Love Letters by Tony Di Spigna

I was lucky enough to come of age, typographically speaking, in the 70s – an era that saw many exceptional creatives who literally changed the world of type and design. This all took place in a pre-digital world when everything was done by hand – literally! One of my personal heroes was the noted type virtuoso Tony Di Spigna, whom I knew of through my work and association work ITC, U&lc, and Herb Lubalin. Because of this it gives me great pleasure to write about this beautiful literary homage to the man and his work, Love Letters

Love Letters by Tony Di Spigna is a collection of some of his most beautiful Spencerian Script work. His mastery of the letterform is evident throughout, and made all the more unique as this art is created with pen and brush only. He says,I believe that one of the many ways you can often learn more is by seeing as well as by doing. As I tell my design students, ‘You can teach yourself a great deal simply by observing – and absorbing – good design.’” For that reason, he chose not to make this book a lesson on the technique of constructing letterforms, but rather to provide a visual showcase of Spencerian Script for those who are interested in learning about this unique letter form, or just to admire its beauty and elegance. (Note that all captions are in Tony’s own words, from his book.)

(left) Whenever I’m given a title, I am always itching to see the configuration of characters. I usually reach for whatever scrap of paper is available and proceed to explore the possibilities. This is my very first rough for this book cover, done on the D train on the way home. On the right, I scribbled a possible cover treatment. (right) I then make further exploration with several tracing tissues. In this phase I spend a great deal of time trying to sketch as many directions as possible. At one point I thought of making the title and author all in Spencerian. Then I definitely decided against it. Working solely with Love Letters, I tried different possible ending curlicues from the cap ‘L’, lowercase ‘e’ and ‘s’ and an ending curlicue from the first ‘e’ in letters.

(left) Working larger, I make further explorations, always looking for something new and unusual. (right) After reaching some satisfying possibilities, I begin the process of selecting and putting together those most promising designs into a final “pinned-down” pencil sketch.

(left) This is the last pencil sketch. Normally I would do an even tighter pencil sketch and send it to the client for approval before the final process of inking. In this case, since I was the client, I went immediately to finished art. (right) Placing a transparent vellum over the final sketch, I proceed with an inked crow quill point and clean up with white paint. It’s necessary to do finished art in ink to make it easier for the digital artist to follow precisely the flow of my lines. Note on the cover digital art, I added some weight to the right curlicues of the lower case ‘e’ and ‘s’ to give it better balance. Photograph by Angelica Di Spigna.

Tony Di Spigna was born in Italy but grew up and was educated in the USA, where he attended New York City Community College and Pratt Institute. After a number of unsatisfactory jobs, he arrived at Bonder & Carnase, Inc., where he worked closely with Tom Carnase. “That was the job I wanted,” he remembers, “the salary wasn’t important, it was the working atmosphere that counted.” Shortly afterwards in 1969, he moved with Carnase to the join the newly formed Lubalin Smith Carnase, Inc., where he continued to expand his talents as a lettering designer and typographer. He opened his own New York design studio in 1973 and worked as a partner with Herb Lubalin in the late seventies before Herb’s death. Today he runs Tony Di Spigna Inc. in New York City.

The exclamation point at the end of Diego was turned into a needle because the client was a tailor in the fashion industry still stitching custom clothing by hand. He was described as a “Tailor to the Stars” and one of the best in California.

I was inspired by the witty headline because I was brought up in Brooklyn. When you have three stacked words, the problem is how to minimize the leading so that they read as a single unit. In this design, the word ‘from’ fits snugly between two bracketing words. The descender of the ‘p’ is well integrated with the ‘f’ and the swash of the ‘B.’ The cap ‘B’ and the lower case ‘r’ do not touch, but nonetheless are perfectly joined.

The Mayfair Regent was an expensive hotel built in 1925 located in Upper Manhattan. Diana Graham, the art director, wanted a Spencerian design that would reflect its exclusivity. Note the swing of the lowercase ‘y’ into the ‘f’ in Mayfair and the ‘r’ into the cap ‘R’ of Regent.

