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.
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
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.