Stenciled letterforms convey both immediacy (WET PAINT) and urgency (KEEP OUT). They’re the ultimate DIY typesetting—simple, economical, and fast—and helped establish branding in the 19th and early 20th centuries everywhere, from circus sideshows to upscale shops. Even now designers turn to them for a range of uses from decorative, domestic, and commercial to military, industrial, and the spread of propaganda.
The French term lettres à jour (“Letters through which you see daylight”) describes not only the form of a stencil but also its most basic function of communication with no-nonsense clarity.
Stencil Type (Thames and Hudson) is the latest in a series by Steven Heller and Louise Fili that includes Shadow Type and Scripts. The book is organized by country, with nearly half the pages devoted to examples from America. The second half is equally split between France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, plus a smaller selection of type specimens from England, Holland, and Eastern Europe. Stencil Type, printed on a semigloss stock that allows for excellent color reproduction, has a pleasing heft despite its relatively intimate scale (roughly 9” x 7”).
If Stencil Type makes any kind of case it’s that a simple approach is best for stencils, yielding a more pleasing and stylish result than attempts at overly elaborate letterforms. Minor nationalistic differences become apparent—the French tended to use a more refined form of stenciling, known as pochoir, for printing posters and book illustrations by fine artists such as Matisse, but also kept basic versions in play for Metro and street signage. The British depended upon stencils as an integral part of the UK’s seafaring mercantile tradition, using them to label crates of tea coming in from China, spices from India, and burlap bags or boxes of outbound goods headed for ports worldwide.
In Italy during the ’20s and ’30s, stenciled notices were tools of domination and propaganda, with Mussolini’s motivational sayings shouting out to passersby from the walls—but Italian stenciled letterforms enjoyed a lovelier incarnation during Napoleon’s occupation of Venice in the late 1700s. Street name stencils (called nizioletti because of the white backgrounds they all share), applied directly onto buildings and corners, continue to define the unique graphic character of the city today. In America, stencils almost always find their way into military, police, or fire department uses, though Heller and Fili also provide several historic examples of basic commercial labeling from high to low, from a fur coat advertisement for Saks Fifth Avenue to a wooden crate for Orange Crush soda.
Paul Renner’s 1936 Futura Black runs like a thread throughout the entire book. It was the most used stencil typeface from the ’30s through the ’50s, inspiring designers of every country. It pops up again and again in Modernist movements including Futurism and Constructivism, whose pioneers found its dramatic letterforms invaluable for expressing their concerns over the speed of industry. The authors describe Jan Tschichold’s 1931 Transit (which informed Futura Black) as “the graphic equivalent of an aerodynamic automobile, a symbol of the present future.” It’s a quality that stencil typefaces continue to pin down very neatly today even as they maintain historic ties to the past.