Press on, but not regardless

Letterpress - Notes on Book Design - Type
January 7, 2005

Alan Powers is inspired by wonders of typography and the thrill of the kiss of ink from type to paper

At the end of Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade , David Jury celebrates the potential for letterpress printing to survive in the digital age as a distinctive niche activity. The former giants of the industry, such as the Monotype Corporation, have either fallen in the face of the advance of the computer or reinvented themselves as suppliers of digital fonts. The debris of wood and metal type, presses and casting machinery fell like showers of gold into the laps of private presses on both sides of the Atlantic; in London, the Type Museum managed to raise enough money from the Heritage Memorial Fund, before Lottery days, to salvage the Monotype archive and similar material from even older British type founders.

As head of graphic design at the Colchester Institute, Jury knows that students can still thrill to the kiss of ink from type to paper and enjoy the improvisation that hands-on letterpress printing can provide.

There is therefore much to disinter from the sanctuaries of printing and to celebrate in the full light of contemporary publishing. Jury's book is as visual as it could be, short of being printed with the wood and metal type that is so lusciously depicted throughout. Quite rightly, he dwells as much on the outside packaging of a box of Stephenson Blake spaces from the 1950s as on a finely crafted page. He is fond of ephemera, and he offers a useful short history of technical changes and their impact.

In Type: The Secret History of Letters , Simon Loxley takes a more verbal approach, telling the story of printing with type from its beginnings to its present existence in the almshouse of commercially obsolete crafts. The book is identifiably in the "history of the codfish/pencil/coffee bean" genre, but none the worse for it and while it covers some of the same subjects as Jury's, their approaches are complementary. Loxley's chapter openings, taking the reader to the significant sites of printing, read rather like a shooting script for a television series, and it is high time it was made. Printing is a subject full of gossip, and Loxley relishes the typographic piracy of 18th-century London as much as the mildly salacious biographies of Beatrice Warde and Eric Gill in the 20th, or the viciously batty Thomas Cobden-Sanderson cheating his saintly partner, Emery Walker, by dumping the matrices and type of the Doves Press in the Thames.

Their US equivalents, such as the ebullient Frederic Goudy and the reticent Morris Fuller Benton, are similarly brought to life. At the same time, potentially boring details, such as the operation of the Monotype caster, are made easily understandable and quite thrilling. This technology was the cause of major changes in the presentation of information in the 20th century, yet most people probably know nothing about it. Monotype managed to be both a thriving business and a design reform mission, introducing fonts of impeccable pedigree, through the scholarship of Stanley Morison and Warde. The origins of Morison's Times New Roman of 1932, a design classic if ever there was one, are also described. Close to his conclusion, Loxley tells us how 20 years ago, Paul Brainerd's Aldus PageMaker software (named after one of the early heroes of printing) consummated the marriage between desktop Macintosh computer and the laser printer to create the electronic publishing revolution, with Times as its universal default font.

As a designer himself, Loxley keeps an eye on the letterforms and, without extensive illustration, establishes the distinctive character of those he discusses. He is good at pointing out the variations between the historic typefaces and their 20th-century revivals at the hands of Monotype or other foundries. These are sometimes far removed from the original; computer versions, apart from a few such as Caslon Old Face, to which loving scholarship has been applied by Justin Howes, can be even more dubious. It would have been good to have heard the personal stories of today's typeface designers, such as Michael Harvey, who has shown how a good classical training can prepare you for anything.

Although the sensational parts of the history (none of them strictly "secret") are worked for their full effect, this is surely the perfect book to spark an interest in type design among world-weary students. The structure is adapted for ease of reading, with short chapters interspersed with "detours" that refer to contemporary places, people and events.

Although celebrating a different sphere of work, that of the postwar book designer, Derek Birdsall's Notes on Book Design is as much about the way things used to be. Birdsall is a student contemporary of Alan Fletcher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1950s, and shares with him a philosophy of swift response, based on accumulated knowledge. Both have remained up to date while other design trends have come and gone.

Birdsall's introduction reveals his methods concisely. Like a good orchestral conductor interpreting a score, fidelity to the text and pictures of each design job is his first concern: "The design is not inflicted on the content, it is derived from it." In the computer age, he finds reason for even greater perfectionism, since the designer has less need to rely on third parties. Incidentally, he calls for designers to improve their editorial skills since printers' readers no longer exist.

Notes on Book Design contains notes, as it promises, but these are brief, and the bulk of the material consists of reduced reproductions of spreads from books Birdsall has designed. Since these are nearly all illustrated, and cover a wide variety of themes, browsing them is an education in itself. They are sorted by subject rather than chronology, starting with an introduction to the processes involved in book design. Although this part is not detailed enough to provide "teach yourself" training, a publisher or editor wishing to have an informed discussion with a designer or printer would be well armed by reading it.

Birdsall's office, Omnific, evidently divides between the master doing old-fashioned paste-ups and the younger staff turning them into computer files. I cannot help thinking that the ability to see and to adjust the whole book on a single table-top surface, rather than scrolling or jumping from one page to another on screen, helps to prevent order from slipping into rigidity.

To follow his processes is to share in some satisfying inside knowledge.

The tenth section concerns the Church of England's new order of service, Common Worship , issued in 2000. Omnific was chosen from a limited competition, and the description of how the design was developed is gripping and should be an object lesson to any organisation thinking that a bit of desktop publishing will save them the cost of employing a designer.

If the Church of England survives the new century, it will owe a lot to having paid such proper attention to the word made flesh. After this comes the store cupboard, in the form of sample settings in eight fonts.

For all the upbeat tone of these three books, there is cause for concern.

Now that everyone can be their own typographer, how long will it be before the rudiments of this art are taught in all schools? Why is there no proper representation of printing in a national museum (the Science Museum holds the presses, the Victoria and Albert Museum the printed product, while two independent institutions, the Type Museum and St Bride's Library, both located in relatively unvisited parts of London, have struggled to survive.

At the same time, Walker's house in Hammersmith Terrace, which has survived intact in the ownership of a trust, could give the public a personalised view of the wider culture of a particular printer if sufficient funding can be raised to ensure its future.

I wish I could share the rosy view Jury and Loxley have of the private press movement, which allows them to end their stories happily. They talk of wonderful people, with considerable skills, including the skill of selling their work. This movement is less full of fresh ideas for content or form, and when these occur, the risk of preciousness is high. Visiting the last biennial Fine Press Book Fair at Oxford was a strangely dispiriting experience of commodity fetishism. These presses tend to look back to the interwar period of the Golden Cockerell and Nonesuch presses as their model, without realising that the successes of that time (which were by no means invariable) were down to illustration, text and production of the highest quality. It is some compensation to think that, with Omnific's help, the C of E has produced what, to my mind, are far more collectable books.

Alan Powers is reader in architecture and cultural history, University of Greenwich.

Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade

Author - David Jury
Publisher - RotoVision
Pages - 160
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 2 88046 784 5

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