Typeset in Stone: What a Stone Carver Can Teach You about Digital Typography

As a third-generation stone carver, Nick Benson, knows a thing or two about producing letterforms. Having taken over the family stone carving business from his father, John Everett (who’d earlier succeeded his father, John Howard), Benson has literally had to carve out a place for himself within a longstanding tradition and in an age where traditional crafts are becoming increasingly threatened. I sat down with him to discuss his process, and where it fits into the current landscape of art, information, craft, and technology.

Amber: Tell me a little bit about the family business. How did you get involved?

Nick: In 1927 my grandfather, who was an artist coming out of the Art Students League in New York City, bought The John Stevens Shop, and threw out all of the current trends popular at the time. That was something that nobody was doing. There were some folks over in England, particularly Eric Gill (artist and typographer best known for typefaces like Gill Sans and Perpetua). This is all out of the Arts and Crafts Movement. My grandfather came out of this movement and started producing really beautiful gravestones. Much like the colonial stone work, he was developing ornament and lettering in harmony and making beautifully designed and executed stones. That also panned over into architectural and dedicatory inscriptions. But then my father, John Everett Benson, took some of the best of what was going on in the typographic movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and he applied it in the same way in which my grandfather had applied other aspects of design to the monument industry. He was making stones where so much of his lettering and his design were influenced by folks like Hermann Zapf and William Addison Dwiggins — big names in the typographic and calligraphic world. My dad’s work was this highly refined, almost labored bit of both lettering and a naturalistic approach to ornament that made for just stunning work. That’s my legacy. I had to figure out where the heck I fit into it. I’m not entirely sure where I do, even at age 51.

Amber: Your work sits in this compelling intersection between information design, sculpture, and art. How do you self-identify?

Nick: Since receiving the MacArthur Fellowship, I’ve been able to carve out — no pun intended! — a little bit of time to look at the artistic expression in all of the work I’ve grown up with and how the digital age has changed the nature of information in such a dramatic way. Now I’m compelled to make art that is sort of a reflection of my own struggle with this concept of how information is transmitted on this absolutely global and tremendously large format.

I’m making pieces that are very expressive, kind of wacky, and are almost the flip side of what I do in my day-to-day work at The John Stevens Shop, where one of our central tenets is to convey information first and foremost. The message must be very clear and easily readable. The aesthetic is a secondary concern. It’s not that the aesthetic isn’t incredibly important, it’s just that it takes a backseat to the information being conveyed. My artistic work is all of the aesthetic up front that slaps you in the face, and then content is a little bit more vague.

Amber: That’s always been a pretty prevalent tension in graphic design. But most experimentation has been facilitated by technological advancement — be it means of distribution or the fact that the tools designers are using made it easier to experiment. Your work, on the other hand, is pretty unforgiving in terms of the labor and medium. What excites you about producing more explorative, artistic work in such a labor-intensive medium?

Nick: So much of my artwork is about applying all of the skills I’ve learned to this date. To take my 30-years-worth of skills as a carver, and then apply the unbridled hand to it and let everything flow, there’s a conflict and a confluence of effort in there that yields really interesting results. It occurs in the physical world.

There’s also quite a lot that’s different about what I do and what happens in the world of graphic design, particularly when it comes to the computer because the digital realm is a world entirely separate. My world is very much about the physical world and that influences some of the intellectual steps I take. If I come up with some ideas and drawings and layouts for things that are loose and wild, and then I come down to then trying to make that mean something in the finished carved piece, there’s a lot that has to happen between the visceral stuff and the application of it in the physical world. It’s all about the hand, about kinesthetics, muscle memory, and all the stuff that I have but then just to take one step further into the carving process, which is so important to me. I keep my highly refined tendencies and apply them to the loose stuff, so you get this wild combination of what immediately is recognized as loose and and entirely carefree. Then you look closer and think, “My god, this is so, so cleanly cut it’s kind of crazy.”

Amber: Did you go to art school?

Nick: I did. I went to SUNY Purchase, and then I went to the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, the design school in Basel, Switzerland. That was at the time when Wolfgang Weingart and all these new wave Swiss typographers were influencing the scene. I studied with graphic designers and this fellow named André Gürtler who really gave me the foundation I needed to go into this business. Gürtler is a good friend of my father. He brought me in, and he set me up in a tutorial position with him and other really great folks over there. I did a 10-month intensive tutorial program with them that was worth probably six year’s worth of university time over here. I came back, and I walked into the shop and it was like the veil had been ripped aside, and I could see everything.

Amber: Is it because you’ve reached a certain level in your craftsmanship that you’ve been able to pursue more artistic or explorative forms of work?

Nick: Absolutely, because it doesn’t mean as much without having built up a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge over decades. Carving takes so much time. A piece I did just last year took me 300 hours to carve. It’s a big piece of text. It’s not something you’d look at and say, “Oh my god, that’s massive. How did you possibly do that?” But it just represented a massive amount of time for me in terms of the carving.

