23 March, 2010

Lettres à jour: public stencil lettering in France

Last edited 13 September 2010

Almost since my first visit to France I have been delighted by the look of the improvised public notices that are made with stencils, pochoirs, or (to use a more old-fashioned term) lettres à jour – letters pierced in metal that let the daylight show through them. Quite often the setting-out is irregular, even chaotic, but in France the roman letters are beautiful and formal. At their best, set out manually, one by one, they make notices that have authority but also a living quality.
Stencils were used in the 17th and 18th centuries in France and Germany to make the texts of big liturgical books. They were also used for marking playing cards. The first description of how the stencils themselves were made was written in the 1690s for the ‘Description des Arts et Métiers’ – the account of all trades that was prepared by a little group of specialists for the Academy of Sciences in Paris but most of which was not published at the time, leaving Diderot to carry out the idea in his Encyclopédie. In the 18th century you could buy your own alphabets, in plain but elegant roman letters or elaborate fancy script, or get labels or visiting cards cut to order. Some that Benjamin Franklin bought from a supplier called Bery in Paris are among his surviving possessions in Philadelphia:

In fact owning a small-scale personal stencil was not uncommon at the time. Here is an English example in a book of the late 18th century.

In the 19th century the French stencils took on the look of the bold ‘Didot’ capitals, which became ubiquitous in architectural lettering in France (the example below was in Autun, many decades ago), and they have retained that style.

Among the first images of the familiar stencils that are still sold in France must be this one that appears among the sketches that accompany the manuscript, written in about 1836, of Stendhal’s semi-autobiographical novel La vie de Henry Brulard, recalling the passionate and irrational desire he felt in his adolescence for buying certain objects set out for sale in the street market in Grenoble. In this case, they were ‘portable letters cut through a thin plate of brass the size of a playing card’.

Georges Braque used the common stencil as a part of the surrounding scene in his painting Le Portugais (1911) to simulate the effect of posters in a Parisian café, and the idea of using these ‘everyday letters’ caught on. They are in the paintings of Fernand Léger. In the 1920s El Lissitsky and Man Ray incorporated French stencil letters into their designs and photograms. Le Corbusier used them to mark his architectural drawings. The US designer Paul Rand bought a set in Paris and took them home with him to use in his own designs for book and magazine covers.

One of my favourite examples of the idea of the stencil and its associations is Marcel Jacno’s logo and lettering for the Théâtre National Populaire of Jean Vilar in the 1950s, where the informality of the stencil letter, which he called Chaillot after the Palais de Chaillot in Paris where the company had its base, stood for the popular quality of the company, where you could pay a few francs to see rising stars like Gérard Philipe and Maria Casarès in Le Cid. I have never discovered exactly how the NT logo of the British National Theatre came to be such a close visual echo of Jacno’s TNP. A half-conscious memory?

I bought sets of stencils myself in Paris and used them to mark all kinds of things – folders of current work, and the numbers on new mobile shelving that was being installed in the St Bride Library, where they still survive.

When the makers of ‘Rapitype’, a rival to Letraset’s rub-down lettering, launched their product in about 1970 and were seeking new designs, I offered my stencils. They were marketed under the original name of ‘French Stencil’, and were perhaps the first font of this kind to be made.
Letraset did not get the message for another decade. When Letraset France launched an almost identical font under the name of ‘Charrette’ (the French word for a rustic two-wheeled cart, which the English company misspelled ‘Charette’), it got into trouble with the Fondation Le Corbusier for having used letters that they piously believed to have been designed by the great man for his own exclusive use. So the Letraset catalogues obediently and absurdly marked them ‘© Le Corbusier’.

