The Hand Is Mightier Than the Font: An Interview with Bernard Maisner
Bernard Maisner is an old hand when it comes to handwork, an expert stationer whose custom calligraphed invitation sets are masterpieces of Spencerian and Copperplate hand lettering. His elaborately embellished invitations and envelopes are either personally produced or printed under his supervision, and his “Italian,” “French” and “Americana” styles are unique in the world of fine social stationery and calligraphy. Maisner's handwriting has also been used in advertising, as logos, and on books and CDs. Perhaps most fascinating are his lifelike re-creations of historical writings and interpretations done for fictional characters in motion pictures: his hand has stood in for Johnny Depp's, Daniel Day Lewis's and Sean Connery's, among others. Those who witnessed his illustrated lecture for the Society of Scribes, held recently at New York's Grolier Club, reported it as electrifying—and so inspiring that we could not pass up an opportunity to interview Maisner for Voice about the challenges of being a letterer in the digital age and his passion for this venerable art.
An envelope from one of Maisner's custom calligraphed sets.
Heller: With everything gone digital—school kids aren't even required to learn good penmanship anymore—do you think that calligraphy and lettering are here to stay?
Maisner: Calligraphy is here to stay in the same way that some people know Latin, that there are “colonial villages,” that some people play LPs on “record players,” that some artists paint using glazes in the manner that Hans Holbein did, and how some photographers still use emulsion film in their cameras. Hand lettering is a little more alive in that it is more flexible and more easily interpretable in a modern way than the traditional styles of calligraphy.
Heller: How did you learn this detailed art?
Kondylis wedding invitation.
Maisner: I was self-taught from the age of 15 or so. I was in many rock bands and I made signs of the band names for the bass drumheads. Our bands were so bad we changed the names frequently so that we wouldn't get a bad reputation. I had lots of lettering practice as a result. In high school, a school group asked me to do some kind of certificate. I did it using a Gothic lettering style, but not with a calligraphy pen—just copying an alphabet model with a pen. My father happened to see it, thought it was great, came home the next day with calligraphy model books, calligraphy pens, papers and inks. He got me to practice every day. I loved it and practiced all the traditional historic calligraphic hands. Years later, I attended art school at Cooper Union in New York; my teacher Don Kunz told me he had never met someone who had done so much work on their own. To my chagrin, as I thought I knew it all, he put me in “beginner” calligraphy, which was obviously the best thing for me. He retrained my eye and hand properly.
Heller: In this day and age, there are those who might say calligraphic hand lettering is old hat. How do you respond to that?
Maisner: I agree. It's very hard to improve on the masterful work of the past.
Heller: Still, so much type is originally based on drawn and calligraphic letters. Have you produced a typeface from your handwork?
Font for a Microsoft ad campaign.
Maisner: I have created several fonts, put into the “Fontographer” program, including one for a Microsoft ad campaign, one for Hershey's, and one for an M&M's campaign. The fonts are mostly “printed” style letters as opposed to “scripted” (connecting) letters. “Calligraphic” fonts tend to be simply horrible, even if they work well. Hand lettering is alive and vital because the shape of every single letter is affected, and therefore modified, by the letter before it and after it, as well as what is above and below it. Once these originally hand-lettered letters become fixed and repetitive, as a font dictates they must be, they tend to die right there on the page, right before our eyes.
Heller: I'm sure you've had stationery or invitation clients who are looking for a specific result. Why do you think these people are seeking the handcrafted look?
Maisner: My clients don't want a “handcrafted look.” What they want—what they have the ability to appreciate—is something that truly is handcrafted. It really is artistic, not a facsimile of something that “looks” artistic. Calligraphy has the potential to be alive in a way that typesetting can never be. Not all clients can appreciate the difference, or they may not be able to afford the service even if they can see the difference. The same goes for great food and wine. The artist is only half of the equation. We need the appreciator.
Heller: You have had various on-screen writing assignments—you were Sean Connery's hands in Finding Forrester, and you also created props for Gangs of New York. How much research goes into this kind of, shall we say, “acting?” How much of the character is “real” or your invention?
