The Daily Heller: The Gospel According to Wood Type’s Patron Saint

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Rob Roy Kelly was a revered name in the ’60s when I was first learning about type and typography. Friends introduced me to the Morgan Press wood type collection and to Dover books by Dan X. Solo, both significant resources for this Photo Typositor-trained youngster. But the book that captured my heart was American Wood Type, 1828–1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types and Comments on Related Trades of the Period, originally published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1969 as hardcover and Da Capo Press re-printed American Wood Type 1828–1900 in 1977 as a softcover. It represented a comprehensive collection of 19th-century wood that Kelly (1925–2004) had assembled from the 1950s through the mid-1960s. 18,829 pieces of wood type, to be precise, some of which were shown at R.I.T. in a 1964 folio (accompanied by a newsprint sampler). He was the patron saint of wood and, to mix metaphors, like Johnny Appleseed, Kelly left collections of his type in design departments wherever he’d go.

I met him when he spoke at the SVA Modernism & Eclecticism design history symposium, where he told the audience he was tired of talking about type and instead read a paper from his book on the history of trivets. Trivet design was new to me. I later wrote a brief obituary of Kelly for The New York Times, but sad to say, I had little space to dive into his productive life or significance as a major scholar of and writer on the history of wood type, so the obit is too short for his stature.

This accounts for my unreserved excitement when I learned that The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection: A History and Catalog by David Shields, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and former head of the design department at the University of Texas at Austin, was recently released. I took a chance that it was not just a reprint of the earlier book, ordered it, and when it arrived, well, I was ecstatic. 406 pages of the most comprehensive biography and scholarship on Kelly and his collection, which he sold the collection to Dr. Bernard Karpel who then sold it to The University of Texas at Austin (the Harry Ransom Center).

Rather than a pro forma review, I give you my recent interview with Mr. Shields. His exhaustive attention to detailing the types and their makers and the eloquent reverence he displays for Rob Roy Kelly is far more valuable than the curiously inexpensive cover price (which online runs from $43 to $65). Additional kudos go to University of Texas Press, Austin, for making such an impeccable volume.

This book about Rob Roy Kelly and his invaluable collection is quite an undertaking. Can you tell me what inspired and moved you to take it on?
Some of the first additions to my personal design library were Dover Publications books of Rob Roy Kelly’s and Dan Solo’s collections. Both were amazing resources for use with Xerox and stat camera compositions. I was given a copy of American Wood Type 1828–1900 as a gift in graduate school in the early 1990s. Twelve years later I was completely blown away when I learned that the Kelly Collection was intact and was being used as a study collection at The University of Texas at Austin, where I was interviewing for a teaching position in the design program. It was one of the big reasons I accepted the offer to join the faculty. I then got to serve as the custodian of the collection during my time teaching there from 2004–2012.

The collection pushed all sorts of designer buttons for me. It presented itself as a super-fun multifaceted design problem—boxes and boxes of amazing typographic material, how to unpack and organize it, how to precisely identify all the types and borders and ornaments (beyond what Kelly had done), how to use it as a tool to better understand the typography created by designers that no one had worked to identify beyond the dismissive “anonymous,” and how to get students excited to explore the collection directly to translate and synthesize material from the 19th century into their contemporary practice.

The simpler answer might be that the research just started with my interest in properly citing the work of unacknowledged type designers and having a desire to give credit where credit is due.

Regarding the research, I am sorry to be pedestrian, but how many working hours (days, years) did you spend with the archive?
Years and years and a few days (tallying the hours would be too terrifying). I began working directly in the collection about a year after I started teaching at UT. So, off and on with varying degrees of intensity and focus since 2005. This book, while focused on the collection and Mr. Kelly’s collecting, is also an amalgamation of many of my research threads—a more comprehensive catalog of manufacturer’s stamps, a fuller timeline of American manufacturers, the examination of production saw patterns on the type blocks as a tool for identification, and a hand-list of type specimen catalogs. I see each as a separate and distinct line of research that I was able to bring together to shed more light on the collection.

Kelly was, along with a few other aficionados (like Dan X. Solo), among the first to seriously study, collect and teach this extinct typographic form. Why was he so devoted to this field?
I think in some ways he just stumbled into it. He started collecting in the late 1950s out of a simple pragmatic need to find affordable typographic material to teach with; he had been exposed to using large wood type through figure/ground experiments in classroom assignments while he was a student at Yale. He was then spurred on by questions about the type from his own students, found the search for answers fascinating, and I think to his surprise an area in great need of research. Now, this may be a fair amount of projection on my part, because I would describe my path in this research in a very similar way. Since I did not know Mr. Kelly personally, I suspect I may be putting words in his mouth. The quick answer would be that I think it’s just amazingly compelling, overstimulating visual material that is very hard to resist.

