Álvaro Franca

Tell us about how you came to create the Typewritten Portraits.
I was taking a printmaking and etching course, but when I turned it in for evaluation, I got a lousy grade and a terrible write-up; my professors didn’t think I really tried anything new, given that the assignment was to experiment.

Who are the authors you chose to create portraits of?
Charles Bukowski, my favorite author of all time. Jose Saramago, a Portuguese writer whose story interests me because he only started writing when he was 60 or so. His work is so powerful. J.D. Salinger, whose work like Catcher in the Rye  was very important to me during my formative years. Jack Kerouac, a brilliant author. And lastly, Clarice Lispector, another favorite Brazilian writer. Now I’ve created another few portraits under the wraps, including Hemingway, who is possibly one of the most iconic typewriters. His portrait is now one of my favorites because he has gray hair, a bushy beard, and a woolen turtleneck, so you can see a lot of texture in his portrait. I also did portraits of Franz KafkaManoel de Barros – my favorite poet,  and Kurt Vonnegut – who isn’t necessarily my favorite but he has great hair. [Laughs] 

You mentioned that Bukowski is your favorite. What is your favorite work by him?
I love his poetry. I have an anthology of his, You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense. It’s a book I keep rereading; it’s a cyclical thing, where you read one poem, stop, leave it for a month or so, and read another. His novels are all incredible; I love Women and Post Office.

When you were creating these portraits, was there a lot of planning? Obviously you had to reference an image, but what was your process?
There’s a lot of planning before I start typing the portrait. When I first started, the Bukowski portrait was a test and you can see that there are plenty of mistakes.  Most of the other mistakes, I was able to cover by typing over them! [Laughs] I had to try out many different shades of gray for these portraits. For example, since the typewriter has a mono-space font, ‘m’ is the darkest letter because it has three vertical stems, while the letter ‘i’ is lighter shade because it only has one stem. I also looked at what shades are in between, and so I fixed on ‘x’ and ‘o’ for midtones. There’s also white, so there are quite a lot of shades to work with.

Do you use your computer for the planning stage?
I always plan it out my computer by placing the pixels in a similar resolution that I can get from the typewriter. I wanted margins on all of the images like a polaroid picture. Early on, I figured that I should work on a 80 by 120 pixel resolution and I tried a few low-res portraits as well. Everything is very manual. The computer is a tool but it doesn’t know what looks good where. Even after I’m done with the maps, when I’m typing, I take 4-6 hours and make a lot of decisions on the fly. For example, for the Claurice Lispector portrait, she had a very low neckline on her blouse and you can barely see the beginning of her left shoulder. From my planning though, I put nothing there. In the end I added a light line that was interrupted by ‘I”s; it made all the difference.

When did you get into design?
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have always been into design. Growing up, I had a notebook where I wrote down what I thought were symbols. Turns out they were actually logos that I drew. I thought a lot about working in advertisement when I was younger; I wanted to do design, but I just didn’t know the name for it. Then when I was 17 and trying to get into college, my father – who is a filmmaker – brought home the documentary, Helvetica. I watched it and thought that graphic design was what I wanted to do. Eventually, I realized that I really wanted to get into type design.

You’ve studied at both Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial and Cambridge School of Arts. What was the greatest skill you took away from your studies?
The most important thing was a sense of curiosity and how to go after things you are curious about. The more you are exposed, the more you want to be exposed to more.

What courses do you regret not taking?
I always think about learning a new language. So far I only know Portuguese and English, but I want to study Dutch because I want to get my Masters in Holland.

You also created your own font, Selsdon. Why that name?
I want to be a type designer. Selsdon is the name of the street that I lived in in London, Selsdon Road. It’s an homage to that location because I studied abroad in Cambridge but landed an internship with Dalton Maag in London and stayed there for two months. There was a lot of training including manual calligraphy and painting before you can even touch a computer. I made a newspaper font because it’s very technical since it’s printed small and on a bad paper. I repeated that phrase like a mantra: small font, bad paper. Since I had access to professionals, I wanted to try a technically-challenging font to get the most out of the experience.

What’s your favorite font?
I have phases. When I got into school, I was sensitive so I thought Helvetica was it. Now, I’m bored with that font and prefer serif fonts. I really love Bram de Does, the Dutchman who made Lexicon and Trinité. They’re both amazing; he dominates the technical side of things so well but gives it a hugely expressive twist at the same time.

What’s your least favorite font then?
Papyrus, maybe? I’m not a big fan of experimental fonts that are all geometric. I used to be anti-Comic Sans, but I’ve started to warm up to it. At Dalton Maag, I worked with Vincent Connare, who designed Comic Sans, so I guess I’m biased.

I saw a typewriter that printed Comic Sans. Did you see that?
I did! I actually contacted the creator because I was curious. Typewriters are monospaced, but Comic Sans typically isn’t. He sent me samples of random phrases so that I could see the spacing. I wanted to see how Comic Sans behaved and how badly would it fall apart, but he did quite a good job of it.

Let’s go back to your own work. How did Practice Makes Perfect come about?
When I started out, I had literally no experience at all with calligraphy. That was around the same time I started the typewritten portraits. This was a part of an assignment where I produced a piece of work to mail to potential employers, something that reflects my idiosyncrasies and who I am. We have to show that we have a lot of commitment, so I wanted to apply it to type design. I started designing a font in Fontlab, which I’d never used since I usually use  RoboFont, and FontLab is the font editor of choice at Dalton Maag.  I knew that there was a calligraphy part of the [Dalton Maag] internship and I had no experience. I bought a pen and made the assignment an excuse to get into it. The actual broadsheet took me 6 hours but I put a lot of effort beforehand to perfect it. As it so happens, I found out that practice does perfect, but not exhaustively. The first few lines look really good but then it starts to fall apart because I was tired. It looks lame but it’s a proof of concept.

What did you discover is most difficult about calligraphy?
There’s a lot of discipline involved. When I left London, I felt like I really had it down. That said, if you stop practicing for one week, you lose a lot. You’re not back to square one, but close.

What musician do you hope to see live?
Led Zeppelin. That’s my biggest dream. In 2007 I applied to win tickets, but even if I been chosen, I would have had to shell out a lot of cash to get to London. I was also only 15.

What’s your favorite Led son?
White Summer, a beautiful instrumental track. My favorite used to be an emotional song called Since I’ve Been Loving You until my brother pointed out to me that John Bonham’s pedal hadn’t been properly cleaned and there’s a high-pitched squeaky noise. You can’t un-hear it and that ruined the song for me.

What’s your favorite Brazilian dish?
Pão de Queijo, which is cheese bread. It’s not high cuisine at all. It’s just so good.

Where do you want to travel next?
I really want to go to New York. I wrote a letter to myself in 2006 that says I should only open it in 2016 and I am morbidly curious to open it but it’s addressed to New York. It seems that 14-year-old me hoped to go there. Maybe I owe that to myself. I’ve been watching High Maintenance really makes me want to go to New York.

Who is an artist you love?
Mark Rothko. I really love abstract expressionism. There’s a really good book by Vonnegut called Blue Beard about an abstract expressionist.

What are your thoughts on beauty?
Beauty is anything that has the power of moving someone, making them think or feel or takes their breath away. The effect of doing that is beautiful.

And lastly, what is the best drink?
Whiskey sour.


For more of Álvaro’s work, check out his website.