Everybody Loves Rea Irvin

All typefaces have
personalities, but few say “dandy” as confidently as the one
on the cover of The New Yorker. Inside, it does a modest dance as
display type in black, red, or blue, and heralds the magazine’s
website. You don’t have to be a typophile to spot that face, the
DNA of a logotype that’s inextricable from the publication itself.
Through more than 80 years of the magazine’s visual evolution and
increasing seriousness of purpose—and into the digital
age—the lettering remains.

Rea Irvin, whom founding editor
Harold Ross hand-picked as the magazine’s “art
consultant,” introduced the letters now known as “Irvin
type” to the magazine-reading public in 1925, along with the
essential design that still graces newsstands. A truly modern bon
vivant, Irvin (1881–1972) was also a keen appreciator of the century of
his birth. His high regard for both the careful artistry of the past and
the gleam of the modern metropolis shines from the very first issue of
the magazine, for which Irvin adapted the lettering from an alphabet
drawn by Allen Lewis, an American etcher and woodcutter trained in
Paris.

Eighty-three years after Harold Ross launched the magazine,
that typography stands strong. The magazine’s current art editor,
Françoise Mouly, pinpoints its necessity: “The minute you
put the logo on it, it becomes a New Yorker cover. It’s
genuinely a typeface of its era, and it’s also clear enough so
that it can transcend that.” Irvin and Ross established that
formula with the very first cover, for which Irvin created
“Eustace Tilley,” the high-hatted critic who also presides
over the Talk of the Town section and has appeared on the cover of
nearly every anniversary issue since. The daring of this anachronistic
mascot was a triumphant sign that ’20s magazine readers were in
for something as deeply formal and passionately unpredictable as jazz.

 

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Irvin drew Eustace
Tilley at the last minute
to replace a hackneyed image of theater curtains revealing the Manhattan skyline.

 
As de facto art director and a senior man on staff, Irvin contributed
his serene and wisdom and humor, as well as his connections to many of
the best magazine artists of the day. As scholar Judith Yaross Lee has
noted, he also helped define the “New Yorker cartoon”
itself. Not least, Irvin drew 169 covers of his own, as well as
illustrations, department headings, caricatures, and cartoons.
Irvin’s drawings show off his highly developed sense of narrative
drama within the box of a cartoon or cover. His New Yorker
obituary said of his drawing style that “it had the quality of
Chinese calligraphy, though with a Western boldness of color.”

Irvin left other enduring inventions in the magazine’s page
design, too. His elegant wavy rules, for example, keep the text central
with a flourish straight from his cartoons; the vertical “cover
strap” he devised for the margin can reflect the cover’s
theme in subtly expressive ways.

Despite his pivotal role in defining
The New Yorker in its earliest years, Irvin has not garnered the
attention given to his editorial counterparts, and much of his life and
work remain a mystery. Still, it’s easy to see why Ross, who
declared at the outset that the magazine would be a “reflection in
word and picture of metropolitan life,” sought him for the job.
Ross—who, like Irvin, was known to crave both adventure and
order—was a true student of contemporary magazines, and a great
deal of research into publication design preceded even the first
mock-up.

Irvin had been art editor at Life, and Ross trusted
his taste, which—as others have noted—in turn shaped his
own. Ross biographer Dale Kramer describes his influence: “[Irvin]
had a quick, accurate eye for good craftsmanship. More important, he
knew what changes were necessary to make mediocre work passable and
passable work better.” Born in San Francisco, Irvin had worked as
a newspaper illustrator, stage and screen actor, comic strip artist, and
piano player before arriving at Life. Irvin’s diversity of
aesthetic experience was as essential to his invention of The New
Yorker
’s visual style as Ross’s vagabond generalism was
to his conception of the subject matter.

 

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One of Irvin’s forays into
Art Deco shows
the lightness of his visual comedy: The smoke rings
end in the logotype’s O.

