Winter 2004

Lettermen

Type: The Secret History of Letters

By Simon Loxley
I. B. Tauris, £18.95

Letters, especially typographic letters, escape from the men and women who have designed and made them: they exist as sets of impersonal forms. Despite this brutal fact of abstraction, Simon Loxley provides a history of type by writing about the people behind these forms. The book moves from Gutenberg to Caslon, Baskerville and so on, through to the present. Interspersed are short chapters giving accounts of people and scenes encountered in the course of the author’s research, as well as a few imagined sequences narrated from within the consciousnesses of the historical players. Reading these moments of dire fiction (‘Annie Renner froze, her heart beating lightly but more insistently’) one is inclined to chuck the book out of the window.

The deep flaw in this approach is that the stories of the designers’ lives cannot explain type and its history. Further, Loxley limits his subjects to people who have been written about in English-language biographies. So after Gutenberg – the subject of huge research, including Albert Kapr’s idiosyncratic biography which was translated into English in 1996 – Loxley has to jump 300 years to the next figures about whom we know something. He therefore misses out the European sixteenth century: a crucial period for type, its design and production. In the later chapters, Loxley finds living witnesses and does better. His chapter on Neville Brody has some astute comments – here the personality is part of the product – and uses the testimony of Brody’s contemporary Julian Balme: a photograph of them in an underpass near the London College of Printing is a highlight.

The book is journalistic in tone, but fails a test of journalism in not checking sources. So Loxley goes astray in his discussion of the British road sign reform of the 1950s and 60s, and David Kindersley’s challenge to the proposals made by Jock Kinneir. Relying for information solely on Kindersley’s papers, his exclusive focus on the people and their letterforms misses the larger picture. Loxley’s method yields no broad middle ground of explanation, and so lurches from the micro of the letterforms to the macro of British politics in that period. A wider focus would reveal that Kinneir was making a system for designing the whole ensemble of the signs: words and pictures. For all his skills as a lettercutter, Kindersley was no designer, and had no interest in the symbols to be used on the new signs. A much more complete account of this story has now been written by Ole Lund (Typography Papers no. 5, 2003).

The book draws to a close with discussions of PostScript and the phenomenon of the micro-foundry. Loxley’s choice of subject here – London-based Christian Küsters – is odd, but in keeping with the parochial, Anglo-American flavour of the book. It seems characteristic that he misspells Erik Spiekermann’s name and muddles the British FontWorks company with the much more significant FontShop International. Searching for narrative closure, the book ends with a prediction of the end of written language ‘within the next hundred years’.

Loxley’s Type is patchily illustrated, with modern versions of the typefaces standing in for the real things. With fifteen years’ worth of good digital typefaces to choose from, it can only be ancestor-worship that led to the decision to set the text in an impoverished digitisation of a Monotype classic (Bembo).

Someone wanting to learn about type would do better with Alexander Lawson’s worthy Anatomy of a Typeface, or D. B. Updike’s out-of-date but still exemplary Printing Types.

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