1996 by Elias Holtzman
Zanetti of East Brunswick [New Jersey] is enchanted with the written word.
He's a sign
And not just
any sign painter. he is a lettering artist, a calligrapher, a designer and an educator. He also
writes about sign painting.
"I like to
make art out of the alphabet," he says.
He has made an
art of his craft. He is world-class. In his 35+ years in the business...samples of his work have been seen
and emulated around the globe.
love for lettering and sign painting, "It's music for the eyes."
taught sign painting and lettering design at the Parsons School of Design in New York
sign painting "one of the last pure capitalistic ventures." Which is to say, you make it using
your own talent. That is what Zanetti has done.
known for the preciseness of his lettering and has created an alphabet unique to him that is called Zanetti
Script. He describes it as "a highly ornate script style based on 18th century-letting style... a
calligraphic handwriting with flourishes and curlicues."
One sample of
the Zanetti Script is in his "Two
Views of New Jersey," a work that graces
his living room, and in which the words New Jersey, in Zanetti script, are juxtaposed against the words New
Jersey, done graffiti style. The work was exhibited in 1994 as part of the New Jersey Designer Craftsmen
Exhibition at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers.
On another wall
is a horizontal framed piece called Rainbow
Alphabet, which takes the viewer through the
alphabet, from dark to light to dark again.
about signs until you wrestle me to the ground," he said. He paints from a studio in his home, and he
tries to avoid on-site painting because of the distractions.
been painting signs from the time he was 9-years old, when he painted paper plates to describe items in his
grandfather's store, Baker's 5 & 10 in South River.
You can see his
work if you drive by the main sign at Rutgers
Preparatory School on Easton Avenue in Franklin
or notice the 8-foot by 8-foot "School's Open" sign on Rues Lane in East Brunswick.
He's been doing
the "School's Open" sign each year for 30 years. He also has painted signs for the Hun School in
Princeton and for Wooster College in Danbury, Conn. Many of the safety banners strung across roadways were
made by Zanetti for AAA campaigns.
Zanetti's work these days is done for trade shows and convention work for ad agencies and graphic designers.
signs are time sensitive and ephemeral," he said. Which means they are used for a specific occasion,
and that's it. "When I do outside work it has to be environmentally sensitive," he says.
sensitive to the amount of junk people have to look at," he says. "Anything I put out has to
blend with the environment. It's my way of having made a mark in the world."
One of his
favorite quotes is from writer Philip Fisher: "From the 26 letters we can reach any point. Some
combination of those letters will spell out any detail of human reality that we can notice, and any new reality
can be accommodated within these same letters."
technology has touched this craft at least as much as other crafts, " Zanetti said, referring to the
inroads the computer has made in producing signs. "Computers have democratized the craft in the worst
sense of the word," he adds.
says it is the creative effort of the sign painter that makes the difference in what is esthetically
pleasing. "Pardon me I sound like I'm on a soapbox," he said, "but people who are able to
letter and design and create see themselves as having an art and ability a notch above people making signs
through computer generation."
Not that he
doesn't use computers. "There are voices to type," said Zanetti. "I like a sign that speaks
and will say a lot of things unconsciously."
In addition to
being a sign painter, Zanetti is a sign historian, and notes that sign painting was medieval craft.
"I have a whole library pertaining to the history of signs," he said. "I can trace the use
of signs to the pre-Christian era."
About six years
ago an exhibit-design firm called him from Boston and said they wanted to design a turn-of-the-century New
England fishing village. They wanted 10 or 12 shop signs that looked like they had weathered for years.
Zanetti rose to
the task. He salvaged hardware from junkyards and picked up old wood from deserted vacant lots to create
11 shop-identification signs that looked like they had weathered 100 years.
making signs out of rotting deteriorating lumber and rusting metal," he said. The work was a success
and is part of Discovery Cove inside the Ruggieri Building at New York Aquarium at Coney Island.
sign-painting workshop at a calligraphy conference in Washington D.C., several years ago, Zanetti had Donald
Jackson, known through the calligraphy world as the official scribe for the British Queen, as one of his
students. He and Jackson have since become close friends, Zanetti said.
reputation as a sign painter and calligrapher led to his being given the job of painting the Pierpont Morgan
Library's name on it's awning in New York City. The Morgan Library is the depository of many classic
manuscripts and type-faces as well as two Gutenberg Bibles.
wanted its awning painted in a 15th century typeface designed by a man named Jensen. They wanted the work
to be accurate and artistically pleasing. "Bring in Zanetti!" the type mavens said. And
the library did.
Zanetti has had
a diversified career. He has gilded church domes - specifically a church in Elizabeth in the 60's.
When hand-painted pinstripes were fashionable on cars, Zanetti painted them. He has hand-lettered wine
barrels for use as signs, and also painted footballs and basketballs which were usually presented as game balls
to a winning coach at a testimonial.
He has painted
the side of live elephants in a promotion for Wonder Bread, which until recently had a manufacturing plant in
East Brunswick. Wonder Bread, for whom Zanetti had done some other work, had bought advertising space on
the elephants as part of a traveling-circus promotion. On one elephant he painted "Wonder Bread"
and on another he painted "Hostess Twinkees." "I thought they wanted me to paint a banner
to drape on the elephants," he said, adding that he wrote a piece about his elephant painting experience
which is still remembered by readers of a sign-painters magazine.
He has even
painted a pizza, properly cooled, for a meeting of international sign-painters groups which calls itself,
"Letterheads," and which is devoted to the integrity of the sign painters craft.
The group meets
periodically. Zanetti [could not attend its session in Dublin], but - at the group's request - has sent a
copy of a new alphabet he has created, called Artisan. Zanetti describes it as a "classic
Roman-letter style inspired by the monumental lettering found on the friezes of Roman buildings."
Zanetti is a
1977 graduate of Rutgers University, where he was an English major. He went to school at night, and it
took him 12 years to to get his degree. As an English major he was able to take various courses in
humanities in which he was interested. He also took courses at Pratt Institute.
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