This article ran in the Wall Street Journal on March 9, 2012.
By Rachel Wolff
In Brooklyn, where hipster nostalgia reigns supreme, a young graphic designer has found sudden success in an unlikely medium: chalk. Impeccably hand-drawn in a range of styles, Dana Tanamachi's old-timey and evocative chalk-only compositions have appeared on everything from wine bottles to in-store displays to the cover of O, the Oprah Magazine.
It was just over two years ago when Ms. Tanamachi, 26, accidentally started her new career by attending a friend's housewarming party in Brooklyn. The hosts had created several chalk walls in their new apartment by using commercially bought "chalkboard" paint (a thick matte variety that can turn any wall into a chalkboard-like surface), and they asked Ms. Tanamachi to sketch something on one of them. Ms. Tanamachi—then working for SpotCo, a New York advertising agency—wrote the word "Brooklyn," arched in a sort of neo-Victorian font.
The drawing was a hit, and photos of partygoers posing in front of it quickly surfaced on Facebook. Ms. Tanamachi made similar works for each of their subsequent parties and word spread among friends and friends of friends. In May 2010, Ms. Tanamachi received her first official commission: an in-store display for Desiron, a furniture showroom in SoHo. A friend of a friend led to a second commission, this time from Google—she wrote "Room to Breathe" in elegant block letters on a chalkboard wall in one of the Internet giant's new Chelsea offices. Jobs soon followed with New York's Ace Hotel, the British Columbia winery Nagging Doubt and Rugby Ralph Lauren, for which Ms. Tanamachi made a series of window displays in type reminiscent of 1940s-era signage. (She declined to discuss the charge for commissions.)
Chalk, she discovered, was the perfect medium for her work; it's cheap and easy to manipulate. For any given commission, her tools are a tape measure, a rag and a pack of dollar-store chalk—nothing else. "The cheaper the better," she said regarding the chalk. "It's more hollow so it goes on smooth. The more expensive stuff is denser, and that's what makes those bad noises."
Ms. Tanamachi makes her preliminary sketches on tracing paper, which enables her to build quite literally on her own work as she adds detail with additional drawings or "layers." She starts each project with a very rough sketch and works section by section. A single piece can feature as many as five or six different typefaces, each conceived by the artist based on her personal style as well as the client's needs, products or visual identity.
"I also look at the words themselves," she said. "If I'm lettering a two-word title, I'll see how those two words best fit together. Sometimes it might be in a fluid script, or perhaps a stacked, bold serif typeface."
All of Ms. Tanamachi's typefaces are original. She has a tendency to sketch letters in the park or on the subway, always looking to expand her own visual language, and draws on several key texts for inspiration as well. Chief among them: "Scripts: Elegant Lettering From Design's Golden Age," a tome co-authored by the graphic designer Louise Fili (her former boss) and Steven Heller. The book features prime examples from Ms. Fili's personal collection of vintage logos and signage, culled mostly from flea markets throughout Europe. "It's stuff you'll never see anywhere else," Ms. Tanamachi said.
She shapes the letters much as a sculptor would a piece of marble, carefully "carving" away at them with a wet rag until the strokes, widths and curves are just right. She works big, using her forearm at times to size her letters and her body to keep her lines straight and her proportions to scale. "Say I want to draw a straight vertical line," she explained. "I'll just put a piece of chalk in front of my face, bend my knees and go all the way down. I just like to keep it simple."
When she's not making pieces on-site, Ms. Tanamachi works from her Crown Heights apartment, sketching early drafts on tracing paper in her light-filled home office and making the pieces themselves on the large chalkboard wall she painted in her bedroom. She never uses a fixative to make the work permanent. "People tend to value my pieces more when they are aware they could be gone in an instant," she said. Plus, "fixatives tend to leave a splotchy sheen over the work in certain lighting."
Ms. Tanamachi typically makes her on-site installations in one eight- to 12-hour sitting. Jobs completed in her studio span a few days, usually in three- to four-hour segments. With her work in high demand (recent projects include a line of alphabet paperweights for the furniture chain West Elm), Ms. Tanamachi left Ms. Fili's firm in October to focus solely on her chalk designs.
Ms. Tanamachi's first love was typography. Born in Houston to a mechanical engineer and a stay-at-home mom and raised there, Ms. Tanamachi said she was a crafty kid, but not necessarily an artistic one. "I didn't grow up great at art," she said. "But I was always really drawn to working with my hands."
She pored over magazines and collected CDs, but something about the stylized lettering and graphics she found in them struck a chord. "I just remember thinking that it was so cool that someone could make something like this for a living," she said.
Ms. Tanamachi enrolled at the University of North Texas as a graphic design major. "I learned the word 'typography' in my first class and just couldn't get enough," she said. "We tend to think of letters as boring or just a necessity, but when you see how expressive they can be, it opens up an entirely different world. If you customize a letter, it can tell a story."
She focused intently on type throughout her studies, taking workshops with visiting masters (like the late Doyald Young, known for his work for Hilton, John Deere and Sony) and perfecting her execution of letters' weights, strokes and proportions through rigorous handwritten exercises. "We had to write out by hand a phrase like 'Hard work equals success' tons of times in different typefaces using these specific Schaedler rulers," she said. "You have to measure the width of every letter perfectly, multiply it by three to make it bigger on your sheet, and go back and forth, measuring every stroke so that everything is precise. I deemed it semi-hazing at the time, but I guess I'm glad we did it. I definitely learned the proportions."
Ms. Tanamachi moved to New York several months after graduation and started working for SpotCo, the advertising agency that designs logos, posters and billboards for Broadway shows. The job doubled as a crash course in typographical history. "One week we'd be working on a Roaring '20s show, so I'm researching all of these Art Deco typefaces and ornament—things that are very angular and bold," she said. "The next week it would be groovy 1970s styles while working on 'Hair.' "
She left SpotCo in 2010 to go to work for Ms. Fili, who is known for her elegant typographical work, and the fateful party in Brooklyn soon followed.
Ms. Tanamachi said that she would like to work with other media at some point. But she's not quite ready to give up the flexibility that comes with her ephemeral instrument of choice. Working with paint or ink "would be scary," she said, "because it's so permanent."
A version of this article appeared Mar. 10, 2012, on page C11 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Evoking the Past With Dusty Letters.