By: Paul Shaw | January 25, 2010
Typography Papers, edited, designed and “prepared for press” by the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading in England, has always been a somewhat misnamed journal, considering that it has rarely stuck to the subject of typography. The eighth and most recent issue, entitled Modern Typography in Britain, is a collection of essays devoted wholly to graphic design in postwar Britain, an unexplored corner of graphic design history. As such, it provides an alternative to the spate of competing mega-narratives by Stephen Eskilson, Roxane Jubert, and the duo of Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish.
This is especially true of Paul Stiff’s opening essay, “Austerity, Optimism: Modern Typography in Britain after the War,” which provides an overview for the ten others that follow. Stiff stresses the political and social context in which typography—commonly called “design for printing”—operated between 1945 and 1954. During that eight-year span, design played a crucial role in the effort to reconstruct Britain in the aftermath of World War II, as the country grappled with rationing and the formation of a modern welfare state. It was also the moment when the modernization of design (at least in England) began with the emergence of the “small-business model of graphic design practice” that served as an alternative to the studio full of artists.
The names and institutions that appear in the remaining ten essays that comprise Modern Typography in Britain are largely unfamiliar to audiences outside (and maybe even inside) modern-day England. Picture Post, for example, was a British counterpart to Life magazine that, during its heyday from 1938 to 1945, presented anti-fascist content in a modernist layout. It was heavily influenced by its first editor Stefan Lorant, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Hungary. Adprint, Rathbone Books and Aldus Books—all founded by the Austrian Wolfgang Foges—were publishers that focused on illustrated popular educational books.
Desmond Jeffery, another subject, was a jobbing letterpress printer who was inspired by H.N. Werkman, Max Bill, Karl Gerstner, and Josef Müller-Brockmann. He learned typography from Anthony Froshaug and often set type (usually Futura or Standard, never Helvetica) for other designers, but he never considered himself a designer. Politics was an integral part of his life and work, just as it was for Ken Garland and Ian McLaren, all of whom were active in the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Other essays focus on Marie Neurath and Isotype and Ernest Hoch. Several themes emerge in these essays, such as the impact of Central European emigrés on British design, the leftist leanings of modernist design, and the close-knit nature of the design world with its interlocking friendships.
Modern Typography in Britain does not tell the whole story of British graphic design after World War II—its subject matter reflects the leftist leanings of its contributors—but it tells a story that is worth hearing, a story that focuses more on politics and design’s role in society than on aesthetics. This is history rather than eye candy.