Ed Rondthaler Passes Away At Age 104
Last week Wednesday, August 19th, 2009, Ed Rondthaler – co-founder of Photo-Lettering, Inc. and the International Typeface Corporation (ITC) – passed away at the venerable age of 104. He was married for 72 years to his wife Dorothy Reid, who died in 2002. Several years ago he said:
“I’ve never worked a day in my life. I never made much money, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
TypeCon2005 NYC was the first type conference I attended after a ten year hiatus, and the first one where I spoke. Arguably the highlight of the three day main programme was Friday evening’s Photo-Lettering: Back To The Future, a joint presentation of the two legends in the type world that are Ed Benguiat and Ed Rondthaler, who had just turned 100, with Ken Barber. Looking back I still am grateful and consider myself very fortunate that I witnessed this momentous event. I was blown away by the vitality and joyful banter of the two Eds, and completely engrossed by the stories they were reminiscing about. Most impressive was the centenarian occasionally getting to his feet, using his cane not to support himself but to point out details on the projected images. The fact that he still remembered every single name, location, and date from his entire life was awe-inspiring, and his full-bodied baritone didn’t have any need for a microphone on stage. By the end of the presentation I had tears in my eyes, not so much from being moved but from pure exhilaration. The interview he gave for Typeradio gives a pretty good impression of what it was like to listen to him.
Edward Rondthaler III was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on June 9, 1905. His interest in the graphic arts burgeoned when he received his first small printing press at the age of 5. Rondthaler, who sang and played piano, flute, oboe and bassoon, attended Westminster College, a music school in Pennsylvania, before receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was given an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Drake University.
His interest in the letters and sounds of the English letters became a career in typography and spelling that he pursued throughout his life. After moving to New York with his wife in 1929, he associated with Harold Horman of the Rutherford Machinery Co. Together they converted a step-and-repeat machine for texture and metal printing into the Rutherford Photo-Lettering Machine, the first photographic typesetting device, in 1936. It enabled printers to set type with hand-drawn letters instead of being limited to metal typefaces. This revolutionised typesetting, not only because it offered as-of-yet uncharted creative freedom in designing extravagant display faces, but also allowed for optical distortion of the type – slanting, condensing, extending, and so on. That same year Rondthaler and Horman founded the mid-town New York ad headline house Photo-Lettering, Inc., affectionately called Plinc. In the early 60s design luminary Ed Benguiat joined Photo-Lettering, Inc as a director in the company and heading up their publication PLINC.
Principal of communication design firm Incipit Peter Bain writes about Photo-Lettering Inc. and film type in general in Display phototype in New York: folks, firms and fonts, a transcript of the talk he presented at Hidden Typography, the Friends of St Bride Printing Library second annual conference conference held in October 2003. Webmaster and type fanatic Kevin Walsh who worked at Plinc. from 1982–88 gives a marvellous illustrated account of some of the history of the firm on Forgotten New York. And Brooklyn-based art director and graphic designer Justin Thomas Kay posted some fantastic pictures of his Photo-Lettering, Inc. catalogues on 12ozProphet.
Photo-Lettering, Inc. was a mainstay of the advertising and design industry in New York City from 1936 to 1997. One of the earliest and most successful type houses to utilise photo technology in the production of commercial typography and lettering, it sold type drawn by the likes of Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast as well as countless other unsung lettering greats. The company is best known by most of today’s graphic designers for its ubiquitous type catalogues.
After being a leading light at Photo-Lettering, in 1969 Rondthaler associated with Aaron Burns and Herb Lubalin in founding the International Typeface Corporation, the first type foundry to have no connection to hot metal type. For several decades, ITC furnished manufacturers of photographic, electronic and laser equipment, and a plethora of superb typefaces. Its large format quarterly publication U&lc (Upper and Lower Case) introduced a new font or two with every issue, and was a staple on many graphic designer’s desk.
In 1975, at the tender age of 70, Ed Rondthaler received the TDC Medal, the award from the Type Directors Club presented to those “who have made significant contributions to the life, art, and craft of typography”. He became President of the American Literacy Council, a non-profit organization that seeks to help people get to grips with the patterns and the chaos of English spelling. He was a long-time proponent of “simplified spelling”, seeking the reform of written language through more logical and regular spelling as a means of fighting illiteracy. Rondthaler co-authored the Dictionary of American Spelling, a phonetic spelling dictionary, and helped develop computer software to further the organisation’s goals to make English spelling phonetic. He advocated his cause with much humour, as attests this video of the witty performance he also did at TypeCon2005 NYC.
Ed Rondthaler’s legacy lives on, through his book Life With Letters – As they turned photogenic, which is part history, part autobiography on his experience with typography. Furthermore Photo-Lettering, Inc. is being revived by House Industries as an on-demand custom typesetting website.
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