Graffiti and typography have an odd relationship. Judging from the number of graffiti fonts out there, it seems that every type designer passes through a romance with the stuff. It’s certainly true that watching handwritten forms rasterize before you on screen can be truly beguiling, and there’s a perverse and private pleasure to using exacting Bezier curves to render the esprit of the marker.
Rarely, someone travels this one-way street in reverse, and it seems that a London writer named Eine is our latest and greatest contributor. Behold his complete alphabet in Victorian splendor, rendered with exuberance on a collection of East End store shutters. My childhood was much improved by the presence of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat on my streets; I can only imagine what this environment will produce in young Londoners today.
they’re so beautiful! i like the fact that there are obsessive flickr users that tracked down the complete alphabet, and then some.
maybe it’s the time of year or maybe its the time of man, or maybe it’s the length of my career, but the 20th century has palled, and become quite exhausted, and I look at the design bookstores and it’s the modernist myth enough already please. I’ve used a lot of typefaces and made fonts in many genres, but the 19th century is a vast terra incognita, relatively untouched by design history and theory, relatively unmined as a source of inspiration for digital designers (and reverse engineers). props to Jonathan for being a Vickie from way back.
Faux type rules.
> relatively unmined as a source of
> inspiration for digital designers
But mines can kill.
Interesting, Nick. I’ve forgotten what fraction of a generation separates us in age, but I think that my generation has been as inundated with eclecticism as with Modernism, and much of it with a Victorian flair. (Not that I object, mind you: I’d still rather curl up with a copy of Nicolette Gray than Josef Muller-Brockmann.) But I hardly think that Victoriana is untapped, either commercially or academically. The flair for 19th century type that began with The Pushpin Graphic continued for two decades at Rolling Stone, under art directors like Roger Black, Fred Woodward, and Gail Anderson, all of whom know their way around the typography of the Regency. (The art directorship of Rolling Stone is a veritable endowed chair in historical typography.) And as for design scholarship, there’s been tons of important work done in this vein: scholars like James Mosley and Michael Twyman have devoted themselves in earnest to this very important period, and devotees like Rob Roy Kelly and Nicolette Gray have brought the period’s typography to the fore through engaging and (once) widely available writings. And then there’s Ian Mortimer, and Alastair Johnston, and countless scholars who are continuing to explore this period — right down to our own Sara Soskolne, who wrote her dissertation on the genesis of early nineteenth century letterforms…
…and, hang on a bit. Weren’t you just saying that you didn’t like Paula Scher’s work? I can’t imagine what you mean by “the zombie fonts she mostly uses” — I think of Paula’s work and I see toothsome 19th century sans serif woodtypes and saucy little beaux-arts numbers like Enge Etienne, plus everything in between. I don’t think that Victorian exuberance has a stronger American advocate than Paula, do you?
I don’t think that Victorian exuberance has a stronger American advocate than Paula
That’s what I mean — she’s barely scratched the surface of the sheer diversity and weirdness of the era.
I can’t imagine what you mean by “the zombie fonts she mostly uses”
Straight revivals of dead historical artefacts, rather than the work of present day type designers — either reinterpretations or original work.
You’ve pointed out a handful of scholars who have tackled or are working on the 19th century. And it’s a tragedy that we’ve lost Justin Howes. But the dominant narrative of graphic design and typography, which is demonstrated by the sheer preponderance of books on library and bookstore shelves, is 20th century modernism. The myth continues; I recently attended a truly awesome exhibition of posters “Avant Garde Graphics 1918-34″ in the UK, from the collection of Merrill C. Berman. No matter that these posters were never a part of mainstream design (except perhaps a little in Weimar or the USSR), they obscure what was really happening in the West, creating a fictitious history.
Another era that is under-represented critically is that of 1890-1930, when magazines were the new media of consumer culture in the USA, and the style was 100% historicist.
Lewis Blackwell explained the situation in the preface to his “20th Century Type Remix”, by saying that his was just one remix, concentrating on the avant-garde, rather than the “living tradition”.
In the general histories of typography, the bulk of the 19th century is given short shrift. Updike skips from Bodoni to the Private Press movement. Meggs is good on the 1830s, but then moves quickly to Morris and Akzidenz Grotesk in the 1890s. Kinross’ “Modern Typography” begins during the Enlightenment, but has only one chapter on the 19th C.
It’s no different than art history, really, which has always lacked a coherent theory of Victorianism to fit into its historical narrative. It’s hard to explain the meaning of decorative excrescence in words; but perhaps there will be more attempts now, as we see it emerging in present day art direction, and with the Victorian vogue.
