Stone-carved Lettering and the Digital Age

The John Stevens Shop in Newport, RI. Founded in 1705 by an English immigrant.

What we do is this: We use a brush to draw lettering on paper, then we carve that lettering into stone. We do simple commissions like house numbers, to huge things like the Martin Luther King Memorial (that one had a custom typeface and was carved in place).

People look at it this process and think: Why would you draw and carve by hand when you could use digital type and a CNC mill. It's a tradition that has been handed down for generations.

Bensons grandfather came from New york, Where he had been trained as an artist. He saw colonial gravestones in the area and understood immediately how individual and beautiful and handmade these things were. In colonial times there were few examples for engravers to look at for lettering and ornamentation, so they developed both as one unified piece of design.

As graphic standards start to develop in North America, you start to see lettering that becomes more like type. Gravestones started to look more typographic, like pages of books, or broadsheet newspapers. You even start to see heavier faces.

In the 19th century people tried to make their lettering look mechanical rather than handmade, and liked naturalistic ornamentaion.

In the 1920s when sand blasted engraving became a thing the grandfather wasn't interested. He kept doing it by hand following the coloninal model but applying his own sensibility.

Eventualy he started looking at Roman lettering. Edward Catich realised that Roman lettering was made with a broad edge brush before being engraved. If you look at the forms you see that they come from brush work.

In the Renaissance that brush skill was lost. In Romain du Roi and similar efforts they try to figure out how to construct the letters with geometry. Giovanni Francesco Cresci made some beautiful letters that tried to look like roman capitals but where actually mechanically made.

Catich: The Origin of the Serif (1968) has become the bible of Roman brush lettering. These letters where produced by a set of brush strokes that produce the lively forms you see.

The grandfather got that techinque, some Carolingian minisucle, some chancery italic. Catich was most intersted in coming as close to the Roman original as he could, but the grandfather did more modern letters but following some of the same principles. All of it holds together really beautifully.

He wasn't afraid to change the letters, changing proportions, terminals and such.

Inspiration from Rudolf Koch, Dwiggins, Herman Zapf. The work of the father became more polished than the grandfathers work.

In the 1980s the computer comes around and people think the shop is screwed. The dad saw the machine as a tool, without knowledge of letterforms you have nothing. He used a computer to do the FDR monument in Washington. There's digital type used there, but many of the letters there are still brushed on the wall by hand. The first to do that connection.

Louis Kahn NYC FDR memorial. The central inscription for that is in this concrete area. It's an excerpt from four freedoms. Yale university are gallery lettering was the source for the typeface.