August 16, 2009

Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s Loyal Subjects: Typefaces, Stationery and Boxes, Lots of ’em

Who knew that the great film director Stanley Kubrick was also a type director? In 2004, The Guardian’s Jon Ronson was given special access to Kubrick’s Childwickbury Manor near St. Albans, north of central London. Ronson met with Tony Frewin, Kubrick’s assistant from 1965 until the director’s passing in 1999. Kubrick’s organic and intensive work style resulted in just 13 films and three documentary shorts, but also a large archive of research material which reside in an extensive array of boxes, filing cabinets and storage cabins.

When Ronson took a break from mining Kubrick’s archive, he noticed a note attached to Tony’s postal inbox. The note had POSTMAN typeset in Futura Extra Bold. Frewin revealed that it was Kubrick’s favorite typeface among others: “He liked Helvetica and Univers, too. Clean and elegant.” The following exchange, reported in Jon’s article, between Jon and Tony is brief but telling, typographically speaking:
“Is this the kind of thing you and Kubrick used to discuss?” I [Jon Ronson] ask.

“God, yes,” says Tony. “Sometimes late into the night. I was always trying to persuade him to turn away from them. But he was wedded to his sans serifs.”

Tony goes to his bookshelf and brings down a number of volumes full of examples of typefaces, the kind of volumes he and Kubrick used to study, and he shows them to me. “I did once get him to admit the beauty of Bembo,” he adds, “a serif.”
Ronson later meets Jan Harlan, Kubrick's executive producer and brother-in-law, who proclaimed that “Stanley loved typefaces.” Harlan disclosed Kubrick’s other passion—stationery:
“His great hobby was stationery. One time a package arrived with 100 bottles of brown ink. I said to Stanley, ‘What are you going to do with all that ink?’ He said, ‘I was told they were going to discontinue the line, so I bought all the remaining bottles in existence.’ Stanley had a tremendous amount of ink. … He loved stationery, pads, everything like that.”
What housed Kubrick’s typographic matter were his boxes, custom-designed by Kubrick himself. He wasn’t satisfied by boxes sold at stores and was compelled to create one better suited to his needs.

The University Archives and Special Collections Centre, University of the Arts London, inherited the Stanley Kubrick Archive in March 2007. Over 1,000 boxes whose eclectic contents—scripts, photography, correspondence, research, etc.—etch a hard path of filmic care and creativity.

Kubrik’s reputation for ruthless and devotedly painstaking film editing has become legendary. And it’s become clear that his attention to detail extended to typefaces and stationery. Clearly, props and actors alike, including typefaces and stationery, were recipients of the filmmaker’s exacting experience, and sometimes treated like elements of a chess game. As Kubrick noted, “You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”

Kubrick’s path of boxes and their contents is evidence of the filmmaker’s rigorous pursuit of “better ideas,” with typefaces and stationery playing supporting roles.