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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Emigre may not be as typographically experimental or visually provocative as it was in the Nineties but VanderLans still pushes designers’ buttons.
Section: Inspiration -
critique, interview, Voice
This film will allow designers of my generation and after, to learn about how it all worked before computers, and it will serve to honor the folks who made that transition from hand to digital, for their experience and skills that most designers and illustrators will never know again.
I’ve been an AIGA member since I moved to Raleigh in 2009, and in that time I have gained so much through what I have given to the chapter. As a chapter, our mission is to create a place where design thrives. What I found through my involvement with AIGA Raleigh is a place where I thrive, too.
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