Lettering Large

Lettering Large is the title of a new book by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić that looks at the "art and design of monumental typography." Published by The Monacelli Press, the book highlights the cross-disciplinary expressions of architecture, art, typography, graphic design and landscape, many of which use type to transform buildings and spaces in dramatic ways.
We asked a few questions about the book to Heller, a prolific author and editor of over 100 books on design, and Ilič, an illustrator and graphic designer, both of who teach at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Their responses are below, as are some of our favorite projects culled from the pages of Lettering Large.
World-Architects: In the book you mention "the number of typographic shrines, monuments, and sculptures, designed for function and folly, has grown exponentially in the past three or four decades." Why do you think large-scale typographical expression is so popular? What makes it so appealing?

Steven Heller: Type is just more integrated into our lives. It not only holds meaning and tells stories; it has a sculptural quality. In this age of limited time, large type keeps passersby interested in something for more than a nanosecond. I think we all want to hold attention of others. Type, words, sentences, etc. does that.

Mirko Ilić: Architects have always loved type. And when you see their blueprints and sketches, just think of Frank Lloyd Wright, they are always filled with beautiful typefaces. Today, every single gadget that architects use is presented with typography and fonts. If you are creative or imaginative, there are no limits.
W-A: Being a platform focused on contemporary architecture, we're most enamored by the examples – and there are many in the book – where type transforms a space or a building's facade. What are one or two of your favorite projects in the book, ones that transform the architecture that physically or figuratively supports them, and why do you like them?

SH: Is it cheating to say ALL of them? Historically speaking, I've always loved Fortunato Depero's Book Pavilion from 1927. What FUN! The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, with its gigantic see-through letters, is such a grand event. My patriotic side is rekindled by the border crossings from Canada to the U.S. You can't say you stumbled into the country without knowing it. It’s hard to pick a few. They all remind me of the joy I felt at the NYC 1964 World's Fair.

MI: No doubt it is the Korea Pavilion, designed by Mass Studies, from the Shanghai Expo 2010. The pavilion is a merger of sign + type and space + architecture. The building was created in the shape of type. The grid of the aluminum-gray façade has Korean characters laser cut into it, which look perfect because the Korean characters are very square and the strokes are at right angles, so they fit the grid perfectly. For contrast, the inside of the pavilion is divided into colorful square blocks that look almost like children’s lettered blocks, and every square contains Korean calligraphic characters. Everything about the project says Korea. And ultimately, isn't that the purpose of a pavilion representing Korea?
W-A: Thinking of "environmental type" in architectural terms brings to mind the famous postmodern distinction between ducks and decorated sheds from Learning from Las Vegas. Traditionally type would seem to align with the latter in terms of conveying messages and meaning, yet many examples in your book transform type into duck-like sculptures through their scale and design. How do you see the role of type in regards to this long held distinction?

SH: Funny. I used to love the Big Duck in Riverhead, Long Island. This book covers all the angles. But I believe the two roles are blending. The House of Terror in Budapest, for instance, has the look of a "spectacular" (which is how I read the Duck) but also serves as a decorated shed, where a building becomes the platform for a message. Many of the designers represented attempt to find the balance of "entertainment" (or spectacle) and story.

MI: Type/letters are the most recognizable symbolized forms in designs created by any culture or civilization. Traveling through an unknown part of a country and seeing a large letter "A" is something immediately recognizable and familiar and therefore you are drawn to it. It's like seeing a duck.
W-A: How important are the usual details of typography at a larger scale? How important is it if an application of environmental type is Helvetica versus some other font, for example?

SH: This depends on the goal of the message. Some type works well as pattern, other as billboard. But personally, if one goes to the trouble and expense of lettering large, then why use neutral faces? Why not have fun with it. I'd rather see a nuanced typeface than an everyday regular. Conversely, a good designer can give a born-again quality to the dead or boring.

MI: Nobody has created a roadside attraction for the world's smallest frying pan - it is too hard to see. However, if you have the largest frying pan in the world – people will see it from far and want to visit. Andy Warhol once said, “Make it big, people will like it.” Helvetica, along with some other typeface styles, is often used environmentally and is essentially just the same as incorporating the Helvetica font in design. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t.  When Helvetica was first created, there were just about 300-400 typefaces. Now there are 30,000-40,000 typefaces, so the range of choices is bigger and better.
W-A: There is an obvious blurring of disciplines – architecture, art, typography, graphic design, even landscape – throughout much of the book. How do you see large-scale type in this regard?

SH: This quality reflects exactly what's going on in graphic design today. It is a patchwork of media influences and applications. Type is not just the province of graphic designers; architecture is not just for architects. We live in a mashup time.

MI: Type is the best multitasker of them all.
W-A: Does compiling the projects and writing the book make you think of unexplored avenues? What direction do you see architects, artists and designers taking large-scale typography?

SH: Interesting question. As you flip through the book you see collaborations. That's the future. I'd love to see a skyscraper that reads as a word. Wouldn't it be great (or not) if the Freedom Tower read "FREEDOM" down the side from top to bottom? That said, I worry that large-scale type will become just another fad and we'll be sick of it fairly soon.

MI: The sky is the limit. Literally. Or, as with some examples in the book, you can see from the sky that there is no limit.

Email interviews conducted by John Hill.

John Hill
Published on
Feb 24, 2014