A custom monogram or crest used to be a symbol of royalty or the wealthy elite. So what changed?
Back in high school, I went to a Renaissance Festival with some friends, and one of the booths we all fawned over had a big book of coats of arms from all over the world. You would plug in your last name and ancestry and this database they had would try and figure out your most likely family coat of arms from whatever medieval country your heritage was derived from. None of us actually bought a print of ours, but it was fun to know we possibly had a crest and colors, should we ever need to compete in a contest of chivalry.
I feel the same way about coats of arms as I do about signets and seals – this idea that you have a family mark, a symbol or seal that has been passed down and is uniquely tied to your family. As an artist I also understand the value of having your own unique signature or mark to identify your work.
Until the 1920’s, monograms and marks such as these were commonly restricted to the upper class and elite. Particularly etched monograms used for custom stationery or jewelry, to have a custom designed monogram was a status symbol. While artists of all ranks often had a unique signature or symbol, for the general public to have such a mark was costly.
Nancy Sullivan, a professional designer of monograms and ciphers, recently published a really in-depth look at the history of monograms on Printmag.com. She details the transitions from etched and hand-drawn monograms to the modern era of computer-generated monograms. Despite her trade, she doesn’t downplay the significance of the impact of digital technology on the field, merely commenting on the irony of how something that was once so synonymous with royalty and nobility has become commonplace, little more than ornamentation for weddings, stationary and apparel.
I think it’s important as designers that we have a “personal brand.” We know our own niches and strengths. At the end of the day, a monogram or cipher such as those in the example above (circa early 20th century) is basically a personal logo, a symbol or mark that evokes the impression we want people to have of our talents or personality.