Stone lettering and variable fonts: What can the future of typography learn from the past?
In the pursuit of pixel-perfect typography, have we lost the origins of its artistry in place of efficiency? We talk to contemporary typographers as well as stone letterers who are keeping the origins of the discipline alive, asking what is lost and gained in the movement from physical to digital.
Letterforms are ubiquitous, yet are often overlooked despite their role of composing every word we write and every sentence we form. They are found on almost everything we see, touch, read, buy or sell. They are the result of hundreds and hundreds of years of discovery, discussion and delegation; calligraphic hybrids with traces from ancient runes to Latin verse. As noted by Parisian type designer Morgane Vantorre, widespread across these individual abstract characters lies a subtle magic, where as a civilisation we have collectively ingrained an “immense meaning” into the bars (the horizontal strokes of the letterforms) and tittles (the dots of the “j”s and “i”s) found in our alphabets. To imagine a world without these characters, as described by Morgane, would be dystopian.
Although at face value typography seems fairly unchanged across history, this is far from the case. In considering what the extreme ends of the typographic discipline could be, we turn to stone lettering; letterforms carved into stone. This practice is found across the world, from the earliest freestanding structures to headstones in graveyards, and sees practitioners working with a traditional mallet and chisel method that remains unchanged since the Roman Empire. Although the craft can often go unnoticed, the appearance is steadfast, providing an innate permanence that acts as a “lasting tribute – much longer-lasting than something generally written or printed on paper,” as noted by Wiltshire-based letter carver and member of the Master Carver Association, Lisi Ashbridge. With the advancements of technology, the discipline is becoming more and more specialist, with many jobs being fulfilled by computer-aided machinery and software.
The progress of technology, however, has also led us to possibly the furthest withdrawal from stone lettering; the variable typefaces we see today. These digital fonts have an endless range of typographic variations within a single font file, meaning you can adjust factors such as the width, height, angle and weight of the letterforms to your heart's content, with the utmost ease. The lack of restrictions and seemingly eternal possibilities for customisation seems to be the antithesis to the restrictive traditional methods of stone lettering, but is there something one can learn from the other?
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Nick Benson: Quandoque
The role the two extremes of the discipline play is largely the same; conveying the written message and expressing personality and meaning. For the American third-generation stone carver Nick Benson, “all of the personal, aesthetic choices I make in typography are meant to echo some sense of humanity,” he tells us, stating that context is everything. Whether it is typography for a conglomerate branding job or “small handwritten signs for a farmers market,” the meaningfulness of typography is largely subjective. For Nick, his practice is tightly bound to his shop’s history, explaining that he is grounded by standards set not only by his familial predecessors, but “earlier generations of letterers and carvers.” Taking after his father, who took over from his father before him, Nick runs The John Stevens Shop on Rhode Island, continuing the aesthetics and philosophical practices that have been passed down through generations.
Meanwhile, French type designer, and founder and creative director of Typelab, Floriane Rousselot considers the typographic medium as one of “sharing emotions and stories,” inherent to how we communicate. This sentiment is shared in stone lettering – due to its somewhat immortal nature it provides insight into the emotions and stories of the period it was inscribed, not only through the words but the design of the scripture itself. Florianne explains this sociological dimension of typography, noting that type design is a method of translating one’s own “vision,” and in doing so creates a platform where we can better understand people’s behaviour. This is apparent in her speculative, experimental approach to typographic design.
A voice heard is a voice considered
“Writing is a convention that is today perpetuated by 12 centuries of practice,” Morgane remarks, adding that, paradoxically, we “no longer pay attention to the forms of words and their layouts,” but rather to the images they accompany. Writing was previously considered secondary to the spoken word, however we now find that type is used to support the voice it’s representing. Morgane proposes that we think “more about ideas and concepts than forms,” and that typography has now become a more ambivalent speciality, that “both speaks to our minds and to our intellect because the shapes materialise ideas while also stimulating our emotions through their visual characteristics.” It is worth noting that when designing typography – whether it’s to be carved in stone or embedded into a web browser – there is an inescapable (if unintentional) history and meaning behind each stroke and dash.
To this extent, Amsterdam-based type designer and artist Charlotte Rohde believes that the meaning of typography is found in the platform it gives, telling us that “a voice needs to be heard in order to be considered.” She goes further, arguing that a typeface is simply a visual voice; a physical exhibition of the intonations, emphasis and nuance of the spoken word. Acting as an extension of the author, typefaces express “personal aesthetics, emotionality and stance,” Charlotte explains, telling us that when someone uses her typefaces “they weave a piece of my reality into theirs – a duet.” This is demonstrated across Charlotte’s practice, contributing to feminist discourse through the form and function of her typography.
