But while we're used to seeing everyone from H&M to Lucky Charms to NYC's beloved Shake Shack use their fonts, this Saturday the Wilmington, Delaware-based design wizards take their artful approach to communication and hang it on the gallery wall. Letters and Ligatures opens at Shepard Fairey's Subliminal Projects gallery and promises to feature a new collection of prints, sculpture and installations that reflect the shop's unique design sensibility.
We spoke with designers and shop co-founders Rich Roat and Andy Cruz about the exhibit, their approach to type and more.
How did this show come about?
Andy Cruz: Shepard asked us about two years ago if we'd be into doing a show and since we like to procrastinate, I think we delayed and just asked him to put us on this year's schedule. And then about two months ago we started putting it together.
Rich Roat: It's a great audience for us out there. We just came up with a concept and started working.
How did you decide what to exhibit?
RR: Originally we thought we might be able to get away with just hanging up a bunch of pictures of our work but then that seemed really boring. Because what we do day to day can be pretty technical and boring. Of course there is an artistic element to it, but you're still making sure this letter works with that letter, to put it simply.
Anyway, we came up with (Letters and Ligatures) because it sums up what we do all day – creating a single letter and then putting a string of letters together. A lot of the stuff Shepard does is high concept, with multiple messages, so we thought if we're exhibiting in his gallery we need to be a bit more conceptual and heady about it. So, as a bit of a joke, we got a bit too heady, talking about letters being the basis of communication and all that, but it is true that if letters have this deep responsibility then they might as well look good.
For example, one of the bigger pieces in the show is an ampersand, this archaic ligature, a combination of an E and a T. So there's a lot of double entendre and concept going on there, which isn't always what we're all about but it turned out to be a pretty cool concept.
AC: The flipside is, if you're not really buying the whole concept deal, you could still take one of the letters off the wall, put it above your couch and just enjoy looking at it. We did fabric panels for the show, so it's something that is made up of letters but would also look pretty cool on your couch. Which certainly blurs the line between type and just an interesting form.
RR: I don't know how many people take letters out of context and use them as pieces of art. I think that's what differentiates us from our competitors, who mostly look at letters as a typographic system, whereas we look at how letters can look cool and then how they work as a typographic system. At the end of the day it makes our product better because while it works together, it looks cool too and adds something to that headline. And some designers might not want that, and that's cool, too. They can use Helvetica or something else that's been so beat into our psyche.
A show like this seems to be a good way to get people outside the design community to appreciate typography as an art form.
RR: Shepard has been very good over the last 10 or 15 years in helping people think differently about what they see. So hopefully we'd like people to think about letters differently. It's not really breaking completely new ground, a lot of really good designers have broken it in the past. You can go back to things like the old Fillmore posters, where the letters become the art. And that's where we are. We're doing typography and lettering that is functionally unique.
You guys always seem to have some sort of cultural touch points in your work – from the obvious collaborations like Rat Fink to the more subtle. What does this aspect add to your work that others may be missing?
RR: I think it's a matter of context. For Rat Fink, for example we took a piece of art history and something we appreciated and something as designers, whether we realized it or not, we were all affected by and basically outed it. We just said, Hey, remember all those crazy monsters you doodled in your notebooks in high school? Here's the guy that invented that style. And we're going to make a product that actually works! I can't buy a bag of Doritos without seeing Fink Sans right now, so obviously someone at Doritos decided it worked for them. We think that's really cool from a cultural standpoint. Taking something and showing our customers a product with a deep story behind it.
AC: We thought about having this gallery show revolve around our next offering, which, similar to the Rat Fink collection, we're doing a whole product line with Alexander Girard, with fonts and a lot of other things. But as much as we want to champion Alex and his art, we wanted to step back and let the type be the focus on the show.
RR: It's just removing all the cast of characters and influences and see if these characters can hang on their own.
Letters and Ligatures runs from November 8th to December 5th. For more information, go here.