Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Type design with a straight face

Twentieth-Century Type

Lewis Blackwell<br>Laurence King

The title of this sumptuous book is a surprise. Despite Matthew Carter’s much-reported encounters with travelling companions enamoured of Century Schoolbook, it still seems unlikely that the world is yet ready for a well illustrated, 250-page quarto, in full colour throughout, devoted to recent printing types.

In fact, the title does not fairly announce the contents of the book: there is actually very little in it about the way typefaces are created, and not much analysis or description of the types themselves. There is far more about the better-known territory of the uses to which type is put – typography, and graphic design based on type forms.

Given its scope, Twentieth-Century Type is a generously illustrated with well chosen examples from the last hundred years. It is particularly stimulating to see good reproductions of works by El Lissitzky, H. N. Werkman, Piet Zwart and Kurt Schwitters as full colour half-tones, not just in two-colour line. Typefaces are illustrated not only in clear monochrome, but also in colour in many reproductions of the manufacturers’ specimens, which were often the most imaginative treatment they would ever get. And there are some wonderful examples of typefounders’ publicity from between the wars.

My chief regret is that there are so few drawings by type designers, in the form either of preliminary sketches or of finished designs. There are two examples by Eric Gill, explaining a simplified construction of Gill Sans for railway signwriters, an experimental drawing by Josef Albers, and Edward Johnston’s alphabet for the London Underground.

These just whet our appetite for more such illustrations, and their absence is a symptom of Blackwell’s lack of interest in the processes of type design. George Trump, Van Krimpen, Schneidler and E. R. Weiss all produced beautiful drawings, but none of these designers appear in this book. Admittedly their types are not much used in advertising, which seems most of the time to be Blackwell’s yardstick for selection, but why then does he virtually ignore Dwiggins, who was the author of an influential book on advertising layout, and had a vivid graphic style? Dwiggins just scrapes into the section of the Vox classification, as the designer of Caledonia and the Metro family.

There is some illustration of drawn lettering, including a ceramic urn with an early version of the Coca-Cola logo, a McDonald’s drive-in, and a few other oddities unrelated to type. Blackwell is apparently co-author of a book called The Retail Future; maybe he is contemplating a prequel ion The Retail Past, and some transparencies from that got into the present book by mistake.

The lengthy captions are generally informative, though sometimes wrong (Garamond is captioned as Bembo, and reduced Doves Press page is described as actual size) and once or twice completely mystifying. Moreover, they are laid out so as to make the identification of individual pictures an uphill struggle, forcing the reader to plough all the way through and use some informed guesswork. If what they had to say was more striking than the images, this would be easier to bear, but that is rarely the case.

The main text of the book is organised by decades, which has some advantages in presenting a chronological flow, but clear drawbacks too: as every historian has found, human events do not fit neatly into periods. Blackwell’s method means that subjects and designers dip in and out of the narrative in a bemusing way. Roger Excoffon’s work, for example, is discussed in the 1950s chapter, together with his early type designs, but illustration of his best-known face, Antique Olive, does not come for another 30 pages, since it was designed in the 1960s. Blackwell maintains that Antique Olive grew out of Excoffon’s Air France Logo (actually, it was the ultra-bold Nord branch of the type family that did so), but misses the chance to illustrate one of his delicious posters for the company, with an aircraft that is suggested simply in a couple of brushstrokes.

Given the quantity and excellence of the illustration, expectations are often aroused in the text that something will be illustrated, only to be disappointed. You have to search, though: there are no picture references, and often the illustration you want is several pages away. I was intrigued by a description of Bradbury Thompson’s experimental Alphabet 26, hoped to find it illustrated, turned on a few pages to find it, failed, gave up, and read on – only to come across it ten pages later.

Still, one can accept an exasperatingly designed book with a different viewpoint from one’s own, and indeed welcome it if it is informative and a reasonably lively read. Unfortunately, I found Blackwell’s style plodding, and though there is much of interest in his book, I wish I could rely more confidently on his facts. When we are told that the Leipzig-born Jan Tschichold was ‘Austrian’, or the Akzidenz family of typefaces came from the Stempel foundry (it’s given back to Berthold, correctly, later in the book), it undermines our faith in the many facts presented which may be new to us.

Finally, I wish Blackwell would show more signs of a sense of humour. He illustrates Gerard Unger’s Decoder design, which spoofs the kind of reductive alphabet made notorious by Wim Crouwel, with a completely solemn caption; similarly Neville Brody’s intentionally illegible State, complete with Brody’s delightfully pretentious explanation: ‘I wanted to take typography away from a purely subservient, practical role towards one which is potentially more expressive and visually dynamic’ (I assume this was meant to be a joke, but it’s difficult to tell with designers).

Buy this book for the pictures.

First published in Eye no. 7 vol. 2, 1992