Saving a Mecca of Type: Photo-Lettering Fonts Go Digital

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The most important typeface company of the '60s—maybe the most important ever—is born again online

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If there were ever a typeface Mecca, during the sixties it was Photo-Lettering Inc., in New York City. With thousands of photo fonts at the ready, this was where pilgrims and art directors from advertising agencies and publishers of all kinds went for the most functional and quirkiest display type available. PLINC sold their faces out of large specimen books and thinner volumes that touted the most fashionable Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Psychedelic alphabets. The typesetters photographically exposed and developed light-sensitive strips of type around the clock, including many the most famous headlines and taglines of the era.

Yet when the digital revolution hit in the late '80s, Photo-Lettering became anachronistic—many younger designers weaned on Emigre and other digitally created fonts had never heard of Photo-Lettering. Yet those of us who had been customers wondered what happened to PLINC's incredible font library. Rumor was it was in the basement of co-founder Ed Rondthaler.

"Some of the older films are slowly decomposing and bubbling, so we're trying to at least get scans of those before they are completely unreadable," Roat explains.

In fact, famed type designer Ed Benguiat lamented that the Photo-Lettering library was just sitting in a storage facility somewhere in Manhattan. He also complained that the current owners had failed to listen to his urging to digitize the fonts. So he convinced House Industries, a pioneer among digital foundries, to place a bid on the collection.

Believing that the price was way out of their league, House did not follow up on Benguiat's suggestion. Nonetheless, since House often referred to Photo-Lettering designs when they designed their own fonts, they thought it was appropriate that they become the custodians of this historic collection.

The opportunity arose over a year ago, and it was announced that House Industries was preparing to make the digital fonts public. The first batch of materials was launched April 12 at http://www.photolettering.com/a/g21cba. And here is the story of how this came to be from House's co-founder Rich Roat:

We received a call from Bob Rose, one of the Photo-Lettering partners who was managing the company's remaining assets. We happened to be working on a separate project with Ed Benguiat [whose Photo-Lettering faces were emblematic of the sixties and seventies] where we were creating updated digital versions of five of his Photo-Lettering alphabets, and saw this as an opportunity to get first-hand reference.

While the large collection of photo-type was intrinsically priceless, Rose told Roat, the physical mass of the collection had become an expensive burden for the remaining owners. "However," continues Roat, "they did not want to see it haplessly digitized and tossed into a landfill and they heard that we were silly enough to take on the burden of historic preservation."

The collection consists of the 9,000-odd film negative alphabets, which are now housed in three large fireproof steel cabinets. House also has many of the corresponding film positives.

"Most of the original films were in good shape, but the filing system was in significant disarray," Roat further explains. "Some of the older films are slowly decomposing and bubbling, so we're trying to at least get scans of those before they are completely unreadable. Fortunately, we have several of the original glass plates, which are quite stunning."

House contacted Ed Rondthaler, who was nearing his 100th birthday, to help them document the history. "He graciously agreed to give us an audio narrative while flipping through one of the last One-Liner [specimen] catalogs, so we have about eight hours of historical data straight from the founder." They also spent a day at his Croton-on-Hudson home with a film crew.

Roat noticed that Rondthaler had placed Post-It notes on various objects around his house. The gist of each note was "'When I die, so and so wants this.' We also noticed hundreds of Photo-Lettering artifacts with no Post-It notes on them, so we worked up the gumption to ask him if we could buy some of those items. He promptly replied that we should come back and take anything we wanted. We spent another day rooting through his house (where he'd lived since 1938) and taking a vanload of Photo-Lettering items back to the studio to be archived and cataloged."

By this time, Roat had struck up a regular correspondence with Rondthaler, so he was concerned when he hadn't heard from him for several weeks. "We managed to track down the local organization who checked in on him every day, and they told us that he had moved out to Utah to be with one of his sons and that there had been a tag sale at the house."

The PLINC site will be under development for at least another year. Roat says that his teams want to put in more lettering functions, "such as a letter picker so users can manually pick alternate characters. We are also going to program in .png downloads for direct web use and work on more collaborative controls. Since this is a fairly unique concept, we're depending a lot on user behavior and feedback to help us take the next steps."

House further plans on adding at least one new alphabet per month for eternity - ambitious to say the least. "Digitizing and prepping these alphabets is rather time-consuming because we need to interpret expanded character sets," Roat adds. They are also planning to expand beyond the Photo-Lettering library "to leverage the expanded capabilities of Photo-Lettering's rendering engine."

Rather than simply creating a collection of nostalgic fonts, House is jumpstarting a business that had not advanced into the 21st century. Roat's goal is to create a company that has the equivalent of 100 different retail locations spread throughout the world that "could create uniquely consistent localized point of sale materials just by sharing the setting." Now that is making fonts of the past into type of the future.

Images: House Industries

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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