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It’s easy to agree with the idea that type should be a more or less invisible vessel for the meaning of the words it spells out; that it should be, in an awesome paradox of design, both exceedingly legible and, in a way, imperceptible. But what if a transformation in type leads to the letters acquiring new powers—of illustrating, embodying, amplifying, or complicating the message? In synesthetic acts at play among form, function, typography, drawing, design, collage (and more), designers, artists and writers have broken the rules of typography; or, perhaps better put, they’ve created new rules.
A new book written and curated by Steven Heller and Gail Anderson, Type Tells Tales assembles gems from the portfolios of 57 hand-selected designers, presented in over 250 full-color illustrations. The book celebrates a range of voices whose work is the type itself, functional performance transformed into spectacular showcases of the beauty of the shape of words. Spanning nearly a century, these are works at the cutting edge of their medium. Conceptualized by the authors as a “taboo-challenging alternative to the book’s ancient history,” Type Tells Tales is an art book, a history, a paean to the richness and possibility of typographic language.
T. Marinetti, Les mots en liberté futuristes (Futurists Words in Freedom) (1919). An Italian poet, theorist, and founder of Futurism, Marinetti was responsible for revolutionizing what artists felt they were “allowed” to do with type. Instead of imagining type as the “crystal goblet,” an invisible vessel that holds the important content, his type was the content.
Robert Massin, The Bald Soprano (1965). Nothing says “drama” like using typography to translate the physical performance of Eugéne Ionesco’s absurd play La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) back into a physical book. The type is a kind of proto-graphic novel, with photographic cutouts of the actors and type intermingling on each page.
Richard Eckersley, The Telephone Book (1989). The Telephone Book is impressive in that it is at once a scholarly text tracing the history of the telephone and its place in contemporary society, and a graphic manifesto. Although the book borrows design elements from the actual Yellow pages, each spread of the 466-page book has a unique design — both the text and the typography explore how and why human beings connect and disconnect in our unavoidably, increasingly interconnected society.
Alida Sayer, A Vanishing Point (2011). A Vanishing Point is a work of type and a work of sculpture. Displayed as an instillation, A Vanishing Point is made up of dozens of sheets of clear hanging plastic, seemingly embroidered with letters which read “THERE IS NO MIRACLE WITHOUT A VANISHING POINT,” letters that themselves vanish behind many translucent stacked layers. Although her text is often borrowed from novels, Sayer insists her work uses “letterforms as a way into something that cannot be expressed in words at all.”
Sam Winston, a made up / true story (2005). Sam Winston is a practitioner of what he calls “embodied image making,” a type of artmaking where the brain takes the back seat and the body takes over, design coming directly from the movement of the arms and hands, and not necessarily from preconceived notions of what the artwork should look like. That’s incredibly liberating, but also shocking, given how cerebral Winston’s work is; he creates primarily in collages, printed words cut up and reordered to create works that at once create a striking visual silhouette, and an entirely new story.
Cyla Costa, ¿Me acompañas? (2008). ¿Me acompañas? is a fanzine created for Costa’s Master’s degree in Design at the Barcelona School of Design and Engineering. The book explores her life in Barcelona, and – most impressively – was made manually, using only collage and a photocopier.
Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Bembo’s Zoo (2000). The idea for this alphabet book first came to de Vicq when he was teaching his young daughter how to read. He kept the design simple: each page is printed in just four colors, and depicts just one animal, made up only of l
etter forms. It’s ingenious in its simplicity, a joy for children and for adults alike.
Steven Heller was art director at the New York Times for 33 years. He is currently co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program and the School of Visual Arts, New York, and the author of the popular Print blog Daily Heller.
Gail Anderson is an award-winning designer and lecturer at the School of Visual Arts, New York.