When I think of “experimental typography,” visions of dancing, distressed, and often illegible letterforms leap to mind. But in 1960, when the Composing Room (directed by Dr. Robert Leslie), one of New York’s most influential type shops-cum-graphic design showcases, invoked the term, clarity was the goal—somewhat.
This was the moment when hot-metal typesetting was at the tipping point. Photo type was nudging the old methods into the shadows. Expression was replacing neutrality. About U.S. was a series of four booklets—excerpts actually—of narrative typo-pictorial essays published in Der Druckspiegel, in Stuttgart, Germany. They were conceived, set in type, and sponsored by the Composing Room. Each one was edited by Percy Seitlin, a very astute design writer. Each addressed a topic that typified the United States. “Come Home to Jazz” was designed by Herb Lubalin, “That New York” was designed by Brownjohn, Chermayeff and Geismar, “Love of Apples” was designed by Gene Federico, and the one before you, “The Age of the Auto,” was designed by Lester Beall.
Each was a form of typographic poetry. Text by Seitlin or, in this case, quotations he selected, are the foundation on which type and imagery is composed. Each booklet, as “The Age of the Auto” reveals, was pristine yet dynamic. There are none of the pyrotechnics that came later in the sixties; this was the bridge between late modernism and new eclecticism. Psychedelic design was at least six years off. This showed how type could be expressive without being boisterous, elegant without being precious.
Of all the booklets, I selected Beall’s, as his is the least known. Lubalin’s was a portend of his typographic word-pictures to come. Brownjohn, Chermayeff and Geismar’s introduced the vibrating type they later used for New York’s Electric Circus, and Federico’s echoed the graphic simplicity of Big Idea advertising. Beall’s is, in only 16 pages, a remarkable history of America’s most important invention, produced without bombast yet loud in its subtlety.
For more Steven Heller, don’t miss his upcoming DesignCast, “Researching Design History: From a Personal Perspective,” streaming live on Wednesday, June 27. And while you’re at it, check out our typography webcasts, including Ilene Strizver on everything you need to know about fonts and Christian Schwartz on using type on the web. And don’t miss the numerous typography design books available at MyDesignShop.com.