Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Movable Wood Typography

Lost, but not forgotten

by Tim Jeffs & Ralph Cerino

When I started my first part time job in publishing during my senior year in college at Parson School of Design I caught the tail end of the golden age of typography. It was 1986, and desktop publishing was still a few years away from taking off. The only computers in the office were a few Mac Plus' which the editors used to write on. Any type design was still marked up, sent out for typesetting to type houses, galleys where returned and then cut and pasted up onto boards. My first job, at the publishing company called Rebus where I worked, was making stats of type and photographs for layout. Eventually I worked my way into the art department and started designing and layout out book spreads myself. The good old days of xacto knives, rubber cement, rubber cement thinner, and letter spacing by hand. I was taught the art of typography from art directors and designs who appreciated true letter spacing, leading, kerning, tracking, and the color of typography. When the first Mac II showed up in the office I was the first to embrace it, and was captivated by its possibilities. 27 years later I'm still designing books on the Mac. But I never forgot the meaning of what true typography was and how important it was to learn the art of typography. 

Ralph Cerino's Facebook picture that I immediately took an interest in

Lou Cerino, My Dad Joe Jeffs, and Ralph Cerino

My Uncles, Lou & Ralph Cerino, run a 86 year old sign company in Philadelphia, PA (since 1927) that my grandfather started called Bright Sign Company. The company has been at the same location, 1215 Race Street for 69 years (since 1944). Recently Ralph posted on his Facebook page his name laid out in wood typography that instantly caught my eye. To me it was like a beautiful piece of sculpture. Something you could touch and feel and be a part of. I wrote to Ralph and asked him about the wood type pieces he created his name with. He was wonderful and told me in detail about it, and the families sign business, and my grandfather's artistic side.

A sign that my Grandfather's company created then...

and a sign that the same company, 86 years strong, creates today

Ralph: "The wood type is all that is left from an antiquated poster printing machine (more like a proof-press or a litho-block printer) that was designed & used for retail department store in-house poster & card printing, called a 'Print-A-Sign' machine. While using mostly pre-loaded matrices with different fonts & point sizes of metal type, these occasional wood type fonts would find their way into the mix for usage.  Dad also used to make rubber stamps before photopolymer dies changed the stamp industry. Most of the metal type we had for that (for hand-setting) is gone, but for a few fonts & pieces we occasionally find, along with block cuts & logo or specialty text dies. The wood type that remains, that I used for your pieces, is just enough to get by for simple applications.

The chase (solid iron frame) that I locked up your type in was from an old postcard letterpress that handled up to 7x9 printing.  All that is left is what you see in your photo.

We used to have a 12x18 & a 24 x 30 platen (clam-shell type) letterpress used primarily for die-cutting, but once that technology changed, they became obsolete for our usage, & we drifted away from it. All were sold (mostly for scrap) & are gone now, replaced with plotters, rollers, knives, & inkjets. It's hard to keep up, sometime, the technology changes so rapidly."

Brothers Domenic & Louis Cerino

My Grandfather and his love of Type

Ralph: "For a 15 year-old immigrant, Louis Cerino, coming to this country in 1912 (to join his 4 other brothers who were already here), he worked hard & never let any grass grow, constantly moving & learning as he made a life & established several businesses over the course of his lifetime, that ultimately supported us as a family.  His first job was hawking newspapers on a street corner, a job that remained (on Sundays) in the family until 2000. He also started artistically as a show card writer (pen & ink, like you, then with a brush) at Wanamaker's Department Store. That quickly evolved into working for other sign sub-contractors who provided work to the store for their window-decorating, visual merchandising, & other departments. Within 15 years, he had started the company we run today (although then it was called 'Jim Bright with the Bright Ideas', but found it's way to become Bright Sign Company). We have been in this location, 1215 Race Street, for 69 years (since 1944), & have the junk piled around the shop & in the basement to prove it."

3 generations of Lou Cerinos-1972.

More Type Creations by Ralph Cerino

Ralph did my sister Denise's name next

Then Ralph set my Blog's name in wood type

along with several versions of my name

and another of my full name

Here's a logo I'm working on with Ralphs wood type incorporated

Thanks Ralph for the the appreciation of type, the inspiration, the memories of my short time involved with REAL typography, the family history, and the wonderful artistic type creations you made for me.


  1. From Helen Lakeru: Thanks for sharing this Tim. Growing up watching my father and brothers set type and work in the sign business remains a great memory for me. We all worked at Bright Sign at one time or another helping in the family business. For those less artistically gifted (moi), we were recruited to simply count stencils and stuff them into little bags that were then shipped to the US Government for use on their trucks and equipment. It was a big part of Daddy's business and paid many bills I am sure.
    Great photos! Love the idea of the typeset look for a logo.

  2. From Lauren Yurick: What a wonderful post! And I had not seen the picture of my brother, dad, and grandfather (Pop Pop). Thank you so much!!
    Lauren (Cerino) Yurick

  3. Thanks Helen and Lauren!! It's been so wonderful discovering the history of your family, and their artistic side. I knew so little, but now it's all becoming so wonderfully clear!
    All the best, Tim

  4. Such a meaningful entry Tim (and Ralph)! Seeing the individual letters of different fonts grafted together looks as off balance, organic and artful as our history. I'm hope we get to tour the Bright Sign Company soon. More stories! More pictures! and more family connection!

    1. Thanks so much! Knowing that the posts are being viewed and enjoyed means the world to me!!