1990 was the year that sort of marked the end of my Bohemian lifestyle. Then, at the age of 28, I was living in Paris, trying to figure out where my next steps were going to lead. Not far from the Blvd. de Vaugirard where I lived was a cemetery called Montparnasse. On nice spring and summer days, a group of us would often gather amongst the ornate tombstones in the cemetery to discuss art, music and film. Back then, I remember being captivated by the lettering, textures and shapes of the tombstones but never expected someday I would be involved in designing these objects.
France, the country of my father’s bloodline, has a recent history of artistic sensibility that has expanded far beyond her borders exerting world-wide influence. One of the influences that I have taken away from the “French School” is the design of Art Nouveau and Art Deco lettering in the graphic arts – posters, paper ephemera – as well as building signage and tombstones. The lively lettering styles from French designers have a distinctly unique feel that is both masculine and feminine at the same time.
I have always been a fan of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and, particularly, mid-century modern styles. Swirling lines and fluid interpretations of foliage and floral motifs are hallmarks of the Art Nouveau movement, which began during the 1880’s and ended about 1920. Dynamic and elegantly flamboyant, I think of Art Nouveau as being sensual. The appearance of this lettering style signaled an abrupt change from it’s more formally ornate and stuffy predecessors. New variations show up every now and again.
The seeds of Art Deco were planted about 1910 and the style officially debuted at the 1925 Paris world’s fair “The International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.” This event heralded the coming of the modern industrial world. Art Deco’s simple geometric lines defined not only the post-WW1 design, architecture and lettering, but influenced styles well into the 1950’s and 1960’s – what we now call mid-century modernism.
But the best of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco letterforms were always drawn with a pencil and ruler onto a sheet of paper or vellum. This tactile experience called calligraphy literally means “beautiful writing”. A good calligrapher attempts to visually interpret the spirit of texts… and when this is applied effectively, the results are beauty, warmth and personality. The best lettering styles are always hand-drawn and inconsistent – organic. I could sit in front of a computer for days, months even, and never capture what a master or even novice calligrapher could do in a matter of minutes, hours.
Fast forward 26 years + from 1990 when the only computers I was familiar with were the SNCF and Air France terminals that printed travel tickets. A lot has evolved since my formative years and the lettering styles of today, formatted to fit small screen function, are diminutive variations of the seed stock they came from. That said, I am grateful for the time I spent in Montparnasse surrounded by organic and inconsistent forms; the best possible teachers.