Monday, January 25, 2016

Calligraphy in my Back Bay Back Yard

I'm taking my own advice after last June's trip to Finland-- looking around my own neighborhood with a fresh eye. Here at left is one of the calligraphy gems I've (re)discovered, an address numeral on Gloucester Street.  

And at right is a numeral from Commonwealth Avenue, surrounded by a kind of laurel wreath. I like to think how much fun the designers had.   

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What makes it American? What makes it Calligraphy?

I’m mainly interested now in American calligraphy, the topic for my future book The ABCs of the USA.  Most of the established calligraphers that I talk to say there isn’t any such thing, that "real calligraphy" can only come from the Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance styles of Europe.  So I think I may be on to something; when people can’t see an idea that is clear to me, it’s time to write a book. 
Every other American field has had to establish its independence from the Old World--philosophy, architecture, music, dance, fashion, and even spelling.  It's time calligraphy got recognized too.     

I’ll be posting examples of the letters that I see around me, here in Boston and from my travels in the USA.  What could be more American than those? 

What makes it American?  What makes it calligraphy?  Your comments are always welcome.     

Here’s a detail from a unique American gem. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, is covered annually with elaborate, eye-catching mosaic pictures and letters.  They are made out of—what else?!—corn cobs of yellow, red, purple, and black.  Americans have a long history of improvising letters out of individual dots, including such techniques as beading by Indians, lightbulbs displays on the Goodyear Blimp, and football fans in the card section.  All this creativity led to the first pixellated letters, and dominance in the field of digital typographic design.    

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A few more Art Nouveau letters from Finland

Slightly curved letters.  
I've posted a lot of numerals since I got back from Finland.  Now here are a few whole words.  They show some of the creative range of Jugenstil.  

Bell-bottomed letters.  
An S with a chef's toque.  
A curved and curliqued N, with a double-underlined O.  Sweet.  

Creative use of brickwork.
Look at the top of the arch.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Calligraphic treasures from Helsinki neighborhoods

After last week's love note to visual Helsinki, are you wondering who could possibly be impervious to the Art Nouveau charms of Finnish architectural letters and numbers?  An ex-pat found the answer.  

Recently the American ambassador's wife, Cody Douglas Oreck authored a book* of photographs about those neighborhoods. Her motivation?  She says that when she told Finnish friends how much she liked the inventive facades, they looked puzzled, because they take their enchanting cityscape for granted.  It should make you pay better attention to what you might be overlooking in your own neighborhood.  

*(Unfortunately, it's now very out of print.  You can get it in a Kindle version.  Storybook Helsinki)  

Sorry about uneven tone.  Still mastering this skill.  
Art Nouveau has its own special flavor in Finland, showcased in its hundred-year old building facades.  Now I wonder if the graffiti have their own special Finnish style, too?  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I'm not finished with the architectural numbers of Helsinki

It turns out I have more photos, using a borrowed camera, taken on one of those days I walked around Helsinki's Jugendstil neighborhood.  So here are a few more irresistible numerals in the Art Nouveau style that was the latest thing a century ago.

It's worth a trip to see them.  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Helsinki ABC's and 123's

A recent trip to Finland opened my eyes to a treasure house of beautiful letters on buildings there.  The capital city is full of visual treats.

 A unique Helsinki residence facade.
Like many cities, Helsinki went through a period of prosperity--theirs occurred around 1905-1915--during which whole new neighborhoods went up.  To showcase their modernity, young architects specified the new, sleek Jugendstil, which was then known more commonly in France, England, and the US as Art Nouveau.  They interpreted it in a fresh, distinctly Finnish way, with coils, local materials, and historic colors.  
But if you look closer at those entryways and signs, and if you are a letter-noticer like me, you begin to see wonderful calligraphy as well as ornament.  I took a few snapshots of letters and numerals in the chilly rain, and hope to get more on a return visit next year.    

Finns use a lot of coils.  

I love that numeral 1.  
Swans, a characteristic motif of Jugendstil

Names of businesses, private homes, and apartment houses offer lots of Jugendstil letters.  Complete with their awkward spacing.  Note the first 5 letters above.   

We don't see as many examples of this charming letter style in American cities, because our downtown building boom had already come and gone a little earlier, when Gothic Revival dominated late 19th century architecture.  Finland also did not share America's 1950's booming prosperity following WWII, which swept away many smaller, older American city neighborhoods that had housed the now out-of-style Art Nouveau. The Finns were actually obligated first to pay war reparations to the Soviet Union.  It sounds surreal. Periods of economic stagnation, however, tend to be periods when people make do with older buildings; that's how all those Gothic Revival buildings survived in Boston, and how Jugendstil buildings survived in Finland.   

Today dozens of doorways, lintels, and plaques delight the strolling tourist in Helsinki.  Only one kind of passerby is immune to the charms of Jugendstil.  Check next week's post to find out who, and why.   


Thursday, January 22, 2015

National Handwriting Day

Penguin by Zoƫ Friend

January 23 is National Handwriting Day.*  Is there anyone out there who DOESN'T long for better handwriting?!  I know I do, and as a professional calligrapher, I write for a living.  Here are four easy steps to take that can instantly improve your penmanship:

  • Get your elbow on the table.  Don't write standing up or lying down.  
  • Put two sheets of paper under the paper you are writing on.  
  • Upgrade your pen: from ballpoint to rollerball, from rollerball to thin marker, from marker to fountain pen, from fountain pen to calligraphy pen.  
  • Write on better paper. 

If you also take half a minute to warm up, your pen will write better lines and your muscles will make better letters.
Write, by hand, to someone who would like to hear from you.  You'll be glad you did.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, " a letter, We have not better things to say, But surely say them better." 

*National Handwriting Day is on the birthday of John Hancock, who signed the Declaration of Independence with special emphasis.