Focusing on an ordinary subject that we see each day, often in the hundreds of thousands, Alphabet presents 26 letters as more than just shapes for conveying information. The 51 artists and designers in this show conceive and interpret the alphabet in surprising and inventive ways, ranging from graceful and polished to witty and subversive. The 63 alphabets featured in Alphabet were created by artists in North America, Europe, and Asia, representing work from well-known typographers such as Ed Fella and Ken Barber to young, rising artists such as Sweden’s Hjärta Smärta and Andrew Jeffrey Wright of Philadelphia’s Space 1026. The alphabets in the exhibition reflect a range of thinking about lettering that encompasses the conceptual, illustrative, typographic, and beyond. Some of the artists have created their alphabets from a variety of non-traditional media or found objects.
Shapes form the basis of our written communication. We usually process these ubiquitous forms without a second thought, rarely considering their composition or the meaning they possess. Yet, for some, letters are a fascinating subject; the building blocks of our language. The designers and artists featured in Alphabet explore these elemental forms in a variety of nontraditional ways.
As a typographer sets out to make a traditional, typographic font, they aim for cohesiveness and legibility. When each letter fits naturally into a typeface’s visual system, fewer visual inconsistencies get in the way of effective reading. A typographic font’s fundamental purpose is to be read seamlessly and smoothly. Removed from the context of words or paragraphs, the letters of some of the greatest typefaces lose their ultimate power and function. Similarly, a piece of custom lettering such as a hand-drawn headline or a band name on a concert poster seeks to work as a single word-image with the letters as a means to the word’s end.
By asking each of the artists and designers in Alphabet to present their alphabets removed from the context of words and typography, we focus on these 26 shapes as an end in themselves. The alphabets in the exhibition (all received through an open call) are shown dissected into their base elements-A through Z- freeing the artists and designers from the confines of legibility. At the same time, they are challenged to expand the experiment into a complete system that goes beyond a short headline, the realm to which such experimentation is usually relegated.
Whether they are typographic or not, all alphabets employ a visual system which dictates the relationship between each letter. The alphabets in the exhibition represent five different methods for formulating visual systems.
Typographic alphabets are designed for the purpose of setting text that is meant to be read, with special care taken by the typographer to ensure legibility and visual consistency.
Illustrative alphabets forsake legibility in favor of ornament, style and visual wit.
Conceptual alphabets rely on an intellectual system rather than a purely visual structure to determine their final form.
The characters of Concrete alphabets are constructed with or based upon physical objects.
Geometric or Modular alphabets are created with a limited palette of shapes or visual elements within a strict system.
These five approaches demonstrate the malleability of letters, and the numerous ways they can be built and conceived. The artists and designers featured in Alphabet all explore how far letters can be pushed, pulled, rationalized or deconstructed, yet still retain the essence of their forms. Working within the limits of commonly recognized shapes proposes a challenge: How does one personalize these universal shapes to say them with a distinct voice?
What will that voice be, and what do the words say when the letters are built from a grid, from thread, from oozing hairy amoebas? Upon closer examination, these 26 letters are no longer speaking our language, but speaking their own.