flexing the lyrics: printing on condoms

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com)

way back in 1965 the frenchman, robert massin, designed an amazing book that was released by grove press (the great american arts publisher). in it, he took a reading of eugene ionesco’s classic of the ‘theatre of the absurd’ called “the bald soprano”. he used hi-contrast images of actors from the original stage presentation) and then hammered, twisted and mangled all the dialog into the layout in a such a way that it looks and reads like the actors performing it. it’s a bench mark in typographic design and was maybe the single item that (when i found it for the first time in the library at fort stielacoom community college) cemented the idea in my little head that i was a graphic designer, too. strictly through the mysterious hidden language of graphic design, for the first time ever, i actually could understand what that play was all about. it blew my mind.

---AC:i seem to have given way my original copy of the magazine. so, this is a copy taken from another book - so it's a couple of generations away form the original. you can't really see the 'crackling, crumbling' type when he uses it here. sorry.---

i later learned that every time this book was translated into another language, it had to be entirely re-designed from scratch. the result was that robert massin actually had to reconstruct the entire design of ‘the bald soprano’ 9 TIMES! it’s insane!

to promote this book, the literary/arts/political magazine published by grove press (the evergreen review) commissioned massin to do a piece for the november, 1965, issue. edith piaf had died a couple of years earlier, and to commemorate and mourn her passing, massin worked with her signature song, “La Foule” (translated: ‘the crowd’). he took a very long time to do this design, because he had to actually figure out how to do it. there was no easy way to pull off his amazing trick.

in my little essay i wrote yesterday, i talked about ‘flexed’ type. i showed a weird little japanese 45 cover and talked about how, in an era of no computers or even photocopiers, how this was virtually impossible to create. i concluded that the 45 bag was done using a newfangled (for back then) ‘flex lens’ that could be used on a photostat camera. that’s also why is looks so irregular and chaotic – there was very limited control on how it flexed the image.

so, when massin decided to do this tribute to piaf, he wanted to flex the lyrics of the song in such a way that (sort of like those ‘follow the bouncing ball’ cartoons where you sing along) you could LOOK at the type and imitate it with your voice and then sing this song EXACTLY like edith piaf would have sung it in her amazing signature style. so, when you look at this design, try it (it helps if you know the tune. you probably do and don’t realize it. it’s really famous).

to begin with, this is actually four consecutive pages (shown here as two double-page spreads.) when the type goes up, make your voice get higher. when it goes down, make it lower. when it gets big, make it louder. when it pauses, take a breath. when it gets pinched and tiny, make your voice pinched and tiny. when the type starts to crumble and crack, make you voice crumble and crack. it actually works really well, too. it’s really quite stunning. you actually sound just like edith piaf!

so, how did he do this amazing feat decades before the technology we have today?

at first, he tried flex lenses. but, they just couldn’t do it. then he decided to letter-press the typography onto rubber material and then stretch it and photo-stat it to do what he wanted. then he tried rubber blankets and other assorted materials, but the plastic would split when pinned or stretched too far. after a great deal of experimenting, he tried a condom – but it was lubricated condom, so the type wouldn’t dry on it and it would smear. so, he tried a powdered condom and guess what? it worked! then he could stretch the type printed on the condom and use the new heavier stick cellophane tape (that just came on the market) to hold it in place so he could place it a photostat camera and make a stat of the type as ‘line art.’ (note, my next image is an actual surviving paste-up on some of the type. obviously, time has made the rubber material of the condom decay dramatically. but, enough is till there so you can actually see what he did.)

so, this homage to piaf was all printed on CONDOMS!!!! “flexed type” indeed! where there is a will, there is a way, eh? never underestimate the power of the human mind when there is no money to solve anything. the biggest expense was the many many many condoms he had to buy (he could only work with a single syllable at a time, no less.

e pharmacist gave him some strange glances every time he came in for more rubbers…


AC: …well, this isn’t in the book “the bald soprano”. it’s in an obscure arts magazine long out of print called “the evergreen review” from november 1965. a recent big book on the work of robert massin (called ‘massin’) reproduces it (that’s where i snagged this image because i couldn’t find my real copy of it). so, don’t expect to see this condom item in that bald soprano book. he did this AFTER he did that book. i guess he was a glutton for punishment….

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