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Hand-Cut Letters Tap Into High Art

At the workshop of David Kindersley, traditional techniques and apprenticeships still hold sway

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 1993


AFTER frequent delays, the vast new building for Britain's foremost library at London's St. Pancras now at last promises to open phase one in the spring of 1995. One part of the work that has been finished for some time is its name, The British Library, which is spelled out in enormous capital letters cut in its sandstone fascia.

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Chiseled with refined precision, the consummately formed letters are spaced with a sure balance and knowing clarity.

These letters were, to the astonishment of the Clerk of Works and the other workmen on the site, cut entirely by hand.

Five letter cutters equipped with a tiny scale-drawing, 24 pencils, 24 erasers, a long ruler, some chalk, and a hammer and chisel each, climbed onto the scaffolding and set quietly to work. Not a power tool in sight. The only noise was a tap-tap-tap.

That is the way the David Kindersley Workshop operates.

Mr. Kindersley (born 1915) has long been considered the doyen of British letter cutters. One book on his work calls him a grandmaster of the Roman alphabet.

His workshop, almost 50 years old, has for the last 16 years been in a converted school in Cambridge, England, having had various earlier homes. It is a dedicated setup, a spot according to one visitor ``where one of the oldest crafts is being kept alive and kicking.'' It profoundly affects those who visit, and, even more, those who work in it. Design writer Montague Shaw has observed that ``it has the active, creative, ebullient air of a Renaissance workshop....''

One letter cutter who worked for Kindersley for eight years and then set up on his own (as trainee-apprentices increasingly tend to do), recently remarked to Lida Lopes Cardozo, Kindersley's partner and wife: ``I owe my life to David.'' Lida, who came to the workshop straight from art school in the Netherlands in 1976, puts it similarly: ``What you get from David sets you up for life.'' Loyalty to the workshop

Although Kindersley has now retired from working personally on big commissions, this workshop of seven craftspeople (including himself and Lida) is still unquestionably his baby.

In Scotland to discuss a commission and snatch some vacation with their three young sons, the Kindersleys made time to talk about their work.

Lida, as she is most often called, does most of the talking. She says lettering is ``very human, very organic.'' To letter cutters, letters are apparently like three-dimensional bodies, with weight and gravity.

``After 40 years, David's eye for spacing is no longer chance,'' Lida says. ``It is knowledge. It is not a case of it's almost right. It is right.'' Kindersley's career has been devoted to this.

Lida explains the aim of correct spacing - ``to make a letter look as if it is exactly placed between its two neighbors.''

To measure the mathematical center of a letter of asymmetrical shape does not help with spacing. ``You have to compensate,'' Lida says, ``for the way they look.'' This is not mathematics, Kindersley adds, ``it's an eye thing.'' He has written that correct spacing is what the eye deserves.

The Kindersleys are convinced that the only way to communicate correct spacing to someone else is by doing. A workshop situation is thus ideal. Apprentices are actually guided by hand, encouraged to feel the right way of working. Their work is constantly corrected.

There are many people wanting to work with them, according to Lida. ``We've become the finishing school of lettering!''