artbeat (2005-48)

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In Your Typeface

In Alternative Typestyles , letters speak louder than words


by Leslie Wylie

Matt Tullis is a font preservationist, so to speak. For years, he’s been archiving vintage letterforms: soda shop Ss, chipped paint Ts, neon-rimmed Is, and other found type salvaged from his cross-country travels. He calls them Blue Highway fonts, referring to the threads of highway represented by thin blue lines on his atlas. Weathered signs along these back roads deeply influence his design work, a folk-art shrine to classic typographic form.   

Alternative Typestyles: An Homage to Vernacular Letterforms is a collection of Tullis’ single-letter artifacts, side by side with the original typefaces they’ve inspired. Photographic prints of vintage letterforms and signs embody tangible elements of decay, while hand-drawn typefaces and wall-mounted sculptures breath new life into what the artist refers to as “ghosts” of old fonts. The resulting exhibition is a kind of postmodern garage sale, with undertones of both dust and innovation.

“Even if I wasn’t as interested in old antique-y things, the fact is that our society is changing, business and corporate needs are ever evolving, and there is a move toward slick digital output,” Tullis says. “When I go around looking for these (signs), it’s with the realization that eventually they’ll be replaced by a different kind of visual communication that’s not as unique. It’s the uniqueness of that time and place that makes them so interesting.”

Signs beholden with the anachronistic panache Tullis describes are indeed growing scarcer. Hand-painted, asymmetrical and often overlaid with flashy neon lights, most of them would be considered garish roadside attractions by contemporary standards. It’s not uncommon for such signs to fall into disrepair, only to be replaced by something more consistent with today’s increasingly homogenized sign system. As Tullis puts it, “These signs are often not long for this world.”

There is, however, a practical rationale behind their disappearance. As information evolves, so must the vehicles we use to convey it. Signs have become more streamlined and sophisticated, and the letters upon them have followed suite. Since the invention of moveable type in 1450, a revolving door of fonts has responded to society’s communication needs, with many styles vanishing only to resurface decades or even centuries later. For instance, Art Deco fonts first appeared in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but their geometric simplicity made a comeback in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Wood type was developed to answer the needs of display advertising during the industrial revolution, but variations of it are back in vogue today (think Yee-Haw Letterpress’ distinctive style).

“Type is a powerful tool,” Tullis says. “I’m a teacher (professor of graphic design at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green), and I tell my students that as far as the written word is concerned, type and letterform are in my opinion a designer’s most powerful tool.”

Even miniscule elements of a font affect its ability to relay information. A serif font, or a font such as Times Roman fitted with decorative “feet” called serifs, help the eye stick to the line and therefore facilitate reading. Sans serif fonts, such as Arial, were considered vulgar until the early 20th century, when progressive typographers began to praise them for their clean, utilitarian aesthetics.

“I’ve always enjoyed manipulating the letterform and trying to make the relationship between individual letters in my own designs communicate concepts—sometimes simplistic, sometimes esoteric,” he says.

Like a chemist who sees the world around him as a formulaic pastiche of parts and particles, Tullis has a knack for breaking thoughts down into words and words down into letters. “What I love about Alternative Typestyles is that you can examine one letterform—the peeling paint or the broken glass or bent metal—and appreciate it on its own impressionistic terms,” Tullis says. “On that level, I think the letterforms have their own individual design elements.”

He removes the object—a letter—from its verbal context and allows it to become the subject of its own language. The symbol, no longer obligated to represent a sound, is free to define itself by line and form rather than semantic rationale. Of course, a new context must inevitably materialize to replace the context lost. That’s where imagination comes in, says Tullis: “There’s a story behind every letter, and whether I get that story right or not doesn’t matter.”

His hanging sculptures offer the best visual explanation for this seeming irreverence. Encased in assembled environments of wire, stone, tattered wallpaper and rust, the letters reinvent themselves in a playful collisions of past, present and future. The counter-form around the letter object, which would translate to the negative white space surrounding the letter on the page, becomes as important as the letter itself. “As far as the sculpture goes, I find these typographic artifacts and combine them with other thematic artifacts. The empty space around that becomes equally interesting,” Tullis explains.

But the artist prefers allowing his letters to speak for themselves. “Everyone who looks at it will have their own sense of nostalgia,” he says. “I like that people look at this art and try to figure out what the story is behind it.”

What: Alternative Typestyles: An Homage to Vernacular Letterforms

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