It’s a sentiment shared by Cologne-based type designer, and founder of Nikolas Type, Nikolas Wrobel who tells us “there is this radio show with the jingle: painting pictures with sound, and I would say we do it the other way round.” In his practice, Nikolas wants to make something that feels alive, and in doing so make something that people can personally relate to – or in a commercial context, provide a voice for a “studio, brand or team.”
As is the nature with Nick Benson’s stone lettering practice, there is an infusion of “individual style,” Nick explains, adding that “because I make everything by hand this is inevitable.” He remarks that expression and style can be achieved within the tight constraints of stone lettering if the designer has a strong enough sense of individuality. For Lisi, she explains there is a “human wobbliness” to carving, that gives the lettering “movement, life and character,” in contrast to the cold, rigid and formulaic nature of computer-generated lettering on stone. There is an elemental beauty within the calligraphic nature of stone lettering, an arguable precedence to form over function, which seems to be the opposite of the Helvetica-like, Swiss-inspired sans serifs found in the digital world.
Has there been too great a desire to follow the typical school of thought that “form follows function”, to the extent that we have disregarded beauty? This is argued by Nik, who believes not enough consideration is given to form, explaining how beauty is necessary for communication – for without attraction there isn’t exchange, and exchange is the primary role of typography. “Life could not happen without beauty,” Nikolas explains, a sentiment also expressed by Morgane who adds, “Forms speak to us and to our feelings.” This begs the question: is there something in the focus on form in stone lettering that contemporary type designers can learn from? To this end, Nikolas argues that “we are sick of function,” explaining that the future of typography is about beauty and humanity, with the ultimate goal of expressing feeling.
Restriction or liberation?
The artistry of stone lettering, and equally the allure, is most likely due to the restriction the medium provides the designer, restrictions not found when designing variable typefaces. Lisi tells us how she thrives on the restrictions thrown at her, embracing the challenge brought by different materials and allowing that process to inform her work, a testament mirrored by Floriane in her practice, telling us that “I need to be out of my comfort zone, I need to be challenged,” whilst in the pursuit of “beauty”. She explains that “beauty needs to be fully free from the beauty normal society anchors us in.”
Charlotte would contest, however, that “we are never liberated from constraints, and if we come close we get lost.” The very nature of society means that we never design out of context, telling us “beauty and artistry come from thoughtful, dreadful, honest, loving, daring relations of minds to their environment,” and to this extent, we are always within restrictions, be it social, political or mental constraints, rather than physical.
Restrictions, Budapest-based graphic and type designer Laura Csocsan tells us, can be crucial “as a catalyst for ideas,” as they encourage exploration, something demonstrated in stone lettering and utilised in Laura’s questioning practice, continually working to develop her technical and conceptual sensibilities. For multidisciplinary design studio Liebermann Kiepe Reddemann (LKR), it is in playing with, reinterpreting and breaking the restrictions and conventions of working with the digital that it finds beauty, creating “functional, fun, aesthetic and holistic experiences.” To this extent, design for digital and stone carving share a similarity; that of limitations in their chosen medium. For LKR, it is limited to the inelegance of code, what it can render in a browser and the “brutalist disclosure” of the technical structure that supports that.
Morgane explains that, much like Lisi, in contemporary design, the starting point of each project is still “for who? And for what?” She tells us that type design arguably sides with both restrictions and liberation from constraints, as the discipline “requires an artistic and sensitive step, but also to adopt a very rigorous approach; efficient and precise.” Morgane concludes that beauty comes from the intelligence of a typographic system, something evident in Morgane’s passionate practice, that has already become renowned for its sophistication, sensibility and subtlety. It is within this that we find the artistry of the designer, adding that the “liberty of movement” and the “sensitive aspect” of involving your hands, alongside the physical restriction imposed through stone lettering, has been lost in designing letterforms digitally.
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She also adds that there is a lack of personality within the digital. “It makes us less close to our shapes because they are now partly determined by software rules,” Morgane says. This digital watershed, however, has opened the door to new technological experimentation, such as variable fonts. Whether you determine it as positive or negative, Laura tells us that “digital production is more punctual; tactility and errors are not present as much as they used to be before.” LKR adds that typography in allegiance with technology can be instrumental in type not just being the presenter of a message but can help convey its meaning. “Typography is part of the medium and therefore part of the message itself,” the studio explains, adding that the requirements of typography have to constantly change as the way we communicate does.
