Marcels letters, p.4

Marcel's Letters, page 4


Marcel's Letters

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  The following summer we adopted Hoover, though he was nameless on the day we carried him home. He was a nine-week-old roly-poly ball of floppy ears, pleading eyes, and massive retriever paws. We were smitten. As he raced across our deck, nose down, sucking up everything in his path, our neighbor commented, “He’s a vacuum cleaner.” Hoover was the perfect name.

  The first years in our little house were bliss. After moving six times during the first five years of our marriage, we felt settled. We nested. We talked about having children, but as it turned out, our family never grew beyond our tight little trio.

  During those years, I always—though sometimes lazily—kept an eye out for the perfect reference specimen for my font. I looked at museums, in antique stores, on eBay. I hoped to find a specimen with the scratchy character of Thomas Jefferson Rusk’s writing, yet it had to be different somehow. I did not know precisely what it would look like, but I trusted I would know it once I saw it.

  I assumed my specimen would be from the late 1800s. I had a particular weakness for handwriting from that era. The combination of graceful restraint and wild flourish appealed to me in the same way someone can be unstoppably drawn to a certain piece of music, a certain flower, a certain shade of blue.

  Along the way, I acquired other typographic gems. Many were a dollar or two, and something about them caught my eye: an 1853 Valentine’s Day poem written with a meticulous, rolling cursive; an 1857 legal filing with a tornado-shaped swirl below the lawyer’s signature; an 1863 bank receipt with a spectacular dollar sign; a wedding invitation from 1900 that featured a hand-drawn nesting dove. The specimens had no value to anyone other than a typography lover. In fact, the bank clerk might have had a good laugh at the notion that one hundred and fifty years down the road, someone would buy a scrap of paper that held his flourished scribble.

  As much as I treasured those specimens, none were right for a font. The samples were not comprehensive enough. I needed to find a specimen that included numbers, along with a near-complete set of upper and lowercase letters. So I continued to look.

  The financial services company where Kathy and I worked eliminated our entire department in one unceremonious snip. Forty-one of us were trimmed off as though we were corporate hangnails. Kathy and I had become good friends and we entertained the notion of starting a business together. Timing was not right, though, so she took a job at a medical device company, and I took a job at a design firm in Minneapolis. We remained in frequent contact, and two years later, when I decided to freelance, Kathy became my first official client.

  The first morning as my own boss, a Monday, I could barely contain the swell of excitement. Options and opportunities seemed limitless. I envisioned renting an office in a hip warehouse with soaring windows, a shiny espresso machine, and sleek leather chairs. Bookcases would be artfully arranged with design annuals and type-related knickknacks. Enormous metal letters salvaged from some old factory would hang on exposed-brick walls.

  That was the long-term plan, anyway. In the short term, I set up my computer on a desk in a spare bedroom. Books and supplies were stacked in the closet.

  That first evening, Aaron took me out to dinner and we toasted to all the possibilities in my exciting new venture. The next morning, the two of us sat on the couch, glued to the live news feed of the 9/11 attacks. Fireballs consumed every shred of optimism. Petty, materialistic wishes for a shiny espresso machine and sleek leather chairs were replaced by disbelief, helplessness, rage. It was unclear how any of us would move forward in this scary new world.

  Stillwater is a city of eighteen thousand people twelve miles east of our home. It is nestled along the picturesque St. Croix River, which feeds into the Mississippi twenty or so miles downstream. In the town’s earliest days, trappers, lumbermen, and fearless pioneers scratched out a living along the river, and as the area was settled, sawmills, mercantiles, and inns went up along Stillwater’s bustling main street.

  Those historic brick and stone buildings now housed restaurants; shops selling designer kitchen tools, gourmet olive oils, or high-end paper goods; and antique shops peddling a typical mix of dishes, furniture, and books.

