As Tiffany Meyers observes in her overview of the 100 winners, one can’t peg 2009 as the year of any specific color or typographic convention. But the winning projects are reflective of today’s increasingly diverse design discipline. In fact, one has to wonder if there is any longer such a thing as a design discipline—in light of today’s fast-changing and even amorphous practice, the word discipline seems a little out of place.
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Kristin L. Wolfe interviews Ed Benguiat, the architect of type. His typefaces are his children. In print they’re his music.  
May/June 2005
Q&A with Ed Benguiat
by Kristin L. Wolfe

With a scratchy brooklyn accent, jazz music in his heart, and 70-something years under his belt, Ed Benguiat just happens to be one of the most well-known (and entertaining) typographic designers around. He’s witty, has a movie-plot past, and even pilots his own plane. But perhaps what he’s best known for is designing over 600 type fonts, including Korinna, ITC’s Souvenir, Tiffany, Benguiat, Bookman, Modern Roman, Edwardian Script, and Caslon no. 225, and his type designs have set the stage for typography and other letterers since the 1970s. He also played a major role in establishing the International Typeface Corp., the first independent licensing company for type designers.

Benguiat’s typefaces and logotypes include work for major publications such as Esquire, The New York Times, New York, and McCall’s, and for major corporations such as AT&T, A&E, and Estée Lauder. He was also responsible for the poster lettering on movies like Super Fly and Planet of the Apes. Most recently, in the fall of 2004, Benguiat and the Delaware-based type foundry and design studio, House Industries, released a special font collection in his honor: The Ed Benguiat Font Collection. The CD includes five Benguiat-inspired typefaces and a series of whimsical icons, dubbed “bengbats,” an exclusive interview with the legend conducted by the House Industries sta., and Benguiat’s own jazz percussion in the background.

As a small-time letter enthusiast, I wanted to talk to Benguiat and learn a little more about what stirs his pot and keeps him interested in his work all these years.

KW: So, your father was a display director for Bloomingdale’s. Do you think this exposure inspired you to work with letters?

EB: No, not really. I fell into the job, like most people. I worked in a studio in a publishing company and then it just happened. Pieces rub o. you like other people and you become what you become. For conversational purposes though, I’m really a musician, a jazz percussionist. One day I went to the musician’s union to pay dues and I saw all these old people who were playing bar mitzvahs and Greek weddings. It occurred to me that one day that’s going to be me, so I decided to become an illustrator. And I can’t draw anything —I mean, if man created it I can, but if it’s from God or nature, I can’t. So, I moved away from that and did the things you do when you’re on the job learning: mechanicals and paste-ups. My first job was as a cleavage retoucher. There was an office meeting about stopping Howard Hughes from showing voluptuous parts of the human body, so I was responsible for taking away the cleavage, not putting it in as they do today.

KW: Even taking cleavage away must not have been a bad job for a young man.

EB: Nope.

KW: Does music serve as a release for you? Do you see a connection between music and your work as a designer?

EB: Yes, definitely. I use this expression with my class all the time: “Music is nothing more than placing sounds in their proper order so they are pleasing to the ear.” What’s a layout? Placing things in their proper order so they are pleasing to the eye. You get feedback from other musicians when you are playing and bounce things back and forth at each other to make the tune sound better (or worse). Same goes for design. That’s one way music and design connect for me. I made a good living as a musician for a while. I was the No. 3 drummer in the United States, playing in big bands with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. It’s still a part of my life. At my funeral, I’d like to have someone play a drum solo.

KW: Do you have a favorite or least-favorite typeface?

EB: Well, they are all my children, you see. I like them all, but don’t use them all. I actually use Helvetica [he laughs] a lot. Or Bodoni. You know, it’s a stable face.

KW: How do you name typefaces? I’ve heard some funny stories.

EB: I started off by naming them after people I love, like my children and wives, and even ex-wives. However, all the fonts that are in the computer from ITC, I didn’t name. It just depends. I have one font that is totally new, done from scratch, and it’s called Benguiat. It’s designed with an ethnic sense for pizzas, divorces, and bar mitzvahs.

KW: Can you explain how you feel about designing on the computer? You refer to a time as B.C.—before computer—but you are not totally averse to it, are you?

EB: No, but I still draw. Not all by hand, but I draw the idea, then sketch out the prominent letters very carefully. Then I have people that I’ve worked with for 30 years who know how to work with me, and they execute it. The theory is this: I can design the building, but I don’t have to build it, like an architect. They don’t put the names of the bricklayers on the building, but they do put the name of the construction company. That’s normal. I always give credit to the person who constructed it, but I design it. You know, the most beautiful thing is a blank sheet of paper before you put a pencil or pen to it. Your mind sees what you want to do, but then you put it down with a pencil or pen and you think, “Geez, that’s terrible.” Then you throw the paper away. If your hand can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it onscreen.

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