House Industries
1145 Yorklyn Rd.
Yorklyn, DE 19736-0166
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  • History 1

    Photo-Lettering was one of the earliest and most successful type houses to utilize photo technology in the production of commercial typography and lettering. Photo-Lettering enjoyed a significant advantage over its competitors with its purpose-built exposure units, expert staff and a sophisticated workflow.

  • History 21

    PLINC, as it was affectionately known to art directors, was a mainstay of the advertising and design industry in New York City from 1936 to 1997. In the days before facsimile, flatbed scanners and email, copper borne telephone instructions buzzed beneath the streets while couriers beat a well-worn path between Madison Avenue advertising agencies and Photo-Lettering’s Murray Hill facility.

  • History 2

    Each of Photo-Lettering’s alphabets took over 200 hours to complete, originally drawn with pen and ink by veteran lettering artists. These alphabets were originally exposed on glass plates, but eventually were converted to film. Photo-Lettering films are approximately 28 in (71 cm) wide by 5 in (13 cm) tall.

  • History 36

    After receiving an art director's instructions by telephone (imagine that) or courier, a Photo-Lettering artist would compose a tight comprehensive. This was done using a smaller version of the alphabet film called a layout plate and a specialized device called an Opticon to project a sharp image of each character with which to create a penciled version of the headline.

  • History 3

    The composed headline was then handed off to an operator of a proprietary purpose-built exposure unit called The Rutherford, which was named after the New Jersey tri-city area in which it was invented. The Rutherford allowed an operator to expose characters directly from original films while following penciled comprehensives from the Opticon.

  • 20

    The Rutherford was a key instrument in Photo-Lettering’s reputation for delivering clean, crisp, high quality artwork because it always provided a first-generation exposure of each character. Most Photo-Lettering competitors manually composed headlines by manually pasting each letter. By the time process lettering reached the customer it was at the very least four times photographically removed from the original.

  • History 4

    Before making the run back into Madison Avenue's busy warren of advertising agencies, a Photo-Lettering artist would check each headline and make manual corrections as needed. This critical part of Photo-Lettering’s workflow is a historical lesson that has been lost on the digital generation of desktop designers.

  • History 4

    This spread from a Photo-Lettering catalog illustrates the process. While art directors barking headline instructions may not have looked as happy as they are represented here, a courier returning a perfectly-rendered headline must have put a smile on their faces. The advent of digital desktop typography dramatically and catastrophically removed this level of professionalism and its finely-tuned set of checks and balances from display lettering.

  • History 86

    Even in 1970 dollars, a headline from Photo-Lettering was a steal considering the effort dedicated to each project.

  • 14

    House Industries’ relationship with Photo-Lettering began indirectly in 1999 with an article on Ed Benguiat for the second issue of our now-defunct House magazine. Ed penned the original logo for pop-culture classic Planet of the Apes, so we illustrated him as a learned Doctor Zaius. Stories that went along with Ed's thirty years as Photo-Lettering's alphabet genius-in-residence inspired us to dig deeper into PLINC’s legacy of letters.

  • 9

    Ed Benguiat became our emissary to the forgotten Photo-Lettering world, and in 2002 House lettering guru Ken Barber began distilling five of Benguiat’s PLINC alphabets into digital fonts. It was our first exercise in taking an alphabet that was originally engineered with PLINC’s workflow in mind and digitally bypassing the human element with modern application- and system-side engineering.

  • 8

    Starting with Photo-Lettering catalogs, several period specimens and some moral support from Ed Benguiat, Ken Barber started the process of interpreting and redrawing each of the five alphabets.

  • 10

    Since we did not have access to the original Photo-Lettering films at the beginning of the project, Ken’s challenge was to to interpret Benguiat’s original alphabets from small one-line showings and random specimens from Photo-Lettering catalogs and collateral.

  • 7

    Ken Barber and typographical codebreaker Tal Leming set out to devise a complex multi-layered substitution script that makes interlocking decisions. By combining Ken's lettering skill and Tal’s technical prowess, we created the prototype for what would become the digital version of Photo-Lettering’s workflow. This was and still is one of the most elegant applications of OpenType features in a commercial typeface.

  • 15

    Those who cough up House’s shipping fee when ordering the Ed Benguiat fonts are treated to forty-five minutes of audio interviews covering everything from blowing up German bridges as a P-51 pilot to dreaming up psychedelitypes while hanging upstate with Timothy Leary.

  • 8

    In the middle of the Ed Benguiat font project, one of the last remaining Photo-Lettering partners contacted us to see if we would be interested in purchasing the physical assets of Photo-Lettering.

  • 8

    We wrote a check and relocated over 9000 pieces of film, glass plates...

  • 8

    ...and other assorted artifacts of the long-defunct company to a sprinklered and climate-controlled facility in Delaware.

  • 1

    A bit overwhelmed by the size and depth of Photo-Lettering's history, House Industries partners Rich Roat and Andy Cruz sought some like minded alphabetiphiles to help bring Photo-Lettering into the internet age. Erik van Blokland, Christian Schwartz and Ken Barber are all known for their rare skills in gracefully marrying the digital and analog worlds of lettering and typography.

  • 2

    As development on progressed, we also tried to gather as much historical information as possible. To this end, we had the privilege of spending some quality time with PLINC founder Ed Rondthaler, who was well into his second century but still spry enough to remember watching the Aquitania sail into New York harbor while on his first job interview.

  • 3

    Mr. Rondthaler was kind enough to record over sixteen hours of audio tape and allow us to spend a day with him in his Croton-on-Hudson home with a film crew. Ed passed away in 2009 at the age of 104.

  • History 38

    We recommend Ed Rondthaler's Life with Letters for those who wish to dig deeper into Photo-Lettering's history. This well written autobiographical volume contains countless 20th Century anecdotes about lettering, graphic design, visual tricks and business ethics that are valid in any millenium.