a literary component of Deconstruction.

Spread from a 4-page article McCoy wrote and designed with David Frej for a special issue of ID Magazine edited by Tibor Kalman in 1988. McCoy noted, “This turns out to be one of the most quoted and mentioned essays that I’ve written. Link to text

Spread from a 4-page article McCoy wrote and designed with David Frej
for a special issue of ID Magazine edited by Tibor Kalman in 1988.
McCoy noted, “This turns out to be one of the most quoted and mentioned
essays that I’ve written.  Here is a  link to text

By the early 1990s the McCoys’ jointly authored, Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, to document the work produced in the Cranbrook studios during the 1980s and “probably sealed the reputation of the school” [9].

McCoy’s Personal Writing Mission

McCoy described her evolution in writing. “My design writing evolved naturally out of a desire to express my opinions to a larger audience. Everyone that designs should have an opinion about design. You start to have opinions if you are at all interested or informed. Then it is natural to write them down for others to read.”

Like most writers, McCoy has always been an avid reader. As a life-long Christian Scientist she is accustomed to a self-disciplined practice of studying the weekly lesson and the solo introspection that her faith requires. “Christian Science definitely has a problem-solving aspect to it. It’s a great method for those who want to get their heads straight about life or to resolve problems.”

We reflected a bit on the notion of McCoy as a design missionary. “During my college years there was a big cultural shift, a revolution of sorts, in the environmental movement. Our required readings included major environmental manifestos. That late ‘60s period was all about revolution and a missionary zeal of finding a better way of doing things. Design, especially when I surfaced at the beginning of Swiss design’s arrival in the United States, was all very mission-like. The Swiss had a mission and Unimark certainly had a missionary zeal. I guess that sort of connected to my religious background. I was an idealist about life and problem solving. I still feel that way. We can always make it better.” She paused and chuckled to herself, “I always want to make things better.”

One section of the McCoys’ extensive design library at High Ground.

One section of the McCoys’ extensive design library at High Ground.

 Writing Advice

McCoy keeps a specific audience in mind when she writes—other designers and design educators. Her writing has been described as “cogent, jargon free, and clear” but she still faces the same challenges as any author. [10] “At first the design writing scene was fairly low-key but now it has become more intimidating. I always imagine one of my most respected design writers looking over my shoulder, Andrew Blauvelt, Meredith Davis, Michael Bierut or Ellen Lupton. It’s important to focus on the quality of the writing along with the content.”

Despite many years of writing behind her, she still finds the whole process “really, really hard work. Of course, things got a lot easier with the computer. Editing is key, I love working with a good editor. If you want to learn how to write well, work with a good editor. I was lucky to have a great editor at IDSA, Kristina Goodrich.”

A slightly different editing experience presented itself during a project for public television in the 1980’s. “I worked as the associate producer and content consultant on an independent documentary, Future Wave: Japan Design. I found film editing to be an invaluable lesson: cutting the footage and putting it together, trying to figure out the key points and choosing the interviewees’ key comments. Every word must count within the parameters of a given amount of time. Film is such a great discipline to make you get to the point.”

Women in Design Writing

We diverged for a few minutes to a slightly different topic, the lack of women in design history literature before the mid-20th century. I mentioned that whenever a new design history survey appears it seems that most of the research is gleaned from previous historians, none of who included any information about women in the field—perpetuating the myth that the profession was entirely men before the 20th century.

McCoy agreed, “True there has been much written about women in design since the late 1980’s; but before that only a few.” Exclusion has not been a problem for her—she is in all of the significant design history texts. However, she is certainly cognizant of what might have been, a career minimized as a ‘partner’ to her designer husband. Although their names are inseparable in the design world, the McCoy’s work diverged into hers (2D) and his (3D), giving each a clear identity.

Katherine and Michael McCoy in 2015. Textile wall hangings of reclaimed fabrics are by Katherine. (right) Michael’s Place Seating by Arconas (with Curtis Fentress). His Horizon Lamp by Humanscale (with Peter Stathis) has recently been included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Katherine and Michael McCoy in 2015. Textile wall hangings of reclaimed fabrics
are by Katherine. (right) Michael’s Place Seating by Arconas (with Curtis Fentress).
His Horizon Lamp by Humanscale (with Peter Stathis) has recently been included
in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Earlier women design partners were not so fortunate and if their contributions were noted at all it was a mere footnote to their partners: Lily Reich (with Mies van der Rohe), Charlotte Perriand (with Le Corbusier) Aino Aalto (Alvar Altor) Ray Eames (Charles Eames) etc. “In the early 1970s, when the Museum of Modern Art did the exhibition ‘The work of Charles and Ray Eames,’ no one knew who Ray was and we wondered if Charles had a brother.” Massimo Vignelli corrected his own history by writing Designed by Lella, a tribute to his wife and design partner. “Fifty years ago, it was standard practice that the head of the office was the man and the woman partner had a subordinate role. At best, the woman’s creative input and professional influence was only vaguely accepted; often her contributions were dismissed and sometimes even forgotten.” (Kudos to Mr. Vignelli for putting his book on line with free access.) [11]

One woman that has made it into design history textbooks is Cipe Pineless (1908-1991), credited as “the first independent female art director.” McCoy confided that they were once roommates at an early AIGA event. She could not avoid noticing that despite editing many of the most glamorous fashion magazines of her time, Ms. Pineles dressed for bed (like anyone of good Austrian background) in practical flannel nightgowns. Unfortunately, passing encounters in the female lodging were the extent of their interaction.