Efficiency over artistry
Oxford-based graphic and type designer Ciaran Birch holds the notion of heritage and British culture at the heart of his creative practice – in taking lessons from the past he re-appropriates this knowledge into his typographic designs. Similarly felt in stone lettering, Ciaran explains the patience, dedication and craft that goes into typography is part of what makes it so meaningful, telling us that “the nuances and decisions that go into crafting it” all contribute to being one of the most necessary and important tools for a designer. He adds that “there is a real history inside every typeface; hours and hours of ideas and process reduced to mere marks,” meaning that the beauty of typography is found in the intention of the designer. “The evidence of human interaction affords artistry,” he tells us, with digital type showing a similar beauty “when there is a sense of humanity present,” – a humanity that is lost in the pursuit of uniformity and a “reliance on the perfection of forms.” This has come as a result of the ability to instantly make micro-adjustments and the speed of production in digital typographic design.
From the perspective of stone lettering, Nick explains that “the advent of the digital realm,” as well as mechanical advances within his field of design, is what’s responsible for the drastic change in the design world, strongly stating that “the first world has distanced itself from craft.” As we can all see, even in normal life through the popularity of food delivery apps and streaming services, the world prioritises efficiency. We want things as quickly and cheaply as possible, with seemingly decreasing patience. Nick explains that “if you have a society that has left old methods of design and production behind for much faster, more efficient and economically profitable methods,” those methods become the standard measurement within the industry. Arguably, terminology may have let down the traditional discipline of lettering; with the term “craft” in people’s minds being reduced to grandmas in village hall watercolour classes, there is an immediate devaluation.
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Ciaran Birch: Bleep collab print
Nick adds that for many people, due to a lack of historical reference, there is no distinction between his craftsmanship and what a machine can do. He tells us that, for now, it is memorial headstones that pay the bills since they are “typically something that humans want humans to make.” Lisi notes, however, that many memorial firms are resorting to fast and efficient methods, resulting in “terrible typographic spacing” in a set font. Although a morbid subject, there is an innate beauty to “old churchyards,” especially within the meticulous craft of the stone lettering. Lisi tells us how our churchyards are now becoming full with computer-generated lettering cut by machines, adding that “there is no beauty or life to them… it would be a shame if we lose those skills and that art.”
Within contemporary design, and its focus on digital over physical, Nikolas explains that although what is lost is an “unparalleled haptic/tactile touch and sensory experience,” we can still achieve a connection when working within the digital “not by imitation but by making it different.” Objectively, vinyl records cannot play a song as pitch-perfect as a digital file, however, that is no longer the reason people buy analogue music, instead, it is because there is a romance to process. We find romance in the procedure of making an effort to collect something you can hold and placing into a mechanism that we can understand with our eyes – yet this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for digital music, far from it. Similarly in lettering, there is a romance to the physical, a satisfaction in holding something, but this doesn’t mean that digital typography doesn’t serve its own purpose. Progress will only be made if the digital strives to be itself, rather than a replication of the physical, utilising its own unique features.
Equally, what has changed in the contemporary type design world is “its fabrications, its applications (from paper to screen and vice versa), as well as its context,” Morgane explains. The conception and perception in type design is an example of typography’s continual role as “a reflection of our society,” which is based “as much on technological and cultural developments as on the aesthetics of different eras and on the cycles of ideological and social evolution.”
Value beyond the written word
Laura noticed this shift, telling us she believes that typography now is “not meant to be decoded only from letters but rather from the atmosphere, moods and delicate references that are packed into them.” Morgane poetically describes the role of typography as a historical, cultural capsule as “it’s like listening to a silent story through the eyes.” Laura explains how the close bond between our spoken language, history, identity, politics and culture is typographically expressed through the “small details that carry clues” within the letterforms.
Obviously not without an understanding of contemporary type design, Nick explains how, for him, digital type is more of a tool. Similarly, Lisi tells us that “it has its place, but not when cutting in stone,” explaining that the inherent flatness of digital type is incompatible when putting a chisel to stone. Floriane would argue, however, that it is no longer simply a tool, but “a unique graphic element” that can stand on its own in design. “Typography lost the beauty of details, textures, the history and warmth,” she explains, but gained a previously unprecedented flexibility. The discipline now has become an experimental opportunity, in a world where it’s not the “basic rules” that have changed, but “the way of perceiving it, using it and conceiving it.” Morgane refers to the typographic definition given by Helmut Schmid, who said that “typography is visually interpreted verbal communication”, alluding to the idea, as Morgane tells us, that “typography has to be more considered as a full pillar of communication, rather than as part of a design toolkit, at the mercy of our language.”