 
There was nothing offhand
about the editors’ choice of lettering for the cover. (Type
consultant Elmer Davis suggested Caslon for the body typeface; it turned
out to be the perfect complement.) Irvin had been impressed by the
lettering style he discovered in the work of Allen Lewis, years before
he adapted it for The New Yorker. A version of it appears as
early as 1923 on Irvin’s cover and frontispiece for Newman
Levy’s Opera Guyed, which retells classic operas in comic
verse. We may never know when Irvin first encountered Lewis’s
agile letters, but a 1958 memo in the New York Public Library’s
New Yorker records provides a clue that Irvin spotted them in a
book published in 1915.

In the memo, then–New Yorker staffer
F. S. Norman wrote: “[Irvin] said he saw Allen’s pamphlet
‘Journeys To Bagdad’ which was drawn to simulate a woodcut,
and he liked it so well he took up the question of Lewis’ creating
the entire alphabet but that Lewis was not interested and suggested that
Irvin go ahead with it which he did. Many of the letters are quite
similar to the Modern Roman capital letters done by Will Bradley as
shown in the book ‘Letters & Lettering’ pub 1921, Frank
Chonteau [sic] Brown. … Many of the letters we have [also] found
on illustrations of old European tombstones & on many of the old
Playbills where wood type is used.”

Each chapter of
Allen’s travelogue begins with a more idiosyncratic, but
recognizable, forebear to what eventually became New Yorker type.
By then, Irvin had the experience to draw display type at this
level—and the confidence to play with it, too. By making the face
his own and placing it in an ambitiously sophisticated context, Irvin
gave the old tools a modern gloss. At the same time, the typeface acts
as a window to a noble past: The love and dedication that master
craftsmen like Lewis gave their woodcuts, bookplates, etchings, and
engravings has permanent representation on the 21st-century newsstand.

 

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Irvin’s grand swoops made
even his
heaviest men
and women into weightless, ultramodern
balloons. 

 
Meanwhile, Irvin’s two most famous creations have had
considerable adventures outside The New Yorker’s pages.
Satirical riffs on the Eustace Tilley image flourish, from a 1957
Mad cover to a New Pornographers poster to a recent Flickr
contest sponsored by the magazine itself. The type, for its part,
isn’t parodied so much as it is copied and pasted. As Ben Yagoda
writes in his history of the magazine, About Town: The New Yorker and
the World It Made
, “With the widespread adoption of computer
typesetting in the 1980s, Irvin type, with minuscule variations, became
available to any designer who wanted to suggest, however improbably, a
product’s upscale urbanity.” He cites its appearance on, for
instance, an Alice Munro book cover, and in ads for Bergdorf Goodman and
the Cadillac Catera. Recent sightings include Everybody Loves
Raymond
DVDs, Sara Lee bread, Jane magazine web ads, and the
book cover of a ribald political satire by performance artist Karen
Finley.

With time, editorial successions, and new technology, the
primary type shifts, too. For instance, in The Art of The New
Yorker
, former art editor Lee Lorenz writes, of a late-’70s
redesign, “The Irvin alphabet that we had used for headings was
redrawn (the originals were lost, and over the years the metal plates
had cracked and worn). … The resulting changes, though
significant when examined closely, were never commented on by our
readers, our contributors, or the press.”

That seems to have
been the case through most of the tweaks, cleanups, and redistributions
of Irvin’s work over the years. It is the triumph of a design
perfectly suited to its content from the first issue, yet flexible
enough to adjust with the material. Irvin’s lasting touches define
the spirit and the tone of the magazine and give the whole enterprise
provenance and permanence. As a current style guide directs: “The
New Yorker logo is different than just typing out the letters in
the Irvin font. It should always look as originally designed, and should
not be stretched, skewed or condensed in any way.”

The New
Yorker
founders’ talent and drive alone surely would have
sustained the magazine for years. But it was Irvin’s own intimacy
with classic form and craft, and his genial willingness to share that
expertise, that allowed him to create a complete device: a design, a
typeface, a style, and a mood that would be instantly recognizable, and
eminently effective, almost a century later.

 
Many thanks to Pat Keogh, Michael Maslin, Jon
Michaud, Paul Morris, and Erin Overbey for their assistance.

 

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