To my knowledge, ‘Native New Yorker’ Jon Contino is the world’s only Alphastructaesthetitologist (a self-proclaimed distinction). From his home in the bucolic Hudson Valley, New York, Jon produces an astounding volume of gritty, hand-drawn letters for customers around the world. Jon’s is a distinctive style which draws inspiration from the Layered history of New York City and the Northeastern US. A few weeks ago, I chatted with Jon about his work and inspiration:
Basically, I’ve been designing as a professional freelancer since age fourteen. I was part of a band and I was the guy who designed all the T-shirts, logos and all that. Then my friends and family would refer me to other people, and it grew from there. Just little twenty-five, fifty-dollar projects, you know.
I’ve always liked the clean, minimal sensibilities, but I can’t do that sort of design. I find using my hands to be a lot easier than using a computer, and so my work just always has that handmade, gritty look.
I’ve designed a lot of different fonts, but none of them are available commercially. Normally, I’ll design a font for projects that are just too big to be one-hundred-percent hand-lettered. Or, if it’s rolling out in multiple languages, that sort of thing. I don’t plan to make my fonts available commercially (at least not at this point), and I basically don’t use other people’s typefaces in my work at all.
I do my lettering with pencil, ink, markers…I gave up on tracing paper years ago. So, I’m constantly drawing, erasing and redoing. It’s a destructive process. A lot of my work has a patina effect, and I try to keep it as natural as possible. Sometimes I overlay a texture in Photoshop. I’ve been photographing different textures for years. Often the smaller clients are happy to just let things turn out how they turn out, but the bigger corporate clients are more detail-oriented, so having the ability to make those changes in Photoshop is a huge help.
New York City has been a commercial place for so long. It’s been jam-packed with signage since the very beginning. It’s just part of the town and you can’t ignore it. I especially love the older signage that you can still see around. It’s so cool because it was just purely functional, just getting a message out there. There were no carefully crafted brands like we have now. It was just ‘Hot Bagels’ or whatever. I find that stuff totally fascinating. These old signs had personality, little mistakes… I’m obsessed with it!
I now live in a small town called New Hampton, right on the Jersey border in the Hudson Valley of New York. It’s only an hour’s drive from Manhattan, but a beautiful place to raise a family. It’s full of history as well, and actually, although it’s less densely packed than Brooklyn, the historical stuff is better preserved out here in the country. We’ve got a lot of antique shops, old stores, creative people…a lot of stuff from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Our house is actually a restored schoolhouse.
For a few of my projects, I’ve gotten signs made by okMitch Studio, here in Brooklyn. They’re a great little shop. They’re experts at what they do. They know how to do a wide variety of styles, and they get the job done, without slowing everything down with unhelpful suggestions or recommendations that some of the bigger, non-creative shops tend to do.
These days there is such a growing interest in hand-lettering. Years ago, I couldn’t sell the hand-lettered stuff. Now, it’s all anybody wants. Actually, it’s a bit of an over-saturation at the moment. People who shouldn’t be doing it are doing it. Hopefully those who know what they’re doing can stay in business!
But the internet provides so much inspiration now, with Instagram and all these design websites. I get inspired by so many people, I can’t begin to list them all…veterans like Kimou Meyer, Invisible Creature, and the guys at House Industries have been huge influences for so long, and now a lot of kids in their early twenties are learning how to do things right, like the old-timers. It’s great!