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U&lc Online Issue: 25.2.1

The Encyclopedic Type



“Typography” proves the adage that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Despite a truly depressing cover design, it is the typographic bargain of the year. It is a massive book — nearly 600 pages, over 2,000 illustrations in a 9.5 x 12"; format — that costs only $39.95! The people at Black Dog & Leventhal deserve a great thank you from all typophiles.

“This volume is not a typography textbook. It is the beginning of a reference work which demonstrates the interaction between craft and technology, theory and practice, between functional and experimental ideas,” declare Friedrich Friedl, Nicolaus Ott, and Bernard Stein. And what a beginning!

“Typography” is divided into “The Chronology,” “The Persons and the Institutions,” “The Tools,” and “Typefaces.” “The Chronology” is a 66-page whirlwind through the history of writing from Raygun to the Assyrians. Yes, the chronology actually goes backward from the present. This is very irritating since it makes it difficult to follow the usual threads of influence. Fortunately, the summary descriptions of each “movement” are succinct and often sharply observed. The accompanying illustrations are excellently reproduced.

“The Persons and the Institutions” is a conventionally alphabetical survey (from A to Z) of important individuals, institutions, and companies in typographic history. It is filled with people familiar and unfamiliar. Each entry is accompanied by several full-color examples of work at a reduced size more typical of a small paperback. The relatively small illustrations for such a large-format book are the result of “Typography”s trilingual text (German, French, and English). The illustrations sit in a double-page well surrounded by the German text running across the top, the English text running along the bottom, and the French text split between the left and right sides. It is a distinctive design. The texts are short, thumbnail summaries of each individual’s career or each institution’s history. Information prevails over opinion: the authors deliberately chose to avoid “biased” copy, and the result is a dry recitation of fact. Despite this, “Typography” is crammed full of engrossing information.

The authors have managed to bring together a truly eclectic range of individuals, as befits their view that typography is a component of culture. Calligraphers are given their fair place alongside the latest typographic rock stars. For instance, one spread has an amusing mix of philosopher Jacques Lacan, type designer Gunther Gerhard Lange, and calligrapher/letter designer Jean Larcher.

“Typography”, reflecting its authors’ background, has a strong emphasis on German and East European figures, many barely known in the United States (such as Werner Schneider, Xanti Schawinsky, Ernst Hiestand, and Carl Keidel). This strength is offset by a lack of comparable breadth among American figures. The missing include George Salter, Otto Storch, Art Chantry, Joseph Phinney, Arthur Baker, Richard Eckersley, Arnold Bank, Binney & Ronaldson, and D.B. Updike. But oversights such as these are unavoidable in a book of this kind. Since Friedel et al. promise there will be a second edition, we can hope that they will plug these holes.

“The Persons and the Institutions” is the meat of the book. The section on tools (“The Tools”) and the list of typefaces at the back of the book (“Typefaces”) are both disappointing. Despite a wide-ranging definition of tools — fishbones and light share the stage with hand-axe and computer — “The Tools” is not illustrated! The list of typefaces — set so tiny that the pages look like a telephone directory — is no more than an index to those mentioned in the section on people and institutions. The designers of each face are mentioned, but there is no information on foundry or year of design.

“Typography” may not be the ultimate typography reference book, but it is a damn good try.

Paul Shaw is a letter designer and educator who lives and works in New York City.



Book Review

Book Review