In this lettering, I particularly like the flow of the top curlicue of the ‘B’ as it swings through the ‘Oh’, fills the leading and hugs the ‘b’ of Baby. The fanciful attachment of the lowest swing around the ‘y’ into the base of the lower part of the exclamation point was a whimsical finish.

Tony likes working with his hands and derives great satisfaction from creating pleasing letterforms. The majority of his work is cursive and calligraphic in nature, but does extend to whole spectrum of type and logo forms. He points out that his ‘calligraphic’ work is not simply calligraphy. “A lot of people misdescribe my work as calligraphy,” he retorts, “but I see what I do as creating an overall image rather than producing calligraphic lettering. Take the Roberta Flack design I did for Atlantic Records, for instance. Sure, it employs calligraphy but I feel that the end result is more of a logo or complete image than simply a piece of calligraphic lettering.”

The Roberta Flack logo mentioned above.

Love Letters is an extraordinary collection of some of the most beautiful hand lettering ever produced. Whether you are an aspiring lettering artist or calligrapher, a graphic designer, or ‘just’ a layperson who admires beautiful writing, you will be thrilled and inspired by what you see between the covers of this volume!

One of the many T-shirts I’ve designed, ‘No Shit!’ has received the most hits on line, causing quite a buzz.

Walter Bernard was designing for The Washington Post and asked me to create a Spencerian title of The Reagan Presidency. Because he was in D.C. at the time, Walter asked me to show my sketch to Milton Glaser, icon of graphic design, with whom he often collaborated. Milton called Walter from New York to discuss my sketch while I stood beside him, nervously awaiting a decision. Milton hung up the phone and, picking up a pencil, suggested that I add three swashes to the lowercase ‘r’ that would appear in red, white and blue in the final design application. Note the cap ‘R’, which is a ‘P’ with a detached tail ending.

I created this Spencerian logo for a new advertising agency in New York. There were four partners, Ruthkin, Costello, Mc Cullam, and Whitley. Each chose a different letterform for themselves. At the time, Whitley was the most extensive and complicated Spencerian I had ever done. The biggest problem was where to place Inc. at the end. I originally set type for it, then immediately realized it didn’t work. It took me quite a while to find a solution that could incorporate it nicely into the Spencerian name.

Elton Rule was the president of ABC Television. Diana Graham, then a senior art director for ABC, requested a Spencerian design for his personal use. I went through nearly half a pad of tracing tissues to shape the message into a Christmas tree.

Another holiday card for Elton Rule. With 75, I had explored several directions with the birds and numbers as separate combinations until I finally united them.

This sketch was done for Joan Peckolick who was working on an advertising and product campaign for The Russian Tea Room. The campaign ran, but the products got tabled. I tried to simulate the multiple “onioned” domes of St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow.

An artist friend of mine, Michele Di Meglio, in my native town on Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, was having a sailing boat built in Turkey for the purpose of taking tourists sight-seeing and scuba diving around the Mediterranean. He asked me to design the name of the boat, “Varcone” which in local dialect means “Big Boat.” I imagined the design on the side of the bow, on sailors’ T-shirts and especially on the flag waving in the breeze. I tried to convey a sense of moving sea flora and the motion of the wind and sea as one is sailing. Unfortunately, Michele never realized his dream because some of his partners withdrew their support and dropped out of the venture.

A non-profit organization working to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons asked me to design a symbol for them. They loved the result. To this day, I still can’t make up my mind on whether I should have filled in the olive branch or not. I think it would make a wonderful flag to advance the cause of world peace.

Posted on: December 4, 2019

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

2 Comments on Love Letters by Tony Di Spigna

  1. I’ve become mildly obsessed with hand drawn type these last few years. These are marvelous. I love how they kind of make me dizzy. Nice piece!

  2. Fascinating and well compiled. Thanks for sharing.

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