  In the months after 9/11, Aaron and I went to Stillwater often. We did not understand at the time, but those trips were driven by a yearning to be surrounded by simplicity and nostalgia. For a couple of hours, Stillwater allowed us to trade the reality of the still-smoldering Ground Zero and threats from al-Qaeda for billowing American flags and a communal sense of kindness.

  Antiquing with Aaron was always a game. I would hold up some worn-down, obscure item and he would identify what it was: a cigar press, a sugar mold, a hand-held cranberry harvester. If he did not know, he would invent some fantastical use: a nineteenth-century pen warmer, a chicken sorter, a lime peeler. Sometimes I was gullible enough to believe him.

  It was during one of those trips that I found Marcel’s letters. What immediately caught my eye was the flourished endearment, “Mes chères petites.” The left leg of the M swooped far to the side and ended with a little loop that made my heart swell. The scratchy, old, ink-on-paper writing was exactly what I had hoped to find. As I stood in the store, I knew with certainty that this handwriting would be the basis for my font.

  The handwritten letters were a variety of shapes and sizes. Many were single sheets with writing on the front and back, others were four pages, folded. Some papers were a light butter-colored yellow, other papers were dark like marigold. Some letters had been written with blue ink, others with brown or black. One had been written in pencil. But the signature at the bottom of each letter showed they had all been written by the same man, a man named Marcel.

  Aaron looked over my shoulder to see what had so thoroughly seized my attention. I held up one letter, smiling ear to ear.

  “For my font,” I whispered. The store was nearly empty. Secrecy was unnecessary.

  “Ahhh, the font.” He had heard me mention the project many times, though this was the first time it was more than an abstract, distant idea. “What are they in, French?”

  I nodded. That was my guess, anyway.

  “Um, honey, you can’t read French,” he whispered, as though he wanted to remind me of something obvious I had forgotten.

  “Yes, I can, look: Lily, Jacqueline,” I said as I pointed to names on the front of the letter. I did not recognize anything else, so I flipped the page over and pointed out a few more words: Paris, Denise, 1,300 kilometers. I pointed to another phrase, and in a sultry voice whispered, “Beaucoup de caresses.” I swiveled to look at Aaron and gloat over the words I recognized.

  Aaron dropped his chin and rolled his eyes.

  It did not matter to me what the original letters said or what language they had been written in. For the purpose of the font, I only needed to reference the shape of the letters. An a in French looked the same as an a in English, after all. The curves, lines, and loops were what mattered. And these curves, lines, and loops were beautiful.

  The letters were not expensive, but I had not been freelancing long and economic uncertainty was on everyone’s mind. I decided I could afford to buy four letters without feeling guilty.

  The dates on the letters ranged from early 1943 to mid-1944. I was surprised they were that modern; from the style of the handwriting, I assumed they were older.

  Some letters were embellished with watery blue and red stripes. Perhaps it was because of the abundant post-9/11 displays of US patriotism—American flags flew everywhere—but the blue and red stripes struck me as a lovely gesture of Marcel’s French national pride.

  As I shuffled through the letters, culling out favorites, I noticed a swastika, then green and brown postage stamps with Hitler’s profile. I did not give much weight to those things. They were artifacts from the era, disconnected from Marcel’s beautiful writing. Or perhaps I dismissed those things because I wanted them to be disconnected.

  A bored saleswoman leaned against the wall behind the register. I inquired where the let
ters had come from. She shrugged.

  I shuffled through the letters a second time. No question existed I was going to buy the first letter that caught my eye. In addition to the swash M in the flourished greeting, it had large, clear, careful writing. It was simply more beautiful than any other, and it seemed undeniable the page had been written with affection. Other pages made the cut if I noted particularly interesting swashes or letters. One letter included lots of numbers, and I knew I needed numbers.

  I shuffled through the stack a third time. Then a fourth. Settling on four letters was impossible, but I narrowed it down to five: four letters and a postcard.

