Hand-Cut Letters Tap Into High Art

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

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.

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!''

When she herself first came to the workshop she received from Kindersley the treatment she now gives to apprentices. She did not like it.

``Yes,'' Kindersley says, ``she argued with me.''

``I'd do something,'' she explains, ``and David would say, `That's wrong. You do it like this.' And he'd work right over my work. I was terribly offended.'' She would complain that it was the way she had made it. ``He would say, `Yes. But it's wrong, and I'm showing you the right way of doing it.' ''

Today Lida can look back gratefully and realize that if he had left her mistakes alone, they would still be there to embarrass her.

``You have to let go,'' she points out, ``because it's not `me' that matters. It is the stone that matters.''

Needless to say, this approach runs counter to prima-donna attitudes and art-school notions of self-expression. Cooperative effort in a workshop demands loyalty - a word taken seriously by the Kindersleys. The nature of this workshop is rooted in the late 19th-century practices of William Morris. Handwork over machines

Morris laid emphasis on working by hand rather than by machine. His ideas percolated down through the century as the Arts and Crafts movement, and young Kindersley encountered this movement first-hand by becoming an apprentice to the sculptor, engraver, typographer, and letter cutter Eric Gill.

By all accounts Gill's workshop was neither as efficient nor as successful as Kindersley's has been, but today Kindersley still believes that ``Gill ... was the start of everything for me.''

Kindersley's determination to propagate legible and beautiful lettering has taken him in many directions.

In the '50s he devised an alphabet with a spacing system for street names that can be used by people with no knowledge of lettering. It has become widespread in Britain and abroad. Less successful were road signs he designed for British motorways. Though proved by tests to be super legible at a great distance and high speed, they fell foul of political decision-making and were finally rejected.

More recently, a sophisticated computer took up residence in the workshop. It stayed for a decade. The aim was to write a program to communicate the expertise achieved by Kindersley's eye.

Lida, in particular, ``got quite good'' at the computer, he says. ``But I got no satisfaction out of it.''

Once they had ``implemented'' the machine, they threw it out.

``Literally!'' exclaims the master cutter with obvious glee. ``With great pleasure we launched the thing up onto the top of a lorry, and the screen exploded!''

``It had been standing there after we'd finished with it,'' Lida laughs, ``and it was worse than a baby, demanding attention the whole time, a baby that refused to grow up. A big dinosaur starting to eat us. We had to get rid of it.''

Though the Kindersleys admit that it was a phase they had to go through, it seems to have been a diversion from their basic conviction that older ways are better.

``If you're a computer programmer,'' Lida argues, ``you have nothing else.'' But she had continued to cut letters in between working on the computer. ``I knew there was a world of making something, that put me in control, that gave me a feeling of existing.''

Clearly she was happy to return to that world full time. It is the world called craftsmanship, and it uses hands as well as heads.

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