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January 10, 2009, 1:00 PM

Helvetica: Typography and Literacy

Film Screening and Roundtable
Participants: Christopher Calderhead, Arem Duplessis, Steven Heller (moderator), Elinor Aishah Holland, Gary Hustwit, Elaine Lustig Cohen

Please print or type are the instructions on most application forms. This injunction against cursive handwriting highlights the distinction, learned at an early age, between the printed word as an expression of personal style and as a purely utilitarian form. The old Woodstock typewriter had its own distinctive typeface, a detail that was used to convict Alger Hiss in one of the first evidentiary cases in which type emerged as an element of forensics. The modern computer offers a lexicon of fonts, from the common Times New Roman to Arial and Gothic, which have increased the awareness of typography as a ubiquitous yet under-appreciated art form. But what is typography's relationship to literacy? Is it a muse or an eminence grise (providing the vessel in which content is revealed), or does it conform to the Bauhaus idea of form following function? Examining typography in both its present-day and pre-technological forms, in the work of biblical scribes, calligraphers, and contemporary graphic designers, this roundtable will consider the esthetics of typography as an art form along with its utilitarian function as a means for the brain to process language. The discussion will be preceded by a screening of Helvetica, a film by Gary Hustwit, which explores the relationship between typography and global visual culture.

Christopher Calderhead is a lettering artist, author, and educator. His artwork incorporates hand-lettering in a variety of media, original texts, and photography. He is editor and designer of Letter Arts Review, a quarterly magazine that features lettering, typography, and calligraphy from around the world. He also created the series of small books, Letters From New York. His other books include Illuminating the Word: The Making of The Saint Johns Bible. He was elected a Fellow of the London-based Society of Scribes and Illuminators in 1988. He has taught workshops across the United States and Great Britain, and currently teaches at Bronx Community College and at the Pratt Institute.

Arem Duplessis is currently the Art Director of The New York Times Magazine. He has held design-director and art-director positions at various titles, including Spin, GQ and Blaze magazines. His work has been consistently recognized by the Society of Publication Designers, The Art Directors Club , Communication Arts Magazine, The Type Directors Club, The AIGA, Print Magazine, American Photography, American Illustration and Photo District News. He was nominated for a National Magazine Award in Design from the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2004 while working for Spin Magazine. Duplessis is an Instructor at The School of Visual Arts and has lectured worldwide. His work has been published in several books, including AREA 2, 100 Graphic Designers, 10 Curators, Magazine Design That Works by Stacey King, and 100 Habits of Successful Publication Designers.

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, and co-counder of the MFA in Design Criticism. He was Art Director at the New York Times for 33 years and now writes the "Visuals" column for the Book Review. He is the author of over 100 books on graphic design and popular and visual culture, including a series of books on art deco graphics, a biography of Paul Rand, and a critical history of the Swastika. He is currently writing Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State, for which he has been collecting the graphic artifacts and detritus of the 20th century's principal dictatorships.

Elinor Aishah Holland studied religion at Temple University and Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a student of renowned calligrapher Mohammed Zakariya, and practices Islamic calligraphy in the traditional method of the Ottoman Hattat. Holland is also a student and teacher of Latin script calligraphy. She has been teaching both forms of calligraphy to students of all ages at schools, museums, and other learning institutions since 1994, including Long Island University, the Smithsonian Institute, the Center for Book Arts, NY Society of Scribes, and the Detroit Institute of Art. She has exhibited in a number of universities and art centers around the country. Her freelance work includes private commissions and commercial pieces.

Gary Hustwit is an independent filmmaker based in New York and London. He has produced six feature documentaries, including I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the award-winning film about the band Wilco; Moog, the documentary about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog; and Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, a tour film about the band Death Cab for Cutie. Hustwit worked with punk label SST Records in the late 1980s, ran the independent book publishing house Incommunicado Press during the 1990s, was Vice President of the media website Salon.com in 2000, and started the indie DVD label Plexifilm in 2001. In 2007 Hustwit made his directorial debut with Helvetica, which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2007, and has since screened in over 200 cities worldwide. Hustwit was nominated for the 2008 Independent Spirit "Truer Than Fiction" Award for Helvetica.

Elaine Lustig Cohen is an artist whose work includes painting, collage, photography, and constructions. Her 2008 exhibition "The Geometry of Seeing" presented a forty year survey and was shown at the Julie Saul Gallery and the Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York The work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions and is in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Art, Museum of Modern Art, The New York Public Library and the design Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Earlier in her career she worked as a Graphic Designer and in 1995 a solo exhibition of this body of work was shown at the Cooper-Hewitt Nation Design Museum.

The screening of Helvetica is made possible by permission from Plexifilm. The running time of the film is 80 minutes.


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