Another woman we touched upon was Beatrice Warde (1900–1996), known to typography students for her essay The Crystal Goblet, to letterpress printers for This is a Printing Office, and to design historians for her writings on true origin of Garamond. Warde and Nicolete Gray (1911-1997) (Lettering as Drawing among others), both elegant and intelligent authors, were the first women writing history and criticism in the graphic arts field.

We’ve come a long way from Ms. Warde’s lone female voice to books such Helen’s Armstrong’s anthology that is comprised of about 40% female authorship.

We’ve come a long way from Ms. Warde’s lone female voice to books such as
Helen’s Armstrong’s anthology that is comprised of about 40% female authorship.

We mused a bit on how to get women into the canons of graphic design, especially as men write the majority of the books. I felt that Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, did not seize the opportunity to break the mold but McCoy was more cautious. “You know according to theories of Deconstruction there is no such thing as neutral facts. You should look to the work of authors such as Patricia Limerick, who are involved in the New Western History Movement. Those researchers reject the established histories as the total truth and investigate the contributions of under-recognized communities. That said, there are such things as facts in history. We do need those, as well as interpretation and critique.”

Some women to add to the canon. Two publications devoted exclusively to female designers; McCoy is in both. [12]

Two publications devoted exclusively to female designers; McCoy is in both. [12]

McCoy is encouraged by how far design writing has progressed since she entered the field. After a first wave of self-educated pioneers there are now graduate level programs educating professional design writers. “I am so pleased that there are programs dealing with design writing. There have been two great women speakers at High Ground who are at the forefront of educating the next generation of design writers and critics. Sue Yelavich (a Cranbrook alum) is the Director of the MA in Design Studies at The New School. Her counterpart, Alice Twemlow, is co-chair at the School of Visual Arts, another notable program. (Both of them are great writers themselves) The programs appear to focus on solid criticism and interpretation.”

Writing Now + Projects @ High Ground

Katherine McCoy, Colorado, 2015McCoy was clearly ready to talk about the present, her writing projects, her on-going design practice and various other activities. She put down the needlepoint she’d been working during our chat (based on a favorite Pueblo pot) and brought out some printed samples.crewelwork
McCoy has two writing projects in progress. One concentrates on Herbert Bayer, an artist/designer/architect who started out at the Bauhaus but settled in Aspen in 1946. “Walter Paepcke, the founder of modern Aspen, lured Bayer to Colorado, commissioning him to design materials for Aspen’s cultural events and ski resort. Bayer was very prolific; the work was unlike his earlier work in Germany and New York City. Much of it is still unseen. Bayer is far more recognized for his paintings, architecture and landscape work.” The Denver Art Museum’s Bayer Collection preserves his archive, and there are some Bayer collectors in Colorado, affording McCoy great access to Bayer resources.

Two Bayer posters for Aspen, 1948 and 1957.

Two Bayer posters for clients in Aspen, 1948 and 1957. Image source

Herbert Bayer (left) at the Aspen Design Conference (Photo: James Milmoe) Right: Bayer’s Aspen Institute program design.

Herbert Bayer (left) at the Aspen Design Conference (Photo: James Milmoe)
Right: Bayer’s Aspen Institute program design.

Aspen Modernism
A second book project relates to the annual Aspen Design Conference, a now defunct but once much acclaimed event. This project developed out of a presentation made at the McCoy’s annual “mini conference without an audience” held at High Ground. (High Ground Tools and Strategies for Design) “We invite a group of important design thinkers and writers to make a 7-minute rant or presentation about their current interest. It is a way of taking stock on what has been on their mind that year; it is not a portfolio show and tell. After each speaker there is a 15-minute session for questions and comments.”

A few years back McCoy shared her Aspen Modernism research at a session of High Ground and the group “strongly encouraged me to continue, so I pretty much had to pursue the project.” Because there is no consolidated archive of the conference in Aspen McCoy has traveled to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the University of Chicago Library, the University of Illinois Chicago Library and several other archives. “Archival research could get to be habit-forming. Archives are a whole alternative universe – so serene and organized.” She researched 50 years of promotional material and information about the designers who participated in the conference. An avid researcher and library fan, she noted, “I’ve always thought that if I wasn’t a designer I would be a librarian.” The book is now at the book proposal stage.

Mildred Constantine speaking at Aspen (previously mentioned as part of the Dot Zero advisory board) [13] and Aspen ad/poster by Alvin Lustig.

