Modernistic Marvels

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The American type foundry Barnhart Bros. & Spindler may have been fairly short-lived (it was founded in 1873 and bought out by American Type Founders in 1911, though it remained in business under its own name another 22 years after ATF purchased it) but it published some beautiful specimen books. During the nineteenth century, most of these were stout volumes with hundreds of pages. But by the early 1920s, when this beauty was produced, BB&S was releasing slender booklets devoted to a single typeface or a small, thematic selection of faces. This detail is from the cover of one such booklet that showcased “Modernistic and Extraordinary Typefaces.” With names like Cubist Bold, Old Dutch, Japanet, and Bamboo, the faces were guaranteed to give contemporary ads that much-desired, of-the-moment edge.

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Happily Ever After

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In 1900, the newly-consolidated American Type Founders released a book of “embellishments and ornamentations for the printer and publisher,” among which was this splendid piece of design. (Curious readers can see the book’s catalog entry here.) Hidden among the hundreds of pages of sickeningly sweet cherubs, faithful fidos, fragrant flowers, and star-spangled banners, there are some wonderfully wry and sarcastic images like this one. I’ve had a great deal of fun imagining the back-story here; I’d like to think the princess, having glimpsed the end of the tale, is getting ready to pack her bags and escape a life of uncomfortable shoes and high-handed princes.

Colorful Ornament

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In 1928, Frederic Warde designed a book showcasing printer’s ornaments for Lanston Monotype of London (catalog record here). Warde used Monotype’s existing, and extensive, collection of “printer’s flowers” to compose decorative frames and patterns. Most of the book featured typography in combination with the various borders and flowers, with title pages figuring prominently in the display. But the last few pages were colored paper printed only with patterns designed from the ornaments. Their sole purpose was to be beautiful. Frederic Warde had been married to Beatrice, soon to be of “Printing Should Be Invisible” fame, during the first part of the decade. Fortunately, he did not heed her advice when designing his Printer’s Ornaments.

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Jugendstil by Stempel

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Type specimen books simultaneously recorded the typographic history that pre-dated them and the spirit of their own moment in time. Classic faces always appeared in a foundry’s more complete specimen books, because printers always needed to be able to examine and order workaday fonts of type. (Imagine reading Moby Dick in the typeface featured above; the though is dizzying.) But innovative and ephemerally fashionable typefaces and ornaments could figure largely into specimens, too. This 1902 specimen by the Stempel foundry in Germany (catalog record here) is a beautiful example of the Jugendstil aesthetic. It features page after page of sinuous plants, flowing-haired maidens, and organic letterforms, all hallmarks of Germany’s version of Art Nouveau.

The Printed Cat

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Type specimen books provided printers not only with letters, but also with images. Ornaments (often called flowers even when they weren’t actually flowers), borders, and advertising cuts (the forerunners of clip art) were essential to a well-stocked printing office. Especially as the nineteenth century progressed, foundries sometimes devoted half to three quarters of a specimen book to non-alphabetic material. This cat stalking a parrot (because every printer is going to have lots of clients who need that image?) comes from the 1895 Les Nouvelles Creations of Deberny & Cie, an important French foundry.

Omit the Useless

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In 1873, the Chicago type foundry Barnhart Brothers & Spindler published their Specimen Book and Price List of the Great Western Type Foundry (see it in the RIT catalog here). In an introductory note, the typefounders write that “We have endeavored to show, in a concise and convenient form, the most useful and popular styles of letter, omitting such faces as serve neither the purpose of utility nor beauty.” But take a look at the upper-case O in the double-pica grotesque above, seen in the word fashion. Is this an o? A p? A j-o ligature? Even in 1873, surely the typeface designer would have had a difficult time defending the usefulness and beauty of this particular face. Regardless, this specimen page is a fascinating window into the culture of typographic excess that was flourishing in the late nineteenth century.

The Good Compositer

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In 1683, in the first printer’s manual to be published in English, Joseph Moxon wrote that “A good Compositer is ambitious as well to make the meaning of his Author intelligent to the Reader.” In other words, the typographer serves the text, and the author. For modern (and Modernist) readers, this idea is most famously expressed in Beatrice Warde’s 1955 essay, “The Crystal Goblet: Or, Printing Should Be Invisible.” It’s an essay I read as a beginning typography student with hardly any skepticism at all, and one I sometimes assign to my own type students—though with an eye toward deconstructing it, and with plenty of skepticism on everyone’s part. Imagine my delight at encountering this maxim in a seventeenth century text, complete with long-s characters and quaint spellings, to say nothing of a generous approach toward capitalization. (Notice the long-s characters in the words compositer and pleasant—no, the typographer didn’t just run out of s’s and replace them with f’s.) This is one of the reasons I love research: learning unexpected things is fun.