Date of Visit: April 2017
Studio Martina Flor
Martina 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.
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).
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 era, Ed 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.
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.
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.
Two spreads on from Martina Flor’s book. Wonderfully instructive and full of beautiful illustrations.
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)
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: Width, slant 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
A few of the 63 Wonderland faces available on myfonts.com.
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 designtraveler.wordpress.com.
“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.
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: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233590388_Maria_Strick_Schoolmistress_and_Calligrapher_in_Early_Seventeenth-Century_Holland [accessed Jun 4, 2017].