• Steven Heller

A Dutch Type History Redux

Dutch Type, originally published in 2004, is among my favorite books on type for its deep scholarship and broad brushstrokes. Printed in an edition of 3,500 copies, it sold out in three years. Not bad for a book of such specialized interest. In the past year or two copies have been listed online for between $400 and $800 for a copy. So rather than rest on such dubious laurels, in 2018 author Jan Middendorp decided to self-publish a near-identical reprint of Dutch Type, and successfully financed the production with crowdfunding.

Published by Middendorp’s own Druck Editions, the book is not only a rich source of history but a text book example of how independent (or self-) publishing has become an answer to the rising costs for and flagging interest from mainstream publishers book documents of this kind. I spoke with Middendorp about his rationales. (Find book outlets here.)

In past centuries, Dutch text type — which until about 1600 should