Four Windows, Four Letters

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If you were anywhere near the corner of Third Avenue and Stuyvesant Street in the East Village of Manhattan on the afternoon of June 14, 2015, you may have witnessed John Downer in production mode. Throughout the afternoon Downer, a master sign painter and type designer, demonstrated his skills by painting four distinct letters on the storefront windows facing Stuyvesant Street. The capital letters, T-Y-P-E, spelled out the focus of the Typographics festival held June 8–18 at The Cooper Union, a private college dedicated to the advancement of science and art. The event included a two-day conference, a series of workshops and tours, and TypeLab, a pop-up lab and bookstore.

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TypeLab was a carnival in the best sense of the word—multifaceted and bursting with energy. This typographic sideshow featured an array of enticing attractions: a bookstore with old and new editions for browsing and buying, calligraphy demonstrations, lectures on type design, portfolio reviews and critiques, hands-on workshops on coding and scripting, and a general place to meet and greet. Amidst the revelry, John Downer quietly drew guidelines, taped off edges, and painted his letters on four floor-to-ceiling windows along the street. The result was what’s known in the sign painting world as Window Splash.

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Downer intuitively chose four different letter types reminiscent of his hand painted styles.¹ The basis for the T was a sign painters’ style called 4-tone Prismatic, heavy block. Tints of yellow-green and yellow-orange and darker shades of green and orange reinforced the dimensionality of this form. White was applied around the edges and atop the ridge as a highlight. The Y was based on sign painters’ Thick and Thin, which Downer modified by extending the thin stroke above the cap height. He used a green close shade to imply dimension and randomly painted colorful striations inside the letter to create pattern. The P, a flare-serif style, was painted yellow with a heavy white exterior outline and a dark blue close shade. The E was a slab serif with a yellow outline and multi-tone beveled interior edge that delineated the white center. For dramatic effect, Downer added a hunched back to the vertical stroke of the E.

¹ John Downer described the four letters and his process in an email to the author.

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In some cases Downer drew the letter with a black alcohol-based Sharpie first to create guidelines for taping. In other cases he ad libbed and simply outlined the letter in tape. Paint was applied using 3” and 9” rollers, which were chosen because they were proportional to the dimensions of the letters. For example, each stroke of the T was constructed out of two 9” halves with a space the width of the tape in between. The roller leaves a delightful stippled texture when viewed up close. Details were completed as necessary with a brush and to enhance brightness some areas were backed with white paint.

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Bright colors were chosen for impact and visibility from the street. Unfortunately, due to venue restrictions Downer was only allowed to paint on the inside of the windows, which reduced the luminosity of the color. Each of the two panes of glass dimmed the paint by 10%–15% and the UV protective film on the exterior of the windows reduced clarity on average by another 20%. Nonetheless, the huge letters called attention to the festival and brightened up the corner.

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As permanent as the alphabet may be, its typographic applications are often short lived. So it was with these four letters that spelled out the theme of the conference. When the TypeLab was dismantled and the remaining wares packed up on June 17, John Downer’s T, Y, P, and E were lovingly scraped off the window panes and became a Typographics memory along with other ephemera of the festival.

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