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Book of Letters

by Grace Bonney

When one of our Design by the Book artists asked me to find some books on vintage lettering, monograms, and typography, I headed to the stacks and didn’t come up for air for days (or so it seemed, I became so engrossed). I had a fabulous time searching through the Library’s collection for him, and I ended up hooked on monogramming. Of the many books on monograms and lettering that I found, there are a few standouts. One is Moderne Monogramme, published in Dresden in 1908. I love this book for its lush art nouveau letters, designed by Paul Starke.

Notice that lovely GB in the center, Grace?

I’ve also taken a special shine to the DIY approach of How to Design Monograms by Elizabeth and Curtiss Sprague. This little guide, published in London in 1927, contains instructions as well as plenty of examples, like the pages included here.

The Spragues explain that a well-designed monogram will exhibit “proportion, rhythm, fine spacing, and unity.” And to that end, they advise the following:
•Start by writing down on paper the letters of your initials in both lower case and capitals.
•See if any “combinations of letters immediately suggest a happy shape or arrangement.”
•Look for “strokes which are common in two of the letters” (such as how both capital R and D have similarly curved sides).
•If two of the same letter are present, consider making one a mirror image of the other.
•Simple letter types are more flexible than “elaborate, florid letters” which are “quite too fanciful to be further played with.”
•Feel free to take “unlimited liberties in the distortion of letters” in the design process, but remember that the result should remain legible.
•A monogram will usually form a symmetrical outside shape of some sort, such as oval or diamond, but irregular forms can be quite nice as well.

With this advice (as well as a few other books on monograms and lettering) at hand, I can’t help but ponder the possibilities for an elegant monogram of my own. The Spragues have made it sound so easy that my head is swimming with visions of barware, letterhead, and bookplates of my very own.

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  • Thank you so much for sharing this! I have an obsession with monograms and this has spurred me on to create my own monogram! Thanks.

  • Thanks for getting me started on a project that I’ve literally thought about for years and have edged my way toward it this week. Thanks for the visual kick to get me started!!!!

  • Hi Grace,

    It is so funny that you are having this thing with monograms, as I am too. I am in the midst of designing for my daughters for Xmas their own monograms to silkscreen on t-shirts and I am doing the same for BF. Here in France, I have found the most amazing monograms, on sheets and vintage linens especially, and I love the idea that we all have our own unique marque that expresses our individuality. Stay tuned as we will be adding silkscreened monogrammed t-shirts to basicfrenchonline very soon. Best holiday wishes—Carol

  • Hi Laura: The two books I’ve featured here are both at NYPL’s Humanities & Social Sciences Library (it’s the monumental one at 42nd and 5th, with the lions out front). If you click on their titles above you’ll see their call numbers, so that you can come in and order them up! Glad that you like them as much as I do!

  • Hi Kim: Just check your local library catalog, or ask your local librarian, if they have books on the subjects “monograms” or “lettering.” Best wishes with your own projects!

  • I LOVEd this post! I am a huge fan of lettering. I’ve worked under, under one of the last Master Hand Engravers, since I was about 16. He his one of 2 Master Engravers that I know about in this country. You have to check out his work! http://www.neustaedters.com
    I have a 4 letter monogram and he designed it SO beautifully. Let me know if you’d like me to e-mail a picture. Machine engraving is so blah in comparison and it SO limited with design.

  • thank you so much for this post! i’ve been trying to decide on personalized stationary for so long now, had thought about monograms a while back and now am re-inspired after seeing these beautiful examples! will be a good rainy LA day activity to work on one of my own…

  • Thank you so much for this great post! I love stationary and have lusted after personalized cards for a while now, but never have been able to make final design decisions. This provided some new inspiration for my endeavors!

  • You’re so cool! I do not believe I’ve read through anything like that
    before. So nice to find someone with a few unique thoughts on this
    issue. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This website is something
    that is needed on the web, someone with some originality!

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