Summer 2003

Dancing letterforms

ABZ: More Alphabets and

Edited by Julian Rothenstein
& Mel Gooding,
Redstone Press, £25

The first law of design is this. The less people read, the more letterforms designers produce. In his introduction, Mel Gooding makes the point that there have never been more alphabets in human history. We may live in an image culture, but we are stockpiling alphabets. ABZ is an eccentric collection of alphabets and signs from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Each page is a indictment of what Letterbox call our contemporary typographic monoculture.

Czech modernist Karel Teige’s collaboration with dancer Milca Mayarová for Abeceda produces an alphabet where each letter is composed with an image of the dancer. An unknown designer in 1940 creates an alphabet called The Tippler built from illustrations of a metropolitan lush. And then there are other functional letter systems that we are blind to, such as the 1870s eye-test charts by Utrecht optometrist Herman Snellen which Mel Gooding asserts was ‘modernist avant la lettre’ in its formal elegance. Current designs are still based on Snellen’s ‘Optotypes’.

The politics of ABZ derives from the very eccentricity of the collection. The book’s inspiration lies in the realisation that there is an alternative twentieth-century sign grammar out there that is quirky, quixotic and monumental. Call it ‘trypography’, a revolutionary trip into autonomously created rules, structures and systems. Let a ‘thousand alphabets bloom’ is the fundamental message of ABZ.

As software steadily comes down in price, and designer tools become everybody tools ABZ offers a glimpse of a possible graphic and political utopia when we all create our own personalised typography, each as unique as our own DNA. Helvetica Year Zero. And we will read the news in The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde printed in the typographic photomontage of Karel Teige.

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