Mildred Constantine speaking at Aspen (previously mentioned as part of the
Dot Zero advisory board)  and Aspen poster by Paul Rand. Image Sources [13]

We moved next to the hurdles of getting a book into print. “The whole process of getting a book published is almost like dating…Does he/she really like me/my book? It’s like a slow dance back and forth over long periods of time. You have to work with people on good faith that your material will be handled properly and that the book will actually come to be published.”

There is the lure of self-publishing but McCoy isn’t enthusiastic about that possibility. “There is a credibility that comes when a publishing house invests in a book. Editors. Fact checking. Longevity. I would want my work on the shelf of a library, in hard copy, a tangible object that will persist.”

The topic of web writing came up. (After all, we were recording this discussion as part of a blog!) McCoy feels that “So far web publishing has not been attractive to me. A lot of work online is not vetted… And it’s very ephemeral. How long does a blog last? Only as long as someone pays for it’s posting.”

McCoy’s Design Practice Today

K_McCoy at computer

McCoy continues her graphic design practice. Most of her work is civic-minded, still spreading the mission of design for a better world. She recently served on the brandColorado team appointed by Colorado’s governor to develop a coherent brand identity for the state. She also participates on university art and design accreditation teams for the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and consults on post-secondary design curricula.

She is in the midst of several projects for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management; print work, trails maps, interpretive kiosks, environmental information. Much of it is concerned with relaying information that dictates a structured visual presentation. There is a certain irony in that, she noted, “It’s sort of funny that I, the person blamed for ruining graphic design with experimental self-expressive work in the 80’s and 90’s, winds up intensely involved in information design.

McCoy's designs for interpretive kiosks

McCoy’s designs for interpretive kiosks

Pike Kiosk

Pike Trail Kiosk

A detail from a trail map

A detail from a trail map, one of many information design projects.

Book covers

Book covers

A catalog to accompany the exhibition “Designing Women of Postwar Britain.”

A catalog to accompany the exhibition “Designing Women of Postwar Britain.”

There are other lesser-known but important dimensions to Katherine McCoy. She became a mother while I was a student at Cranbrook. The baby, Annie, was a fixture in our critiques and department events but design was not a career choice for the daughter of the famous designers. She found her own mission—finding ground water as a hydrogeologist in the parched Southwest.

There are the pastimes McCoy adores; Textiles (sewing, quilting and needlepoint), figure skating and growing spectacular specimens of cactus and succulents. Her Best Novice Cactus 2014 prize at the annual Colorado Cactus & Succulent Show propelled her into the Expert Category.

McCoy with a prize-winning cactus (Photo Michael McCoy). (Right) Cactus prize ribbons.

McCoy with a prize-winning cactus (Photo Michael McCoy). (Right) Cactus prize ribbons.


Even in horticulture, McCoy thinks beyond what is to envisage what could be.
Clearly impossible but provocative, she employs Photoshop software to create new fantastical cactus hybrids

We ended our visit with a tour of High Ground’s well-equipped conference center and Katherine’s cactus and succulent greenhouse. Other than replenishing supplies the couple would never have to leave their mountain roost, however they also maintain a loft in Denver  – “our urban outpost.”

It was time for us to get back to Breckenridge to rejoin the rest of our party. My companion for the day, Cynthia Solis, rode shotgun as we made our way up the Hoosier Pass. Crossing over the Continental Divide at 11,500 feet, we encountered heavy snow squalls, forcing us to creep behind a convoy of salt trucks. It afforded us a window of time in which to transition back to the world of ski vacations and hot spring spas on the other side.


Thanks to Ed Fella for providing the Cranbrook Trip poster art.

Footnotes + Links 

[1] Gui Bonsiepe’s article, first seen in the Journal of the Ulm School of Design. You may read this article on line at this link Hyperlink

[2] Lorraine Wild invented the term Hippie Modernism

[3] Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, Rizzoli International, New York, 1990, with essays by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Katherine & Michael McCoy, Daralice Bowles, Lorraine Wild, Neils Diffrient and Roy Slade.

[4] McCoy, Katherine, ‘American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography’, Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.

[5] Lorraine Wild, Cranbrook Design:The New Discourse, p.33.

[6] Lupton, Ellen. Deconstruction and Graphic Design, Hyperlink

[7] Harper, Laurel. Radical Graphics/Graphic Radicals. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1999. 65. Print.

[8] McCoy, Katherine, ‘American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography’, Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.

[9] [10] Wild, Lorraine, Katherine McCoy: 1999 AIGA MEDAL. Hyperlink

[11] Vignelli, Massimo, Designed By Lella. Hyperlink

[12] (Shown left) Women in Graphic Design, 1890-2012. Hyperlink
(Shown right) And She Told 2 Friends, as international exhibit of graphic design by women, Kali Nikitas, Michael Mendelson Books, Chicago, 1996.

[13] Image Source: 1. Mildred Constantine addressing the audience at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, 196- / Max Yavno, photographer. Mildred Constantine papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Hyperlink  2. Paul Rand Hyperlink

A list of Katherine McCoy’s essays resides on this archive. Hyperlink

Writings on Katherine McCoy Hyperlink

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