In fact the leading maker of these traditional stencils was known as ‘T & C’. That was all they ever put on the label. But the American designer Dave Siegel – who had plans to make his own stencil type – told me more:
“Somewhere around 1992, I went to Paris and found the company that makes these stencils they use everywhere. The company is called Thevenon, which at the time was located on rue Montmorency in Paris’s 4th arrondissement. There I met Madame Thevenon, the daughter of the man who started the company. she was in her seventies, yet she still ran the company every day. I learned a lot from her, and I’ll summarize here. The stencils are produced somewhere in the center of France. In the early 1900s, there were two companies producing stencils – mostly for signage. Both these companies also made many other stamped and cut metal products, and they also made the enameled signs you see everywhere in France for denoting the numbers of the street addresses on all the houses and buildings. It was a friendly competition, and the two companies’ products were quite similar. The cool thing about these stencils was that they were designed differently at every size, so you could watch the transformation in design from a few millimeters to 1 meter (their largest size). Sometime in the fifties, the two companies merged to become Thevenon. The other company’s name was dropped.”
Thévenon & Cie are very much still in business as Établissements Thévenon at Gergy, a little town on the River Saône in Burgundy not far from places with resonant names like Mâcon and Cluny. The company makes all kinds of things in metal, like tokens and signs, and also the traditional stencils. I don’t know if they still make those metre-high ones, but I hope so. Stencils are still shown on the web site. If you want to buy them off the shelf, try the Bazaar de l’Hôtel de Ville (BHV) in Paris, or traditional ironmongers in French provincial towns where they still survive.
The trouble with the look of texts made with fonts based on stencils is that they lack the irregular spontaneity which is one of the charms of the medium. I know, having made one myself. Just van Rossum tried to get over this with his ‘badly-inked’ stencil type Flightcase (1992) but unless you can make a kind of self-degrading stencil font on the model of Beowulf (worth trying perhaps), it does not compete with the real thing. So this is essentially an assembly of some examples that I have found in use, and that I have thought good enough to be worth sharing.
How long will these stencils go on being used? When the line opened the location of the numbered Eurostar carriages was marked by big stencilled figures on the platform at the Gare du Nord, but they are no longer there. However there are some encouraging examples with which to conclude my piece – from the boats on the pond in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

to the parking instructions for airplanes at the high-tech environment of Satolas airport, now l’aéroport Lyon Saint Exupéry

and the Site François Mitterand of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in the district in eastern Paris known as Tolbiac.


Like my note on Gill’s letter R, this brief piece is another example of self-publishing. It is a slightly edited version of the summary of my text that I prepared for the conference on ‘Temporary Type’ held at the St Bride Library in 2005. In fact the text is still on the library’s web site, but for some reason the selected images that I supplied with it were never added. Since it was written with the images in mind and does not make much sense without them I thought I would show some with this reissue of the text and add a few more. Alas, the model sailing boats, identified with stencilled letters on their sails, seem now to have vanished from the pool in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a reminder that we must enjoy examples that remain while they are still to be seen. (For my talk I had contrived a version of the image above, showing yacht GB triumphing over the combined forces of F and E, since this was 2005, and the conference was held in the week before the bicentenary of Trafalgar.) Editorial note: some of the yachts were back by the summer of 2010.
Two correspondents have reminded me that, as one of them had once told me, Charrette (meaning a simple horse-drawn cart), the name of Letraset’s font, was ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. In studios it had acquired the additional informal sense of a ‘rush-job’, or as the excellent Robert de Poche puts it, ‘période de travail intensif’. I am also told that, in an odd twist, Letraset’s name Charrette was borrowed in the USA for the marketing of real metal stencils, which were used in their offices by architects, in homage to Corb.
The choice of this subject was encouraged, as I indicate, by my own pleasure in the form of stencil that pleases me most and of which the future survival in practical use may be precarious. I should add that Eric Kindel, my teaching colleague at Reading, has taken broader historical research in this field forward in a most professional manner. He has acquired a formidable collection of examples of stencils of all kinds, many of the 19th century and earlier from Europe and the United States. He also set up a practical project, in collaboration with the designer Fred Smeijers, in order to recreate the method of making stencils for producing the text of liturgical books that was first described as part of the Description des Arts et Métiers by Gilles Filleau des Billettes. His overview of the making and use of stencils is ‘Recollecting stencil letters’, Typography papers, 5 (2003), pp. 65–101, and his most recent contribution to the literature, an account of the 17th-century use by Christiaan Huygens of stencils as a means of publishing scientific texts, appears in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, new series 14 (2009). Here, by way of conclusion, are a couple of examples of stencilling from the papers in the Archives nationales, Paris, of Sébastien Truchet, a fellow-member with Des Billettes of the ‘Commission Bignon’, mathematician, hydraulic engineer, and inventor of standard bodies for printing types.

My thanks to Eric Kindel for the image of the Bery stencil, and to Dave Siegel for his narrative relating to Thévenon.

Some more images