Oswald's writing (left) and Maisner's copy (right).
Maisner: I put a great deal of research into jobs where historical accuracy is desired by the director. I did writing on-camera for a documentary film about the Oswald/Kennedy assassination by famed German filmmaker Willi Huismann. I had to write like Lee Harvey Oswald live on camera. Writing samples of Oswald were provided to me from the U.S. National Archive and Records Administration. I studied the writing, analyzed and made U&LC alphabet charts from Oswald's writing, traced and memorized every letter, as well as his combinations of letters, and studied other characteristics of his writing so that I could write the way Oswald did—immediately and without thinking. He was dyslexic, wrote many misspelled words and penned in a script as well as a printed style, often strangely combined. It was a very difficult handwriting to forge. I even researched, purchased and wrote with a particular fountain pen, a Parker '51, made in the early 1960s, which would have been likely available to him at the time at Army PX stores, nationally and internationally.
Heller: That's fascinating! You also were the hands behind Johnny Depp's handwriting in Sleepy Hollow.
Writing for Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow.
Maisner: Tim Burton wanted a certain feel and look, but it was not a historically referential issue. The pen I had to make write was fashioned from a hypodermic needle. I also wrote as two different characters at the very beginning of the movie. A nobleman as well as a farmer were shown signing a will in the opening scene. I developed signatures—one sophisticated, one crude—to represent these two characters and presented them to Tim. He selected the ones he liked best and then those were memorized, so I was able to write them on camera without hesitation. None of these styles are my own personal “handwriting” styles, by the way. They are created, memorized and then written on-camera.
More Sleepy Hollow writings.
Heller: This film work falls under the category of pastiche or historical recreation. Do you have any issues about being “modern?”
Maisner: If you mean do I mind doing historical re-creations, no, I don't mind at all. I see it as a challenge. I can be “modern” elsewhere and when appropriate. I look to be “modern” in my own artwork. When I'm hired to do a job, my goal is to make my employer happy and satisfied.
Heller: You do various window signs. In the age of decals and other adhesive letters, who wants to enlist the more arduous and expensive handwork? And why?
Logo for Una Pizza Napoletana.
Maisner: Almost no one wants to work with arduous and expensive handiwork. The last sign I did, about 18 months ago, was for Una Pizza Napoletana—by the way, the best pizza in NYC and the country, 12th Street and First Ave. The four-foot-square sign was actually hand-lettered and then gold-leafed onto the street-level glass window by one of the few remaining window gold-leafers in the country at an enormous cost. The glass broke a month after the store opened. No more sign.
Heller: That's sad...
Maisner: On the subject of signs, one of the saddest things to me about the demise of hand lettering and the rise of computer-generated font/signage is the absolute ugliness of current signage in society. Sign painters were so talented and creative, and their genius truly beautified shops and public streets. Look at photographs of old New York and Paris and small-town America—the signs were gorgeous. Walk up and down the street now, and with all our developed technology, modern signage is profoundly ugly.
Heller: Agreed. So, what was the most extraordinary lettering you were asked to do?
Organic lettering for a Honda campaign.
Maisner: I loved creating the word “Environmentology” for the current Honda campaign. The letterforms were made out of shaping all natural materials—flowers, dirt, leaves, pinecones, twigs, moss—and then photographed. I was up against an illustrator essentially doing the same basic thing, but as an illustration. Alas, after a very close race, Honda selected the illustrated version, but I think my version was among the best lettering I ever created.
Heller: By extension, what is the most beautiful piece you've ever done?
Maisner: That's tough to say. I totally obsess over wedding invitations with my calligraphic script styles—a blend of Copperplate and Spencerian writing, with a modern eye/aesthetic mixed in. These become complex tapestries of interwoven letterforms. I think some of these have turned out possessing extraordinary beauty.
Heller: At the outset I asked if this is a living field. Do you think that there are future practitioners in the wings or are you one of the last with this passion and obsession?
Maisner: The Latin phrase I chose to incorporate into my logo is Manu scripti, which translates to “writing done by hand.” I sincerely hope I am not the last letterer out there. I cannot imagine a world without beautiful hand lettering.
About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com