Family of Letters

This past December, a good friend sent me a copy of The Printer, a monthly journal targeted to the letterpress printing trade. My friends often send me materials like this as fodder to include in my daily design blog, Letterology. I originally began the blog three years ago as a teaching aid for my design students at the Seattle Central Community College. These days, Letterology is very much a public site where I report on topics mostly of relevance to typography and book design geeks. At first I gave that copy of The Printer just a cursory read, but soon after I found myself falling down a research rabbit hole of typographic riches. Thanks to a small article I nearly overlooked, I wound up discovering a truly American story of a family's long tradition and love of letters.

On the front page of the trade journal was an article about Matthew Carter winning a $500K MacArthur Foundation genius grant. When this news was originally reported last September, typographers and designers across the globe rejoiced and reveled in the recognition endowed upon the legendary type designer, as it was the first time one of their own had received such acclaim and status.

Far from the front page, just above the ad section, a small headline titled “Art of Carved Letter / recommended by Klinke” caught my eye. Mr. Klinke had me at the description “pure lettering entertainment.” Enough said—a few clicks later and I was watching a video of the classic 1978 documentary Final Marks: The Art of the Carved Letter, about The John Stevens Shop, a stone letter-cutting shop in Newport, Rhode Island, that was originally established in 1705. The film chronicled the work of John “Fud” Benson, owner and then principal designer—and, arguably, one of the world's most accomplished letter-cutting artists. When Final Marks was originally produced, the John Stevens Shop was noted as being one of the oldest businesses in the United States still in continuous operation, nearly three centuries since it was founded. John Benson's father, John Howard Benson, acquired the John Stevens Shop in the 1920s and carried on the Stevens' mission. Remarkably, it is still in operation in the same location, with the same name, and now in the third generation of the Benson family.

Final Marks: The Art of the Carved Letter begins with a review of some of the John Stevens Shop's most demanding works, including monumental inscriptions at the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy's grave in Arlington Cemetery, completed by John Benson at age 26. The film shows Benson's step-by-step creation of celebrated typographer Michael Bixler's “Alphabet Stone and visits an 18th-century New England common burying ground where we have an opportunity to see, through Benson's own eyes, some of the beautiful enduring gravestone inscriptions—the final marks of those early colonists' biographies. To this day they are a lasting reminder of the perpetuity of the stonecutter's artful hand.

The next generation

As I prepared to post about Final Marks I was inspired to do more research into the family's history. I learned that John “Fud” Benson had a son by the name of Nicholas Benson, who began working in his dad's shop when he was just 15. Nicholas took the reins from his father in 1993 and became the third generation of Bensons to cut letters in the John Stevens Shop. John had clocked 35 years by then and wanted to devote more time to monument inscription projects such as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was still under construction in Washington at the time. Nicholas had already received training at the Basel School of Design in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied calligraphy, typography and drawing under Andre Gurtler, Christian Mengelt and Armin Hoffman, and was well prepared to carry on his family's business.

In 2010, Nicholas Benson, at 46, joined the rarefied fellowship of celebrated typographer Matthew Carter, then 72, when he too was named a MacArthur Fellow for his “uncompromising craftsmanship and beauty in form and line.” This was a remarkable achievement—never before had any type designer been so lauded, and now, in the same year, there were two famed “men of letters” being heralded for their lives' work.

According to the MacArthur Foundation's website, Benson's inscriptions and decorative reliefs can be seen on family memorials and buildings throughout the country, including the National Gallery of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, Brown University and the National World War II Memorial in Washington. When designing letters to be cut in stone, Nicholas Benson claims he “carefully crafts every detail of each letterform… beyond just the word, the letter and line spacing.” He also has to consider the cadence of the text, the use of negative space, and even how the impact of shifting light and weather can influence them. Recently he has worked on designs for the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and has developed an original font design drawing upon classical Greek letterforms and a more modern sans-serif script. With nearly all cut-stone lettering produced by machines these days, Benson is committed to sustaining the art and traditions of the hand-carved letter. To ensure the legacy continues, he devotes time to teaching his skills to young designers at nearby Rhode Island School of Design.

For anyone with even a simple appreciation of the letterform, 2010 will be noted in the annals of typographic record as the year type designers and lettering artists were celebrated for their distinguished skills and contributions they make to our lives. Both Carter and Benson are living proof of this. Should there ever be a typographic design center established in the United States, I hope the founders will mount a hand-carved stone marker there in recognition of their influential achievements and life's work!


When the Benson's both received word of my Letterology posting regarding their family story, they each responded with a kind note. John Benson wrote to me:

I don't know if you were aware that my younger brother Richard, Emeritus Dean of the Yale School of Art, is also a MacArthur Fellow. In truth he is the brightest of we Bensons. He was recently celebrated by a five-room show at MOMA of the material he assembled for his book, published by that Museum, on the history of printed images. 

In my mind, it just doesn't get any better than this. The Benson family story is also a real American story, narrated through the lens of ingenuity and artistic skill and expressed through design's DNA: letters.