Paul Soady doesn’t care that Eric Gill had sex with his sister, his daughters, and his family dog. He’s simply in love with the art and typography of this controversial artist, writer, and designer of Gill Sans. And these days, he’s got a big crush on Gill’s Perpetua, so much so that he’s devoting a 250 copy limited edition book to it, Two Men, One Type Face. It’s currently at Traction Press, a fine letterpress printer in downtown L.A., and may or may not be finished by June. As Soady puts it, “Getting it right takes time.”
Soady is an art director, type director, and designer. He began his career in his native Australia and has worked at Ogilvy Benson & Mather in London. He’s a fellow Art Center instructor and currently freelances on advertising and design projects while operating his own letterpress print shop.
Next Friday, February 15th, he’s giving a free talk—what he calls a “fireside chat”—at Loyola Marymount University, as a guest speaker in my History of Design class. It’s a journey through “Type Land”—a place where people who love type live—and “Mad Men Land.” “The world of Mad Men is the same world I grew up in, early ’60s advertising,” Soady says. “The Sydney advertising scene was a microcosm of it all. The series is a perfect replica of how it was back then, before AIDS and being politically correct, when you were able to have a beer with your lunch, or beer was your lunch.”
He’ll also discuss the research and production he’s done on his book, and put Perpetua in the context of typographic history. It’s one of several public programs hosted in conjunction with “Eric Gill: ICONographer,” an exhibition of over 100 works currently on display at LMU’s Laband Art Gallery. The show is also free and open to all after the presentation.
In our conversation below Soady covers his personal attachment to Gill and explains why today’s designers should pay attention to late 1920s type.
How did your relationship with Eric Gill begin?
A couple of key things got me interested in Eric. The first is that Australia back in the 1960s had not long before been a bloody colony, and all things English were considered as the best.
These were my formative years: going to school at night after working an eight-ten hour day as a messenger boy in an ad agency. I was 15. The first type job I had was to spec, mark up. I could use two type setters. One, Monotype: English fonts; second, Linotype: American fonts. And seeing that most of the art directors in advertising then were “Pommies,” it was an easy choice. Although Linotype had a great library, they were considered “inferior”! Just the way it was. And of course, the Monotype house had Gill and Perpetua. And Klang!
In the late ’60s, early ’70s it changed. More access to American advertising—Doyle Dane Bernbach and such—and international design really changed the whole graphic arts scene in Australia. This was a time when telegrams still ruled; we didn’t even have decent copy machines. Bit of a backwater. We didn’t get TV ’til the mid ’60s; weird seeing as Rupert Murdoch now owns the world!
About the age of 18, I happened to view Eric’s personal copies of the Fluerons. Seven volumes. They were—and probably still are in the English speaking world—considered the ultimate books on typography and fine printing to have in the ’20s and ’30s, with Gill, Stanley Morison, and Sir Francis Meynell being the big influences on their content. I could go on forever on how magic they are.
Art Center has a few, but not all. There was a condensed and edited version in one book! Worth buying for anyone interested the history of graphic design.
Why are you devoting an entire book to Perpetua?
Perpetua was Eric’s most used inscriptional style. He had many of course, but Perpetua probably was the most obvious of his early serifs that translated well into a complete family to be manufactured by Monotype.
While working in London in the early ’70s, I happened to buy my own Fluerons. And in the same book shop I found a gravestone rough done by Eric. And yes, it’s basically Perpetua. It’s just a fluke that I bought the drawing. But as you know, once you do a little research on an item produced by an artist of Eric’s stature you can’t help but stumble across a lot of information that gives you a insight to the person’s personality.
Perpetua has a great family: Italic, Titling, etc. Eric spent a lot of time with Stanley Morison of Monotype Corporation, perfecting the font for mass production. It sets so well in the hands of anyone who knows what they’re doing.
And as you know, most young designers only know a digital world, and there are millions of fonts out there. Becoming familiar with a few classic type designers like Gill and Goudy helps them understand the time and skill it took to get a font from pencil to stone, to metal. And understanding the person is a big help.
Speaking of personality, do you see any connection between Gill’s sexual transgressions and his graphic works?
It’s his art that interests me. I really don’t care about his personal life, except that he loved to find out how things worked, such as his penis, and where things went. And I guess this is why his type, and all of his different areas of art, were so worked out.
Inquisitive, he was! And eccentric to say the least, as many artists are.
You were at the Laband opening; what’s your take on the show?
I love the whole exhibit. I’ve never seen so much of his illustration work put together in one place. There are a few small, lightly inked, whimsical drawings—east wall, near the end—that really give you some insight to Eric’s personality. Wish I owned them.
Images from the forthcoming Two Men, One Type Face by Paul Soady and Simon Varey, above: copyright © The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
Wood engravings, below: copyright © The Albert Sperisen Collection of Eric Gill, University of San Francisco. These and over one hundred more works are on display at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery. Eric Gill: ICONographer closes March 24th.