Ed Benguiat Saw the Similarities Between Musical Notation and Printed Letters and Words

By Barnard Law Collier

How letters and words take shape on a page makes a significant difference in how deeply the meaning of those letters and words will be felt.

Nobody ever understood that poetic concept better than drummer, typographer, and letter artist Ephram “Ed” Benguiat (pronounced BenGAT), who died on October 15 and would have been 93 on October 27.

On the musical side, Ed was a gifted percussionist from about age 10,  and he kept getting better.

In his early years, under the nickname Eddie Benart, he played drums for several big 1930s-1960s bands like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.

On the illustrator side, his father was display director at Bloomingdales. His dad kept a studio loaded with pens, brushes, paints and drafting tools with which Ed became expertly familiar.

One memorable day Ed took a clear-eyed look at his fellow musicians and made a life changing decision:

“I went to the musician’s union to pay dues,” he said, “and I saw all these old people who were playing bar mitzvahs and Greek weddings. It occurred to me that one day that’s going to be me, so I decided to become an illustrator.”

Ed saw the similarities between musical notation and printed letters and words. He believed that everyone has all the words and all the notes all the time. Thus “meaning” is entirely decided by how one places them together.  Do the placements express their ideas with strength, elegance and beauty, or something crude and slipshod? Ed tolerated no middle ground, especially about his own work. He found something imperfect about any art he did.

Nonetheless, with a pointy pencil (and later some computer apps)  Ed created more than 600 typeface designs, including Tiffany, Bookman, Panache, Souvenir, Edwardian Script,  Benguiat, and Benguiat Gothic.

He either designed or redesigned the logos for EsquireThe New York TimesPlayboyMcCall’sReader’s Digest, Photography, LookSports IllustratedThe Star-LedgerThe San Diego TribuneAT&TA&ECokeEstée Lauder, and Ford, among others.

In his final third of a century, Ed wore a slouchy black felt fedora hat, white shirts, and dark clothing, like a slightly sinister priest. Yet out from under the brim beamed dark eyes full of fun, candor, compassion, and laughable truth, with a trove of mustachioed  facial expressions to add zest.

He was a stellar storyteller with pen and words. As an illustrator he drew each letter, squiggle, question mark, number and slash so that they beautifully collaborated with all the other possible letters and words beside and around them, all to enhance the story.

Ed said the original drawings for his self-titled Benguiat font required 18 months of fantastically precise and complex pencil drawings, plus time to tweak each letter so that it looked comfortable in almost every concatenation.

Ed was well aware that only some readers could appreciate exquisite typography, and many didn’t get it.  He compared “tone deafness” for sounds – when songs are lifeless and off-key, with “eye deafness” – when shape and space on a page means little or nothing to the beholder.

Here are a few of the precepts Ed taught to hopeful letter artists:

  • “I do not think of type as something that should be readable. It should be beautiful.”
  • “To me designing has never been a job or profession. It’s a way of life, like a priest or rabbi.”
  • “The only place ‘Avant Garde’ looks good is in the words ‘Avant Garde’.”
  • “I’m never satisfied. No matter when it’s finished, I still say, ‘should-a, could-a, would-a.’ Design is personal.”
  • “I use this expression with my class all the time: ‘Music is nothing more than placing sounds in their proper order so they are pleasing to the ear.’  What’s a layout? Placing things in their proper order so they are pleasing to the eye.”
  • “You get feedback from other musicians when you are playing and bounce things back and forth at each other to make the tune sound better (or worse). Same goes for design.
  •  “Music and design connect for me. I made a good living as a musician for a while. I was the No. 3 drummer in the United States. It’s still a part of my life. . . At my funeral, I’d like to have someone play a drum solo.”

    Barney Collier describes himself as “Cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, publisher, and brewer of the world’s best cooking sauce, Gaucho Green Chimmi-Churri.”

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