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Chank Diesel

, Star Tribune

Creative man of letters finds fascination in fonts

  • January 14, 2012 - 5:03 PM

If you're interested in type, the world is a font catalog. You walk into Target, look at the new display and think: Hey, that's "Sign Painter" by House Industries. You see Helvetica everywhere and wonder why.

If the font is particularly unusual, there's a chance it comes from the Twin Cities and a good chance it was crafted by Chank Diesel.

He gave a talk last week at the Walker about fonts, but it wasn't his first museum experience; his work's been featured at the Smithsonian as well.

It gets its widest exposure, however, in the real world, on products like Ocean Spray, TV shows like Cartoon Network, store displays like last year's Target Halloween signage. He's working on a font for the retro-cool Indian motorcycles.

Chank's one of our leading alphabeticians, and we wondered if there was a Minnesota angle to his work.

But first: Local boy? Sort of.

"I was born in Canada and grew up in Florida -- raised at Disneyland and the beach," Diesel says. "But my mother's from Golden Valley, so I have Nordic roots. I lived in Northeast for almost 20 years." Local enough for us.

As it happens, NE was a perfect place for a fontographer -- things stick around longer up there, so there are more examples of inspirational commercial typography.

"There are lots of great fonts around. 'Liquorstore' was based on a place on Marshall; 'Braingelt' was based on the old Grain Belt sign. 'Columbia Gardens' was this crappy old hand-writing font I saw on Central. And then there's the Gold Medal Flour sign. I'm doing a Flour Sack Font Pack, making digital versions of the fonts used by the mills that built this city."

It's not a common profession -- "I'd guess there's about 20, 30 full-time designers in the country," he says -- but it's heavily represented by Minnesotans. "It's unusual for a city this size to have a font industry like we do. Maybe because it's the way the landscape and the weather influences design -- it's white, it's gray, you stay inside. You have that spareness and isolation, so you huddle inside and create stuff."

He hopes to break Picasso's record for creating a million pieces of art in his lifetime -- and yes, each letter counts as one piece.

Sometimes he gets a head start -- "Parkway," for example, is a classic American typeface based on the marquee of the Parkway Theater on Chicago Avenue S. in Minneapolis. But it only has six unique letters, which means he had to invent the other 20. How does one do that?

"It's a very unusual occupation," he laughs. "But it's just what I do. I've made over 500 fonts. It's something I do every day -- get up, start with A and end with Z."

Lucky man: It's the only art form where you know how things end when you start. No one ever gets stuck after K and thinks, Oh man, what comes next? But that doesn't mean it's easy.

"All I have to do," he says, "is make it different every time." That's all.

Sound easy? OK. Design an "O" that looks like nothing anyone ever did.

JAMES LILEKS

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