Trying to imitate a favorite typeface, Deb Margolin splays herself across her chair, limbs akimbo.
“Hobo Slouch,” she says. “The letters look like homeless people, or people drunk, or down on their luck or something.” She wriggles her thin arms a bit, then retracts them. “It’s onomatopoetic, only visual.”
Professor Margolin’s field is theater — writing, acting, teaching, and directing. But by night, she used to be a typesetter. In New York, in the early eighties, typesetting — the art of placing words on the printed page — was still a thriving, creative industry.
“I considered myself a choreographer of the alphabet, with the letters as my dancers,” Margolin says. “It was a beautiful art form, and I miss it.”
Her first job out of college was working for what might generously be called a trade paper.
“Beauty Fashion Magazine was a low-down, dumpy publication you wouldn’t wrap a fish in, and it went to people who sell lipstick and perfume,” Margolin says. She started at the magazine writing puff pieces about advertisers, but she eventually wound up at the typesetting desk. She had a knack for it. Soon she was working at an independent firm. In a year, she worked up from proofreader to typesetter, then to shift manager and finally manager of the entire computer system that set type.
“I am a person who cannot zip her jacket,” she says. “I am mechanically impaired. But I faith-healed these machines.” Once, when a hard drive failed in the middle of a busy night, Margolin removed the old drive, soldered in a new one, kicked the door shut, and got the machine running again.
Another night, a drunken man called, requesting a certain typeface for an advertisement. He couldn’t remember the name of the font, but he knew what it looked like. “He described how the ‘r’ came out like a trumpet from the base,” Margolin says. “He described the dot on the ‘i’, and how it was slightly off to the left of the base, and I’m listening to this man, putting him on hold to take other calls, and I figured out the typeface! It was Perpetua!”
Palatino is one of Margolin’s favorite typefaces. So is Perpetua. Palatino is the softer of the two. The tiny strokes at the ends of each letter, the serifs, are flat and modest. Perpetua is sleeker — the eye of the ‘e’ is narrower, warier; the ‘a’ ends with a teasing, upturned fillip. The Obama campaign logo is set in Perpetua. As for sans-serif typefaces, Margolin prefers Helvetica. “Helvetica Thin has a very special, musical quality,” she says.
But her voice turns flat when she thinks of computers. “The industry collapsed with the rise of the PC. That whole beautiful science, it’s just over,” she says. “Take a headline. It just does not have the beauty, the choreography, that it once did. I can’t tell you how beautiful type looked then. The elegance of the type was unmistakable.”
When Margolin is using her own computer, she uses Times. “It’s oh-kay,” she says, in a way that makes it sound not very okay at all. “But none of the typefaces are really…” She trails off. “It’s like I had this big love affair with typography and now it’s all just… whatever.”