How did you gain access to so much rare archival material?
Access for the asking! All of the materials shown in the book are readily available from archives and libraries throughout the country. I first visited archives that Mr. Kelly indicated he visited: Columbia University in New York and the Newberry Library in Chicago, just to name two of the biggest collections. The trick of the work was to find other archives that also contained typographic material. The Cary Collection at RIT is phenomenal and has a collection of materials named for Kelly, so it was much easier to find. Awareness of almost all of the other archives came from friends and librarians/archivists that learned about my project. I am so grateful for all the help and generosity I received over the course of this work. I think the acknowledgment at the beginning of the book can also function as a helpful checklist of archives and libraries. All of them are worth a visit/pilgrimage.

When I met Kelly he told me he had had enough of wood type. He was working on a history of Yale, and devoting his energies to the taxonomy of trivets. Did you feel there was something missing from his work? Did you believe it your mission to continue where he left off?
For me, rather than thinking of his work as incomplete, it was more about the places that I could wiggle into with questions that I couldn’t find answers to in his work. Knowing how much time he spent researching and then writing American Wood Type 1828–1900, I feel like it was as complete as he could make it at the time. I should note that over the same number of years he also started two graphic design programs from scratch—MCAD and KCAI. MCAD was the first undergraduate graphic design program in the country, so I think it’s safe to say he had a lot going on all at once.

I would count myself unbelievably lucky if some future designer-researcher ends up being compelled enough to look for answers that this book does not provide.

I love Mr. Kelly’s work with American trivets. I am fully convinced that his wood type research was just a warmup for that substantial research. A Collector’s Guide to Trivets & Stands belongs on any designer’s bookshelf. To my eye, it is a very mature piece of scholarship; impeccable organizing and ordering of trivets as a kind of complex, ornate typography.

The text and imagery are so rich in rigor that, as an author, I feel dwarfed by your accomplishments. Was there some kind of holy grail you were looking for, and subsequently found?
Well, I’m flattered by this statement, especially from such an amazingly prolific author who I feel completely dwarfed by.

As I was researching and writing the manuscript, I tried to be as thorough as possible with finding and clarifying historical information. I was really just trying to answer my own questions that I kept asking myself about any particular aspect of the collection. The book provides a nice physical way to share those answers more broadly.

As for grails, I had brief glimmers of speculative designs for the book as I was working on the research, but I didn’t have a particularly cohesive vision of how everything would come together for the finished book until I started explicitly working on the design. There is a large amount of documentation that just didn’t make it into the book. As big as the book is, it could hold only so much. My hope is that I edited the imagery in such a way that it is visually interesting and that it can hold a reader’s attention while providing compelling historical evidence.

Many books influenced me both in terms of content and design. I am continually in awe of the comprehensive scholarship of Nicolete Gray and Mac McGrew. I’m a huge fan of a number of contemporary typographer-researcher-publishers: Alice Savoie, Huda AbiFarès, Sébastien Morlighem, Pierre Pané-Farré, Sara De Bondt … I didn’t ever imagine that I’d achieve their level of excellence, but they proved to be effective loadstars by which to navigate.

Do you believe there is more to be said, written and explored about American wood type design and manufacture?
Always and all ways. I think there are all sorts of niches to discover and rediscover and any number of new, as-yet-unrealized connections to make. The collection represents such a dynamic and multifaceted period of visual culture. I am convinced it provides a wellspring for future designers coming to it for the first time, operating within future contexts, to draw out new information, and see it in ways as yet unavailable to us now. So yes, I think there is both a lot of work yet to do that is imaginable (I’m trying to tackle some of it), and future opportunities currently unimagined.

The book is a tremendous (and heavy) tome. I would argue it’s the most important book on type and typographic roots of this century (and probably for some time to come). Is that the result you wanted?
It’s not something that I honestly thought much about when I was working on it, but when you say it this way, it’s a result that blows me over. I have been working with the content so closely for so long that it feels very surreal to me that the book finally is out in the world. I hope it starts a thousand conversations.

Do you ever ponder what Rob Roy would think about your book?
Well, I hope that he would like it and see it as an indication of the great positive effect he had through his work and research. From conversations I’ve had with former Kelly students, something I keep quietly in the back of my mind is that he might spend enough time with the book—its scholarship and its design—to drop his cigarette ashes on the work (a common occurrence in classroom critiques of compelling work from the stories I have heard).

Exhaustive as this is, do you have a plan for future work?
Years and years of work. I just finished writing an introduction to an amazing book researched and designed by Dafi Kühne that I’m hoping comes out in the next year. I am currently wrapping up a project cataloging and documenting type designs from the U.S. Patent record (building on the work of Jane Roberts and Stephen Saxe). I’m about ¾ of the way through compiling an analytical bibliography of all 19th- and 20th-century American wood type specimen catalogs (there is just a small slice of this project in the book). I’m in the continually early stages of building a conspectus of all wood type designs of the 19th and 20th centuries (this project is completely influenced by the work of Mac McGrew and Hendrik Vervliet). Further down my to-do list is a deeper examination of the Tuscan letterform as a style developed in parallel to, rather than as a decadent aberration of, the Roman (following on from the groundbreaking work of Nicolete Gray; I am also super excited by Teresita Schultz’s work contextualizing the Tuscan as a kind of globally pervasive letterform). Hopefully this is work that publishers will be interested in as well!