Amber: People always use that phrase, “it’s not set in stone” — and in our digital world that’s increasingly more the case. Everything can be amended or modified. Obviously that’s not true in your case. Does this make the pressure for your art pieces to be even more meaningful?

Nick: People bring so much of their own emotional reaction to this type of work — as you say, “Wow, you’re carving this into stone. It must have heavy gravitas. It must mean something really important in order for you to take the effort to commit it to stone.” That sort of plays in my favor in terms of doing something that’s a little strange because people are immediately drawn to the process. A recent piece that I did was Peter Higgs’ Lagrangian for the Standard Model of the Universe. This is a piece of mathematics, a piece of physics. I did a crazy calligraphic version of it.

I don’t understand it. I’m not a physicist. I’m not a mathematician, but in that is this greater question: What is the content, and when does it become this transcendent thing where it becomes representative rather than purely literal information? I certainly do not want to go down the road of conceptual art. I would never want to call myself a conceptual artist. I want to push my work to a place where the information is really questionable and makes people wonder, “What does this represent and why?” I’d like for people to make that connection rather than get some golden kernel of wisdom that you’re trying to pass in one tight little body of text.

Amber: This also brings the issue of context. So many of the pieces you create for the shop are intended for a specific context that gives them a particular relevance or meaning. How does that work with your art pieces?

Nick: As it is now, I’ve been doing tablets that are just singular pieces of work but I’m branching off into wanting to do some inscriptions that are site-specific works woven into locations that are far-flung and out in the middle of nowhere, or, in some cases, right in the middle of an urban environment. The locations would be critical to their success.

I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m heading in that direction. It’s funny because when it comes to the tablets, again, there’s this connection that people make when they see a tablet that’s obviously a stone. I’ve been carving pieces that are naturally cleft stone so that the material is very obvious. People see this and they can’t help but make some sort of connection to antiquity. Then to see something that is obviously really contemporary again straddles two worlds — I hope this gets people thinking.

Amber: How large are they?

Nick: I did a tablet for the Yale University Art Gallery during an artist-in-residence and the characters were about an 1 ⅛" tall. The tablet was only about 40 inches wide by 12 inches tall, but then I started to make bigger pieces. There’s something about larger characters that get into a sculptural element and gets very interesting in terms of physicality. Again, for these site-specific inscriptions, scale will be critical. I’d like to do some inscriptions that run 14-inch characters or 15-inch characters. A lot of people make strange decisions about scale in the real world that is influenced from the digital world and the crossover between the two is not always very successful. I’ve learned from years of experience how to look at stuff that I’ve put together on the computer or even when I’m drawing at scale and understanding how these characters are going to read at that particular scale and height.

Amber: What does it mean to you to be a third-generation craftsman.

Nick: It’s interesting. I think it’s an overall lifestyle that imprints itself upon you. I think it may have to do with just having been born into this family because we Bensons are sort of an odd group in that there’s a lot of mythology that’s come down the line with my grandfather — he being this larger-than-life artist, just an absolutely prolific guy who made beautiful work. He wasn’t just a stone carver. He was a printer. He was a sculptor. He did metal work. There was a way in which here in Newport, Rhode Island, where my grandfather and my grandmother lived, that my father’s generation with his brothers and their extended family, took on this flavor of life that had a bit of the old Yankee thing but also this heavy Bohemian aspect that has influenced the way in which I run the business. There’s this very earthy, relaxed approach to everything. At the same time, I’m one of the most uptight guys you’ll ever meet in your life. It’s a weird combo — my father is the exact same way.

Everybody comes in here and says, “Oh man, this shop is so beautiful — look at all this stuff — the way you guys live is so incredible.” It has everything to do with the success of this business as well because I am not at all interested in turning this into a growth industry. This is not a growth industry. It’s a funny little shop that produces X amount of stones a year, and that’s it. That’s what we do.

It’s really hard for businessmen to wrap their heads around that. They look at this and they say, “Oh man, you’ve got this 310-year-old business. You’ve carved inscriptions all over some of America’s most prominent memorials. Man, you could make a bundle out of this place if you turned it into X, Y, and Z.” I think the moment you turn it into that, you’ve destroyed the business because the standards set by my grandfather and my father are so high, and they require you to give more of yourself than the job is billable. You make the job as well as you possibly can, and if that means it takes more time than you’ve allotted in your calculation for payment, too bad. You have to make beautiful work because that’s what we do. I’m not a wealthy guy. I just do the work that I do. I really enjoy it. I’m proud of the work. It’s just the life I live.

Amber: What do you think digital designers could learn from haptic or tactile designers?

Nick: There are a couple of avenues of understanding. Gravestones are a great example of the way in which people want the evidence of the human hand because death is an inevitable human conclusion. Say someone wants a gravestone, and they sure as hell don’t want some digital, sandblasted thing. They would really love some artisan pecking away with a mallet and chisel to make beautiful forms that are emotional for them and represent a lot of effort that’s somehow reflective of the love they had for the person they lost — they are trying to get in touch with their humanity. That’s not to say that I don’t then do very contemporary stones I’ve done that are reflective of the modern innovative people they’re memorializing. There are very subtle aspects of my work that I’ll apply to what most would consider to be a straightforward piece of mechanical work.

I think the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial on Roosevelt Island, the Four Freedoms Park, is a great example of how handcraft can add dimension to something that you would imagine to be perfectly suited to a straightforward, modern, and mechanical treatment — something that would look extremely contemporary, and that’s right in line with what Louis Kahn (the architect of the memorial) would’ve wanted. But that particular memorial, in all of its linear and post-modern purity, has a flavor of humanity that’s difficult to define. In the carving and the design of that inscription, there’s a reflection of that. My effort in designing a character is to have just a little bit of human spark. It’s a very contemporary form, but there’s just a teeny bit of humanity in there. It’s very subtle — almost subconscious — but you see it.

Amber: Understanding and designing for your medium is hugely important because technology is becoming more and more personal. People touch their devices a thousand times a day, and they use it for every aspect of their life, so those subtle, formal cues become increasingly important.

Nick: I think so many of the typefaces that I design for site-specific application, the typeface that I designed for the World War Two memorial in D.C., for the Martin Luther King memorial in D.C., the one that I designed for the Four Freedoms Park, they are miserable in graphic representation — black on a white page. They’re awful. They don’t work because they weren’t designed for that. They were designed to be cut into stone.

So many of the typefaces that I design for site-specific application…are miserable in graphic representation — black on a white page. They’re awful. They don’t work because they weren’t designed for that. They were designed to be cut into stone.

Amber: Technology is changing so rapidly that already in one generation, we see a completely different relationship to screens and devices. Does that make you anxious as a craftsman?

Nick: I think that there’s also push back from people who’ve been entirely immersed in digital. Particularly in art school. There are a bunch of kids I’ve met who are really into all kinds of different crafts and letterpress printing. A bunch of them want to learn how to carve stone. They want to do all of this stuff that’s much more about the physical world because they take the digital world for granted. They’ve never known the world without it. It’s not special. It’s not new. It’s just, it’s that thing that they know all too well. The old world becomes the new, which is kind of funny.

Amber: What does it feel like to practice something every day that you know is so ancient?

Nick: It’s funny because when I see the old stuff, Roman or even Assyrian, when I look at cuneiform — stuff that’s got 4,000 years on it — I can walk up to a tablet like that, and it’s as if I’m standing over the shoulder of the guy who carved it. It has such immediacy to me. I understand the steps that were taken to make it, and in the physical form that I’m looking at, and it’s like, “I see how he did this. Check this out. Look at where he’s going with it. Hey, check out at the end of the inscription.” I don’t know. I tend to think of it as not so distant even though they’re ridiculously old pieces of work. I look at them as something that was carved yesterday. If that makes sense.

Amber: It seems like an amazing way to feel empathy, actually — to see the person behind the artifact — the time it took to make it. Do you feel like that kind of sensitivity makes you approach life differently, or live life at a different pace?

Nick: I think at this point the die is cast. I’m living the life that I’m living, and I’m not going to change much, but that’s not to say that I’m not amazed by the new things that I see. When I see a piece of carving I’ve never seen before I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s incredible. How can I take this and implement some aspect of this to what I’m doing now?”

I’m always interested in that, because like so many artisans, this whole process is just a progression, and you’re constantly trying to evolve the work. In my particular work as a craftsman here at the John Stevens Shop, the parameters are very clearly marked out. It’s like, “These are the letters. This is what you do,” but in that I weave my way back and forth and up and down and around all kinds of different issues that have been thought about for hundreds and thousands of years and seeing them from a different perspective. That’s another thing that’s so wonderful about having a legacy, being born into this old business. I can grab work of my grandfather’s, my father’s, of the early Stevens stuff, and take a look at it and see what they were doing. It’s tremendously helpful in what I do on a day-to-day basis.

Amber: What’s your relationship to the digital age? Does it feel threatening, inspiring, or is something you view with relative indifference?

Nick: There are so many aspects that are both good and bad. From the perspective of overall design, I see problems with people understanding the physical world more and more often. They have a harder time understanding spatial perception because everything is seen in the digital realm. You see this in architecture often, and in all aspects of design, industrial design, etc. You see people making things that are meant to look like the digital designs that were initially made first. They’re making a physical version of the digital design.

…It’s not the computer that’s going to give me the ideal product. It’s my input into the machine that then will yield product. Because it is really just a tool, and it requires understanding of how to use that tool to get what you ideally want and yield great results.

For me — particularly with architecture — that imprint of the digital realm is so obvious in the real world. You can walk down the street and see a building and say, “Man, that came right out of CAD. Look at it.” It just reeks of the digital. That quality filters down into a whole bunch of different avenues, and it is a tricky thing. Of course, I use the computer, and I really love it — it’s arguably one of the greatest tools ever invented. It’s a great tool, but I use it with the understanding that it’s not the computer that’s going to give me the ideal product. It’s my input into the machine that then will yield product. Because it is really just a tool, and it requires understanding of how to use that tool to get what you ideally want and yield great results.

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Nick Benson at SPAN NYC