Alice Koeth

Calligrapher / United States /

Alice Koeth was born in Manhattan in 1927. The Koeth family lived on Staten Island, but Alice frequently traveled across the harbor to Manhattan, where she has made her home for more than half a century. She attended Washington Irving High School, at that time a vocational school for girls. A turning point in her life came in 1947: she heard of a series of lectures on “The History of the Alphabet” given by Arnold Bank at the Art Students League. She attended the talks, and as she put it, she “walked into another world.” In January 1948 she registered for Bank’s night classess at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, all the time commuting from Staten Island.

The impetus for Alice’s interest in fine writing is unexpected: in sixth grade she got a “U” (unsatisfactory) in penmanship. This did not go over well with her demanding, perfectionist father (who, by the way, had excellent handwriting). He told her, “if you can draw pictures, you can draw letters.” She put her mind to improving her handwriting, and got an “A” on the very next report card.

Before becoming a free-lance calligrapher in 1953, Alice worked in cabinetry, in layout and stone cutting with John Benson at the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, and later in book jacket production at Pocket Books, Inc.

For over three decades, starting in 1967, Alice designed and wrote the highly praised signs for the Morgan Library & Museum. Early on she dropped her last name, going by “Alice,” and signing her work with just her first name. She did this because she became tired of people mispronouncing her last name, which, if true to its German origins, would be pronounced more like “Kert,” but her family pronouced it “Kayth.” Even Alice’s father and brother could not agree on the pronunciation! As an artist working under her first name only, she foreshadowed Twiggy, Cher, and Madonna by many years.

Alice was a founding member of the Society of Scribes (SOS), and wound up doing a great amount of work for the organization in its early years. She was co-curator, along with Jerry Kelly, of the Society’s 25th anniversary exhibition in 1999 at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in New York.

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