The Rise of Centaur

Misha Beletsky, art director of Abbeville Press, wanted to use Bruce Rogers’ Centaur font for a freelance design project for the Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago. “It felt like a logical choice, given that the Centaur typeface was originally purchased by the Museum for their use as a ‘house’ type in 1914,” he says. He learned that since Centaur was considered one of the classic faces, it was among the earliest fonts to be digitized by Monotype in 1987 and suffered from their learning curve. “The existing version looks good in large point sizes, but becomes too feeble when used for small text,” he says. When Beletsky mentioned this predicament to his friend Jerry Kelly, type historian and one of the few experts in the work of Bruce Rogers, he offered to digitize the original foundry version of the type, the one exclusively owned by the Museum in the first place. It was heavier than the 1929 Monotype hot-metal version (itself slightly heavier than the current digital font), and better suited for text composition. This became the basis for a pitch book designed to sell to the Met. Although it was rejected, the duo decided to produce an incredibly detailed history titled The Noblest Roman: A History of the Centaur Types of Bruce Rogers in a deluxe, slip-case edition of 300 copies with 16 additional pages, available through The Book Club of California (plus 1000 in a trade edition later published by Godine). I asked Beletsky about the years it has taken to produce this beautiful book and the importance of Centaur.

 

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Photographs: Lesya Westerman. © The Book Club of California

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Why make a book on Centaur?
In 2010, Jerry and I were talking about Centaur likely being the first-ever type used in institutional identity, and what a great match it was for the timeless institution. We looked at the current Museum identity that had nothing even remotely close in place, and the idea of advocating to bring Centaur back as the house type for the Museum jumped out at us as such an obvious choice. To pitch this proposal, we put together a booklet outlining the history of the font and the reasons why we thought this older and improved digitized foundry font would still be the best thing for the Museum’s identity a century after it was designed.

The Museum director sent us a polite thank you note and we moved on to other things, but the booklet grew on us. We thought of turning it into a small publication. As we delved deeper into the subject, the amount of new information we uncovered gradually turned the familiar story into something more substantial.

 

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What inspired Bruce Rogers to design Centaur?
Turn of the 20th century saw a Jenson craze in type design, triggered by the success of the Golden Type by William Morris. Like many of his contemporaries, Rogers admired Jenson’s type, the first true Roman of 1470, and considered it unsurpassed. He tried his own hand at reviving it, at first with a less successful type called Montaigne in 1904. Ten years later he happened to strike just the right note with his second attempt at Jenson’s Roman, Centaur. This elegant design stood apart from other Jensonian types, most of which were highly idiosyncratic and quickly became dated.

I love the title!
The Shakespearian phrase “the noblest Roman of them all” was first applied to Centaur by the printer Robert Grabhorn in a promotional broadside designed by Bruce Rogers for San Francisco typographers Mackenzie & Harris in 1948. Thanks to its striking design, this broadside became extremely popular, and the tagline stuck to the typeface: the power of advertising at its best!

 

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Where does Rogers stand in relation to other book and type designers of his era?
Rogers was beyond any competition among the book designers of his time (if not all of history, according to some opinions). D.B. Updike came close, and there were other wonderful designers, but Rogers was universally acknowledged as their “dean.” This popularity in part is what makes writing about his work today so difficult: Most of the existing sources date back to his lifetime, when everyone was in so much awe of him and dared not contradict his storyline. Scraping off the layers of reverence to get to the hard facts took a good deal of effort.

How did you research this material? What sources? What’s new?
In addition to a multitude of published sources, we worked with the Metropolitan Museum archive, The Grolier Club, the Library of Congress and Monotype archive in Salfords, U.K. We found some of the earliest pieces of ephemera printed from Centaur. We also looked at legal papers and technical documentation: sketches, work logs, proofs and patterns. However, most of the new information came from correspondence, both published and unpublished.

We were able to clarify some of the murkiest parts of the type’s history that have previously been skirted, such as the date and ownership of the original design, or the curious story of how the 1929 Monotype version came about to be created in England and not in the the U.S. We gained some insight into the complicated relationships between the key players: Rogers, Morison and Warde. We also examined the type’s newer iterations: typewriter, film and digital, showing their differences, success and failure.

 

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How does the design of the book complement the history of the face?
We used three digital versions of Centaur in the book: the 1987 Monotype digitization of the 1929 design for display, Jerry Kelly’s revival of the 1914 foundry type, and the unreleased Centaur Book Caption that Toshi Omagari based on the 8-pt. Monotype master, for small print. There is also a letterpress tip-in comparing the Monotype and the foundry metal (cast from the original matrices for the first time in about a century) versions of the type. Jerry designed the book in a Rogers vein, paying homage to some of his typographic conventions. Plentiful shoulder notes printed in red provide biographical background to the many characters in the story. The book is carefully printed on laid paper, elegant but not exuberant. We hope, if Rogers could be less than pleased with a few inconvenient revelations of the text, he would at least appreciate the design.

 

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