Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Here be all kinds of graphic dragons

Non-Latin Typefaces

St Bride Library, London<br>September 2007<br>Department of Typography &amp; Graphic Communication, University of Reading<br>September–November 2007<br>

The term ‘Non-Latin’ type describes a vast ocean in which many Western designers barely get to dip their toes. This exhibition, curated by Rathna Ramanathan (see ‘Roadshows and rickshaws’, Eye no. 64 vol. 16) and Fiona Ross shows off the breadth and wealth of material held at the University of Reading and at St Bride Library. Languages from Amharic (Ethiopic) to Urdu are represented in books, sketches, specimens, and more.

The work on display in Reading consists mainly of pieces produced for Linotype in England, principally in the studios of Walter Tracy in the 1970s and of Fiona Ross in the 1980s. For those less well schooled in non-Latin type – and, indeed, non-designers in general – this is the more accessible of the two shows, with panels identifying and contextualising the work on display. Large sheets of tracing paper adorned with enormous letterforms, specimen sheets created from cast metal type, and related correspondence and research documents are presented in a broad survey organised by script types – Arabic, North Indian, South Indian, then others, such as Greek, Hebrew and Thai.

Of themselves, the beautiful, highly graphic letterforms that dot this dense but practical exhibition might easily satisfy the casual visitor, but the makers’ notes and letters also convey some fascinating information about the design decisions, technical requirements and linguistic issues that were involved in the development of these typefaces.

The exhibition at the St Bride Library is more reductive and possibly more anthropological. Co-curated by Jo De Baerdemaeker , it includes pieces from 1628 to the present, including a spread from Giambattista Bodoni’s Manuale tipografico (1818) showing Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, Cuneiform and Burmese, and beautiful Japanese type specimens from the 1900s. More recent pieces include specimens of Bengali and Modi types (composed at St Bride) arising out of investigations by Ross and Graham Shaw. This astonishing collection might benefit only from some descriptive panels, notes or commentary.

This bipartite show was produced in conjunction with a two-day conference on ‘Non-Latin Typeface Design’ in September, but it would have been equally useful to a gathering of non-Latin specialists.