The Eternal Letter and Monumental Inscriptions

Paul Shaw’s new book, The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital, is a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated study of imperial Roman capital letters (as seen, most influentially, on Trajan’s Column) and their use in modern typography. You’d recognize them today, mostly likely, through Carol Twombly’s typeface Trajan, which has become massively overexposed via movie posters (an appendix to The Eternal Letter counts 450 examples between 1991 and 2011).

A lot of the typographic subtlety here is beyond me, but The Eternal Letter also includes a very interesting interview with John Everett Benson and his son Nick, letter carvers and owners of the John Stevens Shop. The Stevens Shop (whose work I mentioned here) are the preeminent letter carvers for official and semi-official American monuments these days: the interview is illustrated with examples from their work on the Four Freedoms monument in New York City, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the National World War II Memorial, among others.

Putting the samples up close to each other is interesting, because it reveals some the differences in how they’ve lettered the various monuments.

The lettercarving for the National World War II Memorial is very Roman, but not – as I wouldn’t have realized until being exposed to an entire book on Roman capitals – entirely based on the imperial model. Though it has the lengthy, bracketed serifs (that’s type language for serifs that have a curve, not a hard edge, where they connect with the letter itself) of the imperial style, the variation in the thickness of stroke is far less than in the letters on Trajan’s Column. Its a hefty design for a hefty edifice.

The inscription at Four Freedoms park is far more modern, relatively hard-edged and crisp. Christopher Calderhead interviewed Nick Benson about it in an issue of Letter Arts Review (check your library; mine had it via EBSCOhost), and included specimens of the full alphabet. There, Benson described the need for a style that would resonate with both Roosevelt’s era and Kahn’s design for the monument itself: “Looking at the wall, I wanted to have a big block of modernist text, similar to the use of Futura in the 1930s or 40s. I wanted to get some of that flavor in there. The monument is so architecturally pure. I thought a modernist approach would work well.”

Still, looking closely, you can see the slight splay at the end of each stroke that distinguishes Benson’s letterforms from those that are strictly geometric. To Calderhead, he says “I injected my own John Stevens Shop style into it. I added a very slight splay to the strokes. It’s ridiculously subtle.” More evocatively, he told the New Yorker that it was “a little bit of evidence of the human hand—a very subtle sweep of a stroke.”

The Bensons’ discussion of their work on the MLK Memorial in The Eternal Letter is fascinating, combining the artistic and the contextual issues surrounding their work there. The alphabet they designed for that project, which is reproduced in the book, is a humanist sans serif letter that is freer, more flexible, and less restrained than either other design.

This is John Everett:

The Martin Luther King alphabet, a sans serif letter somewhere between the Greco-Roman stone graffiti models and such modern work as Hans Meier’s Syntax or Carol Twombly’s Lithos was drawn to meet very specific needs …
The American black community was the client for this job, and had no desire for traditional Latin, continental, or Anglo-Saxon letterform. Furthermore, just when the MLK job was maturing, a strong and intelligent criticism of tribal African and “Black” poster-style letterforms appeared in the press. We had first considered this avenue, but the criticism linked it to slavery. In that precise time frame, it was thus unacceptable …
Nick and I both love the early, Greco-Roman, sans serif capitals. Many were carved directly into bronze or copper plates. In stone they have the dynamism of graffiti, with the glorious Greek skeletons overlaid by the barbaric aspirations of early Rome.

And this is Nick:

The sans serif form I chose for the MLK Memorial also had much to do with its architectural style. It is certainly considered contemporary design, with nods to the classical world. The Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation liked the idea of the lettering having some contemporary overtones.

The whole discussion, and the rest of the book, is fascinating, even for someone who has to do a lot of squinting at samples and flipping to glossaries to keep up with the discussion.


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