A small book of modest ambition, How Typography Happens is a compilation of the texts of the Sander Lectures given by Ruari McLean at Cambridge University in 1983. McLean is a noted practitioner of the typographic profession and the author of several more significant books on the subject, notably The Thames & Hudson Manual of Typography and Jan Tschichold, Typographer. McLean’s lectures cover separately, the modern typographic evolutions of Britain and America, Germany and France.
Britain and America
McLean believes one of the critical steps in the evolution of the typography was that in the 19th century a few publishers became responsible for the design of their books rather than relegating this responsibility to the printing compositor. Commercial artists also began to appear in the late 19th century. In addition, technological change accelerated, bringing the halftone dot to printing and the punchcutting machines to type founding. Specialists in these technologies and their uses naturally developed. McLean also cites the writing of Theodore Lowe DeVinne and Daniel Updike as forces in the evolution of modern typography in Britain and America.
McLean contends that a critical mass was developing in typographic design, culminating first in Bruce Rogers, who McLean argues is the first “respectable” international typographer of America and Britain followed chronologically by Stanley Morison. The British journal Imprint is also identified as one of the outlets and stimulators of writing about typography.
It’s McLean’s opinion that at the turn of the 20th century Germany was more intellectually advanced and had a more “modern” aesthetic than either Britain or the U.S. He also believes that printing was a more respected trade in Germany due in part to its heritage as birthplace of the craft.
McLean’s discussion begins at the beginning of the 20th century when there were significant printing schools, trade magazines and art journals. Germany in the 1920s was also a hotbed of experimental art movements and demanding social change. Activists saw printing as the means to proselytize their ideas, and type as imagery to be manipulated. The “modern” movement, lead by Jan Tschichold, was in full swing. His manifestos on the New Typography were about communication of ideas through typography, as opposed to the more decorative, static style then prevalent. Ten years later, however, practical realities forced Tschichold away from “asymmetric typography” and back to more traditional design. Later, he achieved further renown in Britain for his typographic design for Penguin Books. McLean sees Tschichold as the essential German typographer.
Finally, McLean provides a brief survey of France’s contribution to typography, acknowledging the leading achievements of the 16th–18th centuries: Garamond, the Estiennes and the development of the point system.
In the late 19th century, instead of a parallel, calligraphic-based evolution with the British private press movement, French book design emerged through book illustration. Clubs of French bibliophiles were formed, and “livres d’artiste,” grand books in limited editions with texts by prominent writers and original art by the great artists of the day, were published.
According to McLean, the influential journal Arts et Metiers Graphiques, founded by Charles Peignot in 1928, is perhaps the most visually satisfying graphic arts magazine ever. This journal sounds immensely appealing and worth the effort of finding. McLean also speaks of Maximilien Vox, who published in Paris, claiming Vox as the first true French typographer.
McLean’s lectures were given before the advent of desktop publishing. It would be interesting to know how he would compare the flood of “how to” books on typography from the past 15 years with the views of these masters of typography of the past. It would be equally interesting to know the reactions of master printers to the printing manuals in the “good old days.”
While not fully realizing its stated intent, How Typography Happens is rewarding for its insights, anecdotes, and historical references. Especially enjoyable are the many illustrations that accompany the lectures–and are atypical of these types of books.
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