Sumner Stone: Letterform/Humanform

Sumner Stone’s talk about the evolution of letters from basic human forms was part history lesson part performance. Various props accompanied Stone on his journey through time and the audience was left feeling a profound fondness for both Stone and letterforms.

An early indicator of the unexpected pleasures peppered throughout Stone’s talk was his first action on stage. Instead of approaching the podium and addressing the audience, Stone began by taking a leisurely stroll thorough the garden of eyes on stage. “Look at these!” he remarked excitedly. “Did they make these just for me?”

While that question remains unanswered, in his hour onstage Stone illuminated the progression of letterforms from early Paleolithic drawings and Egyptian pictograms to the alphabet we recognize today. “I believe we have been misguided by a famous Eric Gill quote” noted Stone. Gill concluded that “Letters are things. Not pictures of things.” But Stone asked the audience to reconsider this statement. The forms we combine to interpret as words today stem from a long history of drawing pictures of things to represent meaning. In many cases, these pictures of things were in fact representations of the human form.

Sumner Stone

Sumner Stone

Type Designer (Rumsey, California)

Sumner Stone is the Founder at  Stone Type Foundry Inc. located on Alphabet Farm in Rumsey, California. The Foundry has produced a variety of prize-winning typefaces as well as custom type designs, logotypes, and lettering. Sumner is a type founder, type designer, lettering artist, author, and teacher. From 1984–1989 he was Director of Typography for Adobe Systems where he conceived and implemented Adobe’s typographic program including the Adobe Originals. Sumner has taught several different courses and type workshops in the Type@Cooper program at Cooper Union. He is presently teaching in the Extended program. He is the author of many articles about typography and typeface design, and has lectured widely on these topics. *Portrait by Mary Ann Frye, 2014.

“I’ve always wanted to make a letter the same height as myself”

At this point in the talk, Stone took the liberty of unveiling a special guest he had invited on stage. With a flourish, Stone whipped off a purple velvet cape to reveal a Stone-sized R. “I’ve always wanted to make a letter the same height as myself” Stone proudly stated. But this was no ordinary letter. Rex, as Stone calls him, is the King of all letterforms. Fittingly, Stone gently placed a gold crown atop his guest’s head. Rex is indeed the king, because the R we recognize today evolved from the Egyptian pictogram of a head.

The form of a human head is far from the only bodily influence on letterforms however. “Look at our very bones.” Stone said, backlit by a ginormous picture of a femur as he swung his arm in a graceful arc. “We have circles built right into our bodies.” So it should come as no surprise that the circle became an early part of letter making.

Letterforms need love just like everybody else

Stone concluded his talk by showing different masters crafting type by hand in a variety of mediums, evoking oohs and ahhs from the audience. As for Stone’s current work? His latest masterpiece was creating a female companion for Rex. With personalities and rich histories of their own, I guess letterforms need love just like everybody else.

written by Jenn Livermore