Spring 1991

Goudy, the good ol’ boy

Frederic Goudy (1865-1947) was a long-lived and prolific American type designer, famous in his own lifetime and fondly remembered today. There is an annual award given in his name, Goudy day, his birthday (8 March) is still celebrated. A businessman from the Midwest who became interested in lettering and printing in the design-conscious Chicago of the 1890s, Goudy was 30 before he drew an alphabet. At 46, frustration with the Caslon he was printing drove him to design within a week new faces for text and display that he considered his first as a professional type designer. At the age of 60 he bought machinery and embarked on manufacturing his own types himself. His wife of over 40 years, Bertha, set the type for their Village Press, deflected persistent visitors and kept lookout while he made rubbings of inscriptions in museums. They moved several times: to Massachusetts with W.A. Dwiggins, then to New York, and finally to a house and mill up the Hudson.

Goudy designed over 100 types and taught, lectured and wrote copiously. He was a great booster, of art and design and of himself, and loved his fame and honours. There was much of the classic American hero about him. He succeeded by doing things in his own independent way; a steak-and-potatoes guy who cooked the steak by putting it in the heating furnace. Like most heroes, he suffered setbacks: a fire destroyed his foundry during his most productive period, but in the end the calamity of the ‘Lost Goudy Types’ has only added to his legend. He was so effective an apostle of design, I would guess, because he came on less as an aesthete than as a good ol’ boy.

Brucker does justice to an excellent biographical subject, though occasionally I find him peevish in rebutting the complaints that someone of Goudy’s brashness attracted and probably deserved. There are good photographs and plenty of reproductions and type specimens.

It is in the critical part of this critical biography that I feel that an opportunity has been missed. Goudy drew freehand and very expressively. His line is almost always curved. ‘I belong to the Neardsley period’ is a key remark. Goudy’s curves give his letterfrms that is as personal and unmistakable as any. Studying his large corpus of work provides the best possible opportunity to get to the question at the centre of type design: how much individuality can a designer put into something as constrained by convention as type? Are Goudy’s types too personal, in defiance of his own statement that the designer’s work ‘must be free from any trace of self-consciousness’? He wrote that the character of a typeface is unconsciously controlled by the designer’s innate taste, but late in the same book he contradicted himself, saying his mind was consciously set on departures in design. So we get no real answer from Goudy. What about his biographer? ‘There are no answers, I think, to the questions he often raised about esthetics.’ I read that with disappointment.

The market has given its own kind of answer. I have read, though it is not confirmed here, that Copperplate Gothic, of all Goudy’s faces the one with the least of him in it, has been commercially the most successful. Second has probably been Goudy Old Style. Here, too, is an irony. Goudy designed the Roman and italic; another designer, Morris Benton, added further versions to complete the family. This annoyed Goudy, but it is precisely the additional weights that have continued to make his type family useful to typographers.

Bruckner agrees with the most common criticism of Goudy - that he achieved quantity at the expense of quality, a tough judgement on a man with a living to make, but unavoidable. He think that the great variety in Goudy’s work is the cause of its relative unpopularity nowadays. I think that it may be the opposite: the sheer force of Goudy’s artistic personality makes his text faces, beautiful as they are, look too much alike. But there are signs of a revival. Digital versions of the two Goudy faces are used on the dust jacket. Since the book appeared, news has come that the drawings from Goudy’s fine Village No.2, tossed out at the demise of Lanston Monotype in the 1960s, were salvaged by an enterprising employee and have found their way to a digital typefoundry. PostScript fonts faithful to the original drawings are promised. It will be interesting to see them in the cold light of the laser.

First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991