  The handwriting on the postcard was not particularly beautiful, but the card included Marcel’s last name, a return address in Berlin, and an address in France. As I shuffled through Marcel’s letters, I thought about the font based on Thomas Jefferson Rusk’s writing and realized it might be worthwhile to have basic information about the man who had written these letters.

  Later, as Aaron and I strolled down the sidewalk, I cradled the paper bag holding my newly purchased treasures. “Do you even know how to design a font?” he asked.

  “No,” I admitted as Aaron’s eyebrows shot up. “I’ll figure it out.” Creating the font seemed like a technicality now that I had the perfect specimen.

  “How long is it going to take?”

  I shrugged. “A couple months?” I promised Aaron I would work on my silly side project only after all paying client work was done.

  After making high-resolution scans of Marcel’s letters, I pressed the five sheets of paper inside the front cover of a sketchbook for safekeeping. I printed oversize black-and-white copies of each scanned page, then with a yellow highlighter and a pencil marked individual letters I wanted to incorporate into the font: a favorite a, an interesting t, a p that swooped high before angling low. Many were the same individual letters I noticed in the store, but other favorites emerged only after I scrutinized each and every line of handwriting. I did not know if this was how other font designers began projects—I did not know any other font designers—but it was the only starting point I could think of.

  I enlarged scans of favorite individual letters so each was as large as a hand. I set the scans over a light table and fastidiously traced each letter, carefully replicating every minuscule nick and every place where the ink feathered to nothingness. The work seemed to transport me fifteen years back in time to Letterform class, when I labored over Professor DeHoff’s assignments.

  Once I assembled a complete alphabet of traced letters. I scanned each pencil outline, then over the course of months—evenings and weekends as I could carve out time—I recreated the same detailed nicks and feathered edges in Adobe Illustrator, a vector-based software program I often used with client projects. Each letter was composed of a thousand or more tiny line segments, but every detail seemed critical if I was going to faithfully replicate Marcel’s handwriting. I still did not know how the individual letters would become a font, but I read somewhere I would be able to import Illustrator outlines into font design software.

  Initial tracing and final glyph

  Years later, I learned those two time-consuming steps—tracing by hand, then outlining in Illustrator—could have been accomplished in hours with a few clicks of a mouse. I was unsurprised when I learned that. Throughout the project, if two ways existed to accomplish the same thing, I inevitably chose the slower, more labor-intensive process. I did not do it on purpose. I just seemed destined to choose the least efficient option.

  If I had automated those steps, though, I would have missed gaining an intimate familiarity with Marcel’s handwriting. The loop at the bottom of the z, the break in ink on the upstroke of the q, the hint of squareness in the bowl of the g: those were the details I might have overlooked if I had automated tracing and outlining. Because I had done the work by hand, I knew each letter’s idiosyncrasies. I knew the rhythm of the writing. I could replicate the sweep of Marcel’s hand. For those reasons, every hour spent tracing and outlining felt eminently worthwhile.

  Since individual letters were in Illustrator—not in a font program—I could not type an a on my keyboard and make an a appear anywhere. The only way to preview complete words was to manually assemble one letter at a time within Illustrator. It was akin to moving individual jigsaw puzzle pieces around a table filled with hundreds of other puzzle pieces. It was inefficient and impractical, and some of the first words I tested were “bullshit” and “waste of time.”

  Those first words revealed surprising—and fundamental—flaws. Varying angles, heights, and inconsistent thicknesses resulted in a hodge-podge of styles. It made sense once I realized the root cause: I had selected favorite individual letters from five separate pages. On some pages, Marcel’s handwriting had been small and condensed. On others, it had been loopy and loose. In some places Marcel’s handwriting had a sharp-angled slope. In others, his handwriting had been nearly vertical.

  I needed a standard to hold every individual letter to. I decided my favorite letter—the one with the large handwriting and the beautiful M—would be the archetype. Months disappeared coaxing angles, heights, and thicknesses into compliance. Some letters were maddening in their deception. I would make them the proper mathematic angle, height, or thickness, but additional optical adjustments would be needed.

  “For you,” I said as I slid a small box across the table. It was one of those brick-size cardboard boxes for schoolchildren chock-full of pens and pencils, tape, and pointy pencil erasers. It was a silly back-to-school gift, but it made Aaron smile.

  After eight years working as an emergency room nurse, Aaron was on the verge of burning out. He decided to go back to school. It was impossible for Aaron to work during the two and a half-year master’s program, so I took every freelance project I could get my hands on. Most were projects I enjoyed: brochures and marketing materials for high-tech and medical clients. But to make ends meet, I worked on projects I despised: forms, banner ads, business cards. My evenings and weekends were consumed by client work; Aaron’s were spent studying pharmacology. At times, months elapsed without working on the font. But it was always in the back of my mind, patiently waiting for time and attention.

  After Aaron graduated, I scaled my workload down to a more sustainable level and decided it was time to finally purchase the font design software, FontLab Studio.

  I flipped through the 923-page user guide, attempting to decipher instructions on auto-hinting alignment zones, editing axis graphs, building anchor composites. The user guide made as much sense to me in English as it would have had it been written in French, and each attempt to transfer the Illustrator outlines into a font file was a spectacular failure. I would only get so far before trashing the file in frustration. Other times, the software would crash or freeze, and the decision to restart would be made for me.

  In late 2008, I stumbled across an ad for an introductory FontLab class. It was exactly what I needed. “This class will introduce you to the basic skills necessary for the wild journey into the mysterious world of type design,” the ad read. “You will expand lettering to a full-functioning font, scan type specimens of your own handwriting, and learn the basics of designing and generating a typeface with FontLab.”

  The one-day class was sponsored by the New York Type Director’s Club. I asked Aaron if he would want to travel with me. Aaron had been at his new job less than three months; he could not even ask for the time off.

  “You should go,” he insisted. Within an hour, I had reserved my spot in class and purchased a plane ticket to New York.

  Nine of us attended the class. The instructor, James, asked each of us to introduce ourselves, so we went around the small room and stated our name and where we were from. One of the students expressed surprise I had traveled so far just for the class. I explained I had never seen anything of the sort offered in the Midwest.

  James began by showing us how to establish a new file, and how each letter—called
a glyph—was structured. Left and right side bearings defined the width; baseline, x-height, ascender, and descender measurements defined the height. James demonstrated several techniques to construct glyphs, then showed us how to preview and test glyphs using the Preview Panel. I carefully replicated every one of James’s movements as if I were a dancer learning intricate choreography.

  Addressing every tool and tip was impossible in a one-day class. James did not even mention kerning, which was the programming of incremental spaces between problematic letter combinations such as VA or LI. Years later, kerning would almost bring my project to an excruciating end, but in that moment, sitting in that room, I remained blissfully unaware of the hurdles that awaited.

  In the late afternoon, James gave us time to play with the software and put our new skills to work. By 5:00, my font included seven wonky glyphs. They lacked elegance and symmetry, but I did not care. I now knew how to get started, and those seven glyphs seemed as precious as seven nuggets of gold.

  That night, I propped my twelfth-floor hotel window open an inch, which was enough to keep out the December chill, but enough to let in sounds of taxis accelerating, far-off sirens echoing through concrete canyons, and the endless thunk-thunk of vehicles driving over a manhole cover on the street below. Dreams of glyphs, side bearings, and serifs swirled together with the sounds of the city.

  Aaron had encouraged me to spend Saturday in the city. I felt a sliver of guilt about the extra night’s hotel expense, but after the previous two and a half years, I needed an infusion of inspiration. As I wandered Manhattan’s streets, I let my eyes and ears fill with the city’s treasures: a brassy Salvation Army band playing familiar Christmas tunes, festive window displays, constellations on Grand Central Terminal’s ceiling, ice skaters spinning on the rink at Rockefeller Plaza, stately galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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