…fonts she mostly uses
In her presentation at TypeCon in New York last year, she showed some pieces which used a contemporary font (if I recall correctly), so I think I am begining to like that side of her work a little more…
You know what the weirdest thing is. The ‘obsessive flickr user’ is minor celeb, Dave Gorman. The same Dave Gorman that managed to put together a comedy show where he tracked down other Dave Gorman’s and… um… I forget what happened next… I’m kind of jealous he got the whole set… I only got a few of them… East London Alphabets
You’ve got some rather interesting-looking incomplete letters among your photos, Michael! I suppose someone came along and Eine had to scram, leaving his work unfinished.
Great photos — it’s interesting that half of those letters are just around the corner from where I am now! I can’t believe I’ve never seen any of them before….
Another interesting thing — as Michael has already said — is that the photographer of those pics (Dave Gorman) is a brilliant comedian. As well as his ‘Are you Dave Gorman‘ project, he’s done a show based on trying to work out if astrology works by following his astrological advice literally (as gleaned from a selection of newspaper astologers) for a month, and more recently, his Google Whack adventure.
In the general histories of typography, the bulk of the 19th century is given short shrift.
Yes. I’ve found it very tough finding anything useful—detailed, that is—about 19th century type.
It’s hard to explain the meaning of decorative excrescence in words; but perhaps there will be more attempts now
I’m working in spare moments on exactly that problem Nick, by looking closely at the social and political background in an attempt to put Victorian design into its own historical perspective. What Victorians were doing combined with their idealistic aspirations to wreak their Century of Progress, the enveloping proliferation of inventions and manufactured goods had a lot to do with their need for fancy, esoteric and idiosyncratic design. Victorian design sought to emulate finely hand-crafted objects fit for royalty, but in manufactured form. The new social strata, the middle classes, wanted fancy and extra-fine objects to fill their homey little castles. They knew real palaces had elaborate wrought iron decoration and wanted something just like it for themselves, only cheap.
Never overlook the obvious.
Two weeks ago I hatched another Tuscan, all original, geometric, no reference to any existing faces. It uses the vertical stressing principal and straight-line geometry mixed with a bit of futurism, but no split stems (so its not a true “tuscan”). I suppose I’ll get to releasing it sometime in 2006.
I love all the old stuff that has been digitized, but its time to move on. No reason why type designers can’t use the same design principles with fresh ideas, motifs and technique, and incorporate features from post-Victorian type.
One thing I can’t quite figure is why so many type designers are so hooked on tradition, to the point of repeating the past with almost no change. I don’t mind tradition. I love Victorian type. I love classicism. It makes sense to build on what worked in the past, but build on it instead of regurgitating it, please.
Please, please, please…
James, this should interest you.
Nick, I think you’re speaking to a couple of larger points, which are that (a) design history tends to eclipse type history, and (b) contemporary design publishing is, overwhelmingly, awful.
Phil Meggs writes about design history, and Merrill Berman collects posters, two things which are only tangentially connected with typography. Even in cases where there are correspondences between design and typography, they’re not always easy to spot, and they’re especially difficult to shoehorn into the graphic design timeline: to the graphic design historian, the big story of 1929 was A. M. Cassandre, not Monotype Bembo. Mentioning one in the context of the other is incongruous — yet mentioning Cassandre’s relatively inconsequential Bifur typeface helps flesh out the big story. I think the situation is somewhat akin to how art history books feel compelled to say something about architecture, but in the interest of hewing to a main plotline they limit their observations to obvious correpondences: this neoclassical building was made at the same time as that neoclassical painting, etc.
Part of the reason that the 19th century has such a bum rap is the imprecise term “Victorian.” So many important 19th century typefaces ascribed to the the “Victorian” era — the sans serif, egyptian, latin, grecian, tuscan, fat face, ionic, and italian, to name just a few — are in fact products of the Regency of George IV. Victoria’s immense reign subsumed so many important typographic movements: the Caslon revival, the aesthetic movement, artistic printing, the private press movement, and the Gothic Revival to name just a few, before we even get to the invention of stereotyping, the dawn of the American wood type industry, and the invention of the Linotype machine. (Bodoni’s 1838 Manuale was published during Victoria’s reign, as was the first Linotype specimen book.) Histories that see fit to devote even a chapter to “Victorian typography” are doomed from the get-go: it’s like writing a chapter called “twentieth century music,” and having to choose between Gershwin, Benny Goodman, and Fab Five Freddy.
Anyway. Not to take us too far off course, but I’m happy to read that you’ve had something of a change of heart about Paula Scher’s work. I was a fan long before she ever tried Knockout or Gotham, neither of which are straight revivals of anything. These two fonts certainly don’t describe anything more than the smallest arc of possibility of today’s type spectrum, but everyone’s got to have a taste for something.
Nick and James: this should interest you, too!
> … no reference to any existing faces.
I will take you to our leader,
oh alien visitor/designer. ;-)
> One thing I can’t quite figure is why
> so many type designers are so hooked
> on tradition
It’s easier, and more lucrative.