Custom typeface for Eight Visits, a book by Sophie Klock
The issue seems to have become whether people have lost interest in value beyond the written word. We all have immediate access to thousands of typefaces for free, fonts that are meant to be used again and again across a multitude of situations. Ciaran points out that in having immediate access to all these fonts, everyone who “selects a font from the drop-down menu on Word” is a designer, participating in a digital age that has revolutionised typography. This is a total contrast for people like Lisi, who “draw letters for each individual job,” within a craft that takes years to master. To work as stone letterers do requires patience, discipline, consideration and artistry. This is not to say that these traits are not also required for contemporary type design, however, but that the preconditions are very different. As suggested by LKR however, the way to most creatively apply typographic design is to have fully mastered the technology behind it; telling us that its guiding principle is “you cannot design a system that you cannot understand.” Only then is it apparent that the digital existence of typography is a unique experience, isolated from its physical history.
Another consideration in stone lettering is who the piece is for, where it is to be placed and what the material is – with drastically different prerequisites for different materials. To this extent, Morgane speculates that custom typography has become the new way for brands to stand out, with “the increase of personalised typeface requests,” for example the typeface designed by &Walsh for Zooba. It could be the case that through the democratisation of typography we have been led back to the quaint hand-painted shop fronts of times gone by. We used to be accustomed to the design of high-street shops being uniquely lettered by a sign-writer, carpenter or stone carver. Now in our bigger, more connected world have we perhaps reached a reinterpretation of this – a contemporary revival of the sign-writer, whereby brands have their own unique “shop fronts”.
Ciaran, however, thriving in this levelling of the playing field, notes that the game played on it has been one of experimentation and liberation. He adds that it’s exciting because “more people are working with non-late character sets and there are more women in this typically male-saturated environment.” Charlotte adds how the accessibility of the necessary tools means that “everyone can make a typeface.” Morgane adds that although this is the case “I think the discipline still belongs to a niche field, but a widening niche.” With the ease and opportunity to self-publish, we are in an age of experimentation, expression and self-education. “I rate this development,” Nikolas tells us, “as a really good El Dorado for creativity and typography,” the likes of which we have never seen before. “It is no longer about carrying the ashes, it’s about passing on the flame!” Nikolas exclaims, discussing how with the newfound freedom of type design, he has noticed a decrease in snobbery and a far less restrictive nature of the design world. It’s no longer the case, as it was for Nikolas, that “if you did not use Frutiger for every second occasion you would have been stigmatised as a complete moron.”
On the whole, Morgane believes that the world of design is in the most compelling position it has ever been in, arguing that the typographic design we see today is “probably a prolongation of postmodernism, which was already a reaction against eternal and impersonal style of international Swiss style.” As a result, we give greater focus to what the shapes and layouts have to say, typography is leaning more towards the expressive, commenting that “the balance between legibility and visibility appears as a great playground for each type designer.”
We have not exhausted the potential of typography; Ciaran explains that in terms of “balance, spacing, legibility and rhythm” we haven’t gone as far as we can. Charlotte adds that typography, as is the case of fashion, is cyclical and that shapes will always be constantly reinventing themselves. “Right now we’re reliving a technoid arts and crafts movement,” she tells us, “next is maybe cyber-baroque.” Something brought up by both typographers and letterers is the idea of asemic writing – an art form that depicts writing without semantic thought or meaning. The results are anti-specific compositions that pass the role of interpretation to the audience, much like a Jackson Pollock painting. Ciaran notes that asemic writing hasn’t been explored enough, suggesting the work of Guy De Cointet in contemplating the future aesthetic or reasoning of contemporary typography, rife with “a wealth of minor idiosyncrasies and typographic codes.” Lisi looks to explore asemic writing in her personal practice, finding the artistic endeavour an argument for escaping the conformity of restrictions, where one can “elevate the nature of the art and the intrigue of the beauty and personal interpretation of a piece.”
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Morgane Vantorre: Vilnius stone carving workshop
Looking ahead, Morgane believes “the future of typography is more and more conscientious and curious about other disciplines,” increasingly used within a multidisciplinary practice that considers the letter as an independent new medium of creation. Within this bubbling cauldron of contemporary design, however, “the inheritance of typography and lettering is rooted in a revival tradition, subject of multiple reinterpretations of ancient characters,” Morgane tells us. This fruitful endeavour cross-fertilises centuries of tradition with today’s context. LKR hopes to see typefaces that will adapt as technology, the web and society develop, with type showing an awareness and reacting in response to “new possibilities and areas of application.”
What we can ascertain is that the future of typography looks as exciting as ever and, in contrast with the long traditions of physical typography, digital is in its infancy, leaving the future a compelling mystery. The stories we have to tell are going to be told, and the medium of the message will thrive with both physical and digital in its arsenal. Whilst explaining how typographic design has become a discipline of respect and ethics, suggesting we cherish our traditions by looking forward, Nikolas concludes that “now-ness combined with tradition will always be relevant.”
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.