Spring 2008

Archeology of print

Massin
By Laetitia Wolff
Design by Roger Fawcett-Tang
Phaidon, #39.95

What comes to mind when you picture a French book? Perhaps it is the ivory-coloured paperback with centred type, set like a classical column and framed with a simple border, the author’s name and the title apparently sufficient to signify the content. Such spartan designs signify the hegemony of the word in French intellectual life. The ideal bookshelf, on which the spines form a white grid, should not be troubled with trivial distractions such as images (let alone the gilding, embossed print and ringing endorsements beloved of Anglophone publishing today).

The work of the French art director and graphic designer Robert Massin represents a different kind of tradition, though by no means an anti-intellectual one. As art director for French book clubs from the 1940s, and then chief designer at Gallimard, the country’s most important publisher, Massin (b. 1925) has been a keen advocate of graphic design and art direction as an act of interpretation and, often, experimentation. (See review of Massin et Le Livre in Eye 65.) His reputation as an intellectual is in part due to his authorship of La Lettre et l’image (1970), a Grande Encyclopédie of word-images throughout history.

Laetitia Wolff has produced the first English-language monograph on Massin . . . This is a handsome book, and generous to its reader . . .

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