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Their Letter Selves

Designers Nolen Strals And Bruce Willen Are Just the Type to Take You Through Their Alphabet Feat

Uli Loskot
FONTS OF WISDOM: (from left) Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals are bringing experimental typography to the funnel-cake-eating masses.

By J. Bowers | Posted 7/20/2005

Letters are everywhere. You’re reading some right now, in fact. But when was the last time you really noticed them? Not the sentence you’re reading, or the concepts conveyed—just the individual look and form of letters? The sinuous curve that creates an s. The sturdy heft of an h. The subtle stylistic differences between Arial and Times New Roman fonts. The dynamic pop of the lettering on laundry-detergent labels.

Occasional City Paper contributors Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen notice things like this all the time. Slim and scruffy, they could almost be brothers, except they’re more like the bespectacled guys who sat in the back of your junior-high art class obsessing over the sound effects in comic books, or scribbling knights on horseback atop the curve of a lowercase e. Now they’re the core members of Double Dagger, probably the only hardcore trio in the world that sings about the trials and triumphs of graphic design. And they’re the masterminds behind Post Typography, a two-man “design sleeper cell” specializing in art, printmaking, posters, conceptual typography, illustration, apparel, curatorial work, music, design theory, and typographical vandalism. And they’re the curatorial duo behind Artscape 2005’s Alphabet: An Exhibition of Hand-Drawn Lettering and Experimental Typography exhibit dedicated to original lettering designs.

“Typography is dead. You have killed it,” reads the manifesto on the duo’s web site, before declaring: “We are the 32-oz Big Gulp of Typography!” “We are the Times New Romans!” “We make our impact with Impact!”

“Well, all manifestos have a lot of bullshit,” admits Willen, an angular fellow sporting a self-designed Double Dagger T-shirt. “The manifesto is our semilegitimate avant-garde graphic-design theory-slash-bullshit.”

“It’s sort of half kind-of bullshit that makes fun of stereotypes,” Strals adds in his halting Georgian drawl. “But it’s half-serious.”

Post Typography’s special brand of “bullshit” began a few years ago at the Maryland Institute College of Art, when Strals, a general fine arts major who gradually gravitated to design, was drawn to Willen’s work. The two became friends and, like many guys at art school, decided to form a band.

“It was supposed to be a metal band called League of Death, which is, like, a really awesome name,” explains Willen, who provides the bass line behind Strals’ barking lead vocals. “But none of us in the band were really talented enough to play metal, so it became more of this hardcore band.”

Still, Strals and Willen designed and screen-printed a few posters for League of Death before the band morphed into Double Dagger, and Post Typography was born. Since then, their design work has been featured in Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type, Metropolis Magazine, and The Art of Modern Rock, as well as CP. Double Dagger’s released a self-titled debut on Hit Dat Records, Strals has designed countless rock show posters, they’ve spoken and played at New York’s Cooper Union, and they’ve landed teaching gigs at MICA, where they’ll be lecturing on design, typography, and screen printing this coming fall, in addition to holding full-time graphic-design jobs.

They’re busy guys—but never too busy to think about typography. So when Artscape visual arts coordinator Gary Kachadourian approached Willen about adding a typographical exhibit to 2005’s citywide lineup, both designers pounced on the opportunity, putting out an open call for designers to create their own original alphabets. The resultant show compiles 60 alphabets by 47 artists, handpicked from an international pool of more than 150 submissions.

“When you do an open call, there’s no knowing what you’re going to get,” Strals says. “It could be crappy. But we got really lucky.”

“There wasn’t a traditional curatorial process where we went out and specifically chose each piece,” Willen says. “We wanted to put it out there and see what we’d get. We did ask a few people to submit things, some of them did, some of them didn’t. Some of the people we asked didn’t get in the show. The really cool thing is, we put out this open call, but the quality of work that we got is very high.”

Organized to engage both typography geeks and people who don’t know Quark from Q-Bert, Alphabet challenges basic notions about letters, forcing viewers—readers?—to contemplate 26 old reliable friends in new, sometimes difficult ways.

“Letters are something that everyone deals with every day, but they don’t give them any thought,” Strals says. “You don’t see the objects that the letters are, but the information that they contain.”

“Usually typography functions best in the context of the way it’s used,” Willen adds. “But I think that the way we put the show together, someone who doesn’t care or know anything about lettering or typography can appreciate it. A lot of the work in the show is really interesting visually. That’s something we were keeping in mind when we were putting together the show, and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to present the alphabets as just A through Z, so you can really sort of look at the letters, how they’re different, and how each alphabet is different from the next one.”

Ranging in style from the serious to the sublimely silly, the artists in Alphabet provide plenty of ideas to mull over. Seth and Roy’s “iType” cleverly parodies the current Apple iPod silhouette ad campaign, twisting humans holding the device into letter forms. Andrew Liang created an entire font using drawings of penises. Apirat Infahsaeng’s “Seven Board of Cunning” displays every possible letter form that the artist could create using Chinese tangram puzzle tiles.

“We purposely chose a range of pieces that we thought represented different styles or different schools,” Willen says. “Someone who isn’t really familiar with lettering and typography can get a sense of the different ways that people are working with letters. And for the artists, it’s a format where people are pretty free to experiment, and work in a different way than maybe they would if they were doing something that was meant to be applied.”

Some alphabets are collaborative, such as “International Blackletter,” where Ian Lynam commissioned artists to create individual letters and numbers, or “Earring Alphabet,” which Hjarta Smarta created by photographing 26 of her friends’ earrings. Others are conceptual, such as “Body Language,” a typographical ballet in which a dancer creates letter forms by moving around in a giant spandex bag. And some alphabets are barely legible, like Drew Heffron’s “Ramen D Light,” inspired by the shapes of instant noodles.

But, as Willen is quick to point out, these aren’t really meant to be used as readable fonts. “Experimental typography pushes the boundaries of the way we think about what are letters, what’s a font, what’s a typeface, how does it work, what’s the purpose behind it,” he explains. “Some of the works in the show aren’t meant to be read. Some of them are just really conceptual, where the letters are more about the idea that they were trying to do.”

Of course, die-hard typography fans will be transfixed by the show—anyone who has ever worked closely with a graphic designer has almost definitely received a thumbnail lecture on the importance of seeing letters as more than a means to convey information. But what do Willen and Strals, Baltimore’s resident punk typography geek-savants, hope that fellow letter-form enthusiasts get out of Alphabet?

“That they should try harder,” Strals snickers. “Hopefully, they’ll be inspired by it. There were a couple alphabets that, as we were getting them in, they really blew me away and surprised me. So hopefully other people who already have an interest will have that same kind of response to them.”

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