Daniel Pelavin is a jack of many trades, graphically-speaking. He grew up in Detroit Michigan and began his career as an apprentice, working his way up through the ranks in local art studios. He trained with artists from the entire gamut of graphic arts including decorative, fashion, product and technical illustrators as well as letterers, typographers, and graphic designers.
From his earliest work produced with templates, French curves, and drafting tools, to a present day virtuosity in digital media, Pelavin has used a restrained and simplified vocabulary of geometric forms, rich, flat colors, and typography inspired by a wide range of 20th-century ephemera. His mastery at combining stylistic elements from different historical periods while maintaining an unwavering focus on clarity has produced a body of work that is timeless and enduring. He has received accolades for illustration, typographic design and a singular ability to seamlessly combine the two. He began his journey into digital media at its onset and continues to play a pioneering role.
His work, which encompasses illustration, typographic and icon design, as well as commercial typefaces, has been the subject of articles in numerous books and magazines. He is an instructor of illustration, design and lettering, an author of articles on design practice and education, and has presented his work to design organizations and universities throughout the United States. He earned his BA in advertising and MFA in graphic design but credits high school industrial arts classes and studio apprenticeship as his most valuable source of training and inspiration. Pelavin has maintained a studio in New York City since 1979.
We asked him some questions about his work, inspiration, and process. (Note that the selected images are of his more typographic work, although you can see the entire breadth of his creativity on his web site.)
You have such a unique style. Did you always work this way, or did it develop over time?
I started drawing letters before I was five. It just seemed the natural thing to accompany the pictures I was making. I got into trouble in first grade for taking some liberties with a lower case “d.” I played a lot with lettering throughout school focusing on what we called “Old English.” I’m sure this was because it was so different from contemporary typography. In middle school, I purchased a Speedball lettering set which included an assortment on pen nibs and the Speedball Handbook, the deﬁnitive resource for pen lettering.
In college, I had the fortunate experience of taking a typography class where we did hand composition and had access to a Ludlow compositor. During that time, I also had a fascination with the outline/drop shadow style which was widely used in fraternity decals. This opened my eyes to the potential for stylizing letterforms in different ways. After undergraduate school, I worked in Detroit art studios as an apprentice and was inspired both by the dedicated lettering artists as well as by the decorative illustrators and designers who used lettering as part of their work.
In graduate school, I experimented (badly) with decorative lettering while having a part-time job in a type house where I worked on a VGC Typositor, arguably the best tool ever for headline composition even to this day. Following grad school, I taught lettering and illustration. This made me have to become even more aware of the typography which surrounds us. So, becoming a lettering artist, for me, was a gradual process over an extended period of time.
Which skill developed ﬁrst: design, illustration, lettering, or typography?
Except for the fact that lettering and typography have to use an established set of characters, those skills are all integral to the same process, which is, of course, communication. I know people like to pick this apart and divert their focus into minutiae like historical categories and, especially in typography, the parts of a letter. This is what’s known as “not seeing the forest for the trees.”
Who were your role models?
Historically, Hector Guimard, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alphonse Mucha, Ludwig Hohlwein, Will Bradley, Edward McKnight Kauffer, William Addison Dwiggins, Otis Shepard, more recently, Rick Grifﬁn, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, David Lance Goines and, among contemporary artists, two who have no equals: Michael Doret and Gerard Huerta.
I know you began working by hand, that is, pre-computer. How has your work, whether it be process or ﬁnal, changed over time?
I always do sketches by hand. I used to use technical pens, templates etc. to prepare the work for printing. The computer just multiplied the potential, for both magniﬁcence and disaster exponentially.
Describe your process.
The process begins with research both for conceptual ideas and formal reference. After a heart-wrenching period of diminished esteem and procrastination, I do thumbnail sketches and assemble and reﬁne them digitally for presentation. The chosen sketch becomes a template in Adobe Illustrator and the balance of the work is composed digitally.
What led you into developing fonts from some of your ideas? Many people think one is in competition with the other (fonts vs. lettering).
I had the life-changing experience of meeting Ilene Strizver (the author blushes!) at International Typeface Corporation who ﬁrst made me aware that my lettering could be made into fonts. Most designers know very little about fonts and even less about lettering. These are probably the same people who imagine there is competition between them. This also is probably responsible for the proliferation of desperate fonts which do headstands and somersaults in order to affect the appearance of “hand lettering.” Just as an aside regarding hand lettering vs. digital lettering, what exactly is it that “digital” letterers use to hold their mouse or stylus?
Do you think it is important for lettering artists and illustrators to also do design? …and if so, why?
I can’t see a separation between design, illustration, and lettering unless we’re talking about design, which used to be called layout but, even then…
What is your favorite piece, and your most challenging?
I won’t let myself have a favorite piece. That is like asking me to have a favorite child. “Most challenging” makes it sound like a negative thing, and challenge is the thing that drives me to do my best. I guess the biggest challenge is keeping clients from sabotaging their own jobs.
Any advice for aspiring lettering artists and illustrators?