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

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.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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