But to be fair: different people
get turned on by different thing.
On the other hand: the responsible person
is mindful of what he holds up as a good
example, looking beyond what personally
turns him on.
…design history tends to eclipse type history
How disrespectful of the upstart.
I was a fan long before she ever tried Knockout or Gotham, neither of which are straight revivals of anything.
Of course — I certainly wasn’t including your designs amongst the undead. It’s great to see her working with contemporary fonts from a local shop. I suppose it’s too much to hope she’d take Fetish for a spin.
Gents, you beat me to the post :^) Thanks for the references. I had planned to say Jones’ Grammar of Ornament was one of the main sources of original design the 19th century fed on once that book was published. Or so we’re told by the introduction.
I was introduced to the Grammar as a child by my mum—she’s a calligrapher and illustrator. For me it’s long been a standard resource and a historical reference. It should be in every graphic art professional’s library, preferably on the desk; most designers I meet are barely familiar with it.
Jonathan, I favor the term “19th century” over “Victorian”. It’s objective and makes writing about the subject easier. Thanks for reminding me.
amongst the undead
Jonathan’s Didots are an extension and renewal of a great tradition that makes the genre relevant to us. That kind of neo-classicism and Bodoni’s remain indispensable to the present, for the image of authority would be lost without them.
The industrial revolution gave birth to industrial design, we’re given to understand. On the NBC Today show it would go something like this. (K.C = Katie Couric)
K.C: Good morning Kent, nice to see you. (huge smile)
Kent: Nice to be here Katie.
K.C: I understand the industrial revolution gave birth to industrial design, is that right?
Kent: Ah, that’s right Katie.
Industrial design actually began more than 3000 years ago with the first coins, but that’s another story.
The important thing here is, industrial designers of the 19th century were the first to design for a truly industrialized civilization, and they were conscious of it, so they are reckoned to be the first. They were in a similar position to graphic designers in the present, empowered with the technology to make endless cheap copies of any available design. Three and a half centuries of book publishing had proliferated fiction and non-fiction books. Ordinary people were reading about esoteric stuff from exotic locales; Egyptian, Assyrian, Gothic, Renaissance, Chinese etc, some of it very distant in time. A fashion or affectation developed for affordable imitations, and enterprising industrialists fed the market. Decorative design was applied to every domestic object. Sears Roebuck catalogs from the late 19th are packed with engravings of that stuff. Mundane objects like cooking stoves were encrusted with elaborate filigree work, cast in black iron. Pressed ceiling mouldings, parlour organs, cutlery, door handles. Every cheap Sears fob watch (there were dozens to choose from) had detailed pastoral scenes with decorative framing elements faux-engraved on them. Even a child’s drinking cup, the cheapest tin thing, sported applied decoration and was described as “fancy, fine, handsome, gilded…made of the finest grade materials.” Women’s clothing was more elaborate than ever. All of civilized history was out of copyright and up for grabs.
The fashion for esoteric and fancy stuff was one driver, creating demand. But these first industrial designers were exploring a new discipline, and the overwhelming approach was to cut loose, doing as much with it as techniques and materials would allow. They were undisciplined in that sense, acting without restraint and with no legacy to guide them
I.D. #1: Hey, suddenly we can make one hundred thousand cheap copies of whatever we like. What do you think we should make?
I.D. #2: Same thing you’re thinking, something really impressive to show off our new craft. Say—baroque is out of copyright.
I.D. #1: Yes.
Where did type fit in? As it had in previous centuries, display typography* emulated the general pattern.
*Text type stuck close to the antiqua model, but “modernized”.
contemporary design publishing is, overwhelmingly, awful.
The vast bulk of it. In May each year I’m given annual reports and implored, “Can you improve this design? I look at them and say “Design—what design?” The word, “awful” comes out a lot.
I will take you to our leader, oh alien visitor/designer. ;-)
Awe shucks, you’ve blown my covers off Hman ;-) The invasion will take slightly less than two of your earth minutes.
Sure. (I don’t like to point that aspect out because it’s akin to implying laziness.) It’s easier to market too; the lingua franca of promotional copy for selling a wild west font is well-established and easy to rework. Irrespective of that, the aesthetic motivation is what eludes me. I can’t find the enthusiasm for doing it when it’s more fun creating new varieties. Without the challenge I get bored. I enjoy looking at period originals (they’re a turn-on in that capacity), but my own designs are a different kettle of fish.
But to be fair: different people get turned on by different thing.
This needs to be said, repeatedly. People should be encouraged to take a relativist view.
To be fair to Michael Hagemann and Dan Solo, their revival work is more valuable than preservation of glowing 19th century arcana—it’s a legacy to draw from and build on, if we’re to have a decorative design revival as stimulating as the counterculture revival of Ar’Nouveau & 19th century in the 1960′s. Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin and others did fabulous things with it back then. It would be great to see a second decorative revival on a larger scale go mainstream.
