Daily Features

The (Giant) Writing on the Wall

Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić’s new book, Lettering Large, explores the art and design of monumental type

By Branden Klayko, Superscript December 17, 2013

Like these words you’re reading now, we typically experience typography at a scale of only a few millimeters. Across our built environment, however, type stands tall, even monumental. These mammoth words fascinated Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić, co-authors of the new book Lettering Large: Art and Design of Monumental Typography (The Monacelli Press). The duo documented hundreds of examples writ large in art and architecture and delved into society’s collective interest in tall type.

The Korea Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 designed by Mass Studies. © The Monacelli Press
In Japan, Jaume Plensa designed Ogijima’s Soul with a typographic roof in 2009. © The Monacelli Press
The iconic Hollywood sign viewed from Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. © The Monacelli Press
The Movement Cafe in London used brightly colored words to draw visitors to the temporary pop-up venue. © Gareth Gardner/The Monacelli Press
The “Dazzle” dining room at Bart’s Health/ he London Children’s Hospital lifts spirits with its playful design. © Luke Hayes/The Monacelli Press
The “Dazzle” dining room at Bart’s Health /The London Children’s Hospital. © Luke Hayes/The Monacelli Press
The “Dazzle” dining room at Bart’s Health/The London Children’s Hospital. © Luke Hayes/The Monacelli Press.
Jaume Plensa’s typographic sculptures appear on the cover of Lettering Large. © The Monacelli Press
Populous included mammoth lettering at the entrance to London’s Arsenal Emirates Stadium. © Getty/The Monacelli Press
In the UAE, a sheik carved his name into the desert big enough to be legible on Google Earth. © Google Earth/The Monacelli Press
Architect Matsunami Mitsutomo included giant numbers on the facade of this building in Osaka, Japan. © Matsunami Mitsutomo
Gordon Young designed the Comedy Carpet with Why Not Associates in Blackpool, England. © Why Not Associates
Robert Indiana’s sculpture LOVE, 1970, New York. 
IBM Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1964–65. Designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen Associates. Photo: John H. Martin
Centro di Ciéncia Viva, 2008–10, Lisbon, Portugal.  Designed by Giuseppe Greco, Vera Sacchetti, and Miguel Matos. Photo: Demetro a Metro

The Book

Lettering Large Steven Heller
Mirko Ilić

Heller, co-chair of the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Design program, joined the project after Ilić, a graphic designer, noticed a little-documented trend of large lettering. “Anything typographic is going to spark my imagination,” Heller told Designers & Books. “Almost everywhere you go there’s some new application of monumental lettering.” While we’re all accustomed to seeing billboard advertisements shout out to us with giant words, Heller said the focus of Lettering Large is on words with a non-commercial message. “The book is not about advertising—it’s about how the language of advertising is applied to architecture and art and identity,” he said.

People have been intrigued by larger-than-life elements in art and architecture through the ages, Heller said, pointing to the immediately recognizable art of Claes Oldenburg. “We like things big. They’re made by man but they tower over the individual.” The notion of the blown-up object has really taken off in the postmodern age. “In this postmodern sensibility, anything can be blown up and made regal,” Heller noted. “It’s the transformation of this form into something larger. All of a sudden we’re more aware of it. It’s not unlike what you see in New York City at the Thanksgiving Day Parade when comic book characters are blown up to 30,000 times their normal size.”

Cover of Lettering Large: Art and Design of Monumental Typography, 2013. © The Monacelli Press

But with typography, Heller said, the result can be more serendipitous and provides more of a surprise. “There’s a certain inherent joy in it as well. With today’s fast-paced speed of life, this kind of lettering slows us down a little bit.” He pointed to Robert Indiana’s sculpture Love in Midtown Manhattan: “Walking down 55th Street you can actually feel the ‘love.’ These installations may not advertise or promote but once you put in a letter form and a word, they do convey a message.” Some installations are playful while others are inspiring or issue commands. “The bottom line is that they’re trying to communicate something.”

Heller’s favorite example from the book is Gordon Young’s Comedy Carpet in Blackpool, England. The project is self-described as “a celebration of comedy on an extraordinary scale … pushing the boundaries of public art and typography to their limits.” Compiling the words and jokes of over 1,000 comedians, the “carpet” inlays 160,000 granite letters into a concrete plaza, activating the public space with playful and humorous messages.

“It couldn’t have been done 20 years ago,” Heller observed. “The letters needed to be laser-cut and produced at a fast pace for installation.” With the ubiquity and ease of access of modern digital fabrication techniques, however, Heller said, mammoth typography is easier than ever to implement. “With digital technology, if you have a need, there’s going to be a way to do it.”

You Might Also Like

comments powered by Disqus