Founded in 1936, Photo-Lettering was one of the earliest and most successful type houses that utilized photographic methods to produce commercial lettering and typography. In the go-go golden age of Madison Avenue advertising, Photo-Lettering’s proprietary workflow and vast library provided significant technological and stylistic advantages over its competitors. From World War II propaganda posters to iconic rock album covers and blockbuster movie logos, Photo-Lettering’s body of work represents a quintessential visual history of twentieth-century American advertising and design. Photo-Lettering eventually closed its doors in the mid-90s, failing to keep up with the digital publishing revolution and leaving some of the most illustrative display typography to gather dust and slowly decompose. The company’s ubiquitous colorful case-bound catalogs and specimen books, however, survived and became a key part of our (and many other graphic designers’) swipe file/reference library.
We developed a closer relationship with Photo-Lettering in 2002 when we asked prolific type designer Ed Benguiat if we could create a set of fonts based on five of his Photo-Lettering alphabets that had never been digitized. As Photo-Lettering’s art director from the late ’50s to the early ’90s and one of its most frequent contributors, Ed played a major role in the company’s colorful history. We visited Ed at his home near New York and worked out a plan to bring some of his dormant letterforms back to life. We also spent a day in a recording studio with Ed while he recounted some of the most memorable stories from his years at Photo-Lettering, and included them as audio tracks that we shipped with our Ed Benguiat Fonts.
While we were finishing the Ed Benguiat project in early 2003 we received a call from Bob Rose, one of Photo-Lettering’s last owners, who wanted to know if we were interested in purchasing the company’s remaining assets. Evidently we had a reputation for being both nostalgic and stupid enough to take on such a responsibility without skimming the good stuff and dumping the rest in a landfill. We headed up to New York the next day for a meeting with Bob at the Chelsea Piers Manhattan Mini Storage, where what was left of Photo-Lettering had taken up residence. The large storage unit contained over ten thousand film negatives and dozens of extremely rare and fragile glass plates on which the early Photo-Lettering alphabets were exposed. We purchased it on the spot and moved it all to a climate-controlled facility in Delaware.
Photo-Lettering then became a partnership between House Industries, Dutch font legend Erik van Blokland and prolific type designer Christian Schwartz. Together we set about carefully selecting, digitizing and enhancing some of our favorite Photo-Lettering alphabets. Using Erik’s ingenious Lettersetter system, we built a simple headline-vending website that digitally approximated Photo-Lettering’s original process. To make the unique alphabets accessible to a wider audience, we created a simple type-over-photo iPhone app. We are also remastering our digital Photo-Lettering alphabets and offering them as conventional desktop and web fonts on houseind.com. Check out Benguiat Buffalo and Davison Spencerian.
As we worked on the Photo-Lettering project, House chief lettering officer Ken Barber and his wife Lynn struck up a correspondence with Photo-Lettering’s founder, Ed Rondthaler. Rondthaler, a robust nonagenarian who was still living in the New York City suburb of Croton-on-Hudson, helped us document the history of the company by recording hours of video and audio tape. Ed was a spry 102 when we shot this snippet on English spelling reform. He passed away two years later in 2009.