Much of the reticence to revive decorative design seems to stem from entrenched modernism and a cynical post-modern view of retro culture. Retro is stigmatized as lazy or self-absorbed, a recent phenomenon that must be a passing fad, whereas revivalism is really ages-old. The revival of antiquity was the whole focus and activity of the renaissance. The Italian humanists invented retro. Neo-classicism and decorative revival of the 19th went on for most of that century.
We’ve been conditioned by reductive 20th century design to see anything decorative as fluffy and frivolous, and terminally outmoded. The Bauhaus vilified decorative design as applied afterthought and therefor artificial and contrived. Kids label it “old skool”. The 20th century was conned into believing richness is bad and blandness inherently good.
The residual strength of modernism sired the myth that everything in the future will be minimal and featureless (streamlining got sidelined after the 1930′s), hence futurist fonts tend to be reductive and minimal, and yawn-inducing. Microcrappa is good for sending people to sleep. My Rhodaelian series is an attempt to reverse the ersatz hollow futurist vision by drawing on the current renaissance in automotive design.
The challenge for proselytizing style mavens: predict whether modernist reductivism will prevail, or run out of steam, allowing decorative design to resurface. Remember that modernism goes back centuries;
Modernism, making one size fit all since Decartes climbed into his oven in 1798.
Remember that modernism has failed us, but the mainstream it still patronizing it because designers have been conned by erroneous post-modern deconstructionist design theory. Post-modernism is not much more than modernism with intellectual pretense and a handy prefix. Reductive “design” is the opposite of design.
Erm… beyond all the 19th vs. 20th century polemic (although I’ll always side with the heroic Josef Muller-Brockmann for any number of reasons), the photographs don’t show a great deal of craft in the rendering of the letterforms do they? They look OK in a flckr montage but look pretty poorly drawn when you zoom in. Am I missing something?
Not especially, but both punchcutters working at the bench and type designers working at the Mac are afforded certain luxuries of time and introspection that aren’t really available to clandestine spraypainters. When I’m drawing an alphabet, hardly any of my time is spent evading the policeman’s truncheon. No more than 20%, anyway.
…look pretty poorly drawn
The “naďveté” of some features, such as the wrong-way-round thickness of the right stroke of the U, is surely deliberate rather than a mistake; somehow, this complements the sketchiness of the rendering.
The way that the slats of the shutters paraphrase ruled tonal engraving is brilliant — kind of like the way bricks provide a background grid for wall-painted signs.
> …design history tends to eclipse type history
Lawson, page 209, yet again.
> The “naďveté” of some features, such
> as the wrong-way-round thickness of
> the right stroke of the U, is surely
> deliberate rather than a mistake
1) Maybe, but not surely.
2) Does that not make it [partly] phoney?
One could take Johnny von Neumann’s “anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random numbers is, of course, in a state of sin” and extend it to condemn faked irregularity in design.
I’m just glad that something’s reminded me to go back to Ed Fella’s photos of vernacular lettering (Letters on America). [although I'm sure to be horribly shot down in flames, but the photos were far more interesting than what he did with them!]
And Dave Gorman is quite funny.
An interesting piece of work; but it amazes me that people can argue that centuries are so defined and rigid. Perhaps time to loosen up guys? Modern (as opposed to modernism) 20th century design is wider than JM-B; ever look at Gerstner? or Bill? or Tschichold’s Typographische Gestaltung; hardly boring? Or Joost Schmidt? Or Robert Büchler. The list is endless. And the 19th century is much wider than Nicolete Gray; her simplified view of what happened is at odds with what the specimen books showed or the printed material of the period shows. But maybe guy rather than discussing whether books are good or not about the subject, why not actually look at the specimens and actually write the books?
The discussion that stemmed from Nick’s post (#2, above) was about contemporary design writing.
I dare say I’ve spent more time with nineteenth century specimen books than anyone whose name I recognize from this discussion, and based on this experience I really can’t imagine what it is about Nicolete Gray’s book that you find objectionable. The book is intended to be a survey of decorative printing types of the period, and it accomplishes that goal perfectly well; it’s not as if there’s some sort of thesis being advanced. There are surely absences, and Mrs Gray did have an unusual means for reproducing her illustrations (borne of necessity, I think), but neither of these things vitiates value of this very useful work.
I’ve done some writing on the 19th century. Or should I say, things that happened during the 19th century. Very unscholarly, Just a few magazine articles, but I’m hoping to put them into a book.
BTW, just saw the new Pride and Prejudice. Written in the 1790s, published in 1813. Couldn’t make out the title sequence face, but it was very Hoeflerish.
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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles, also of Fonts In Use and The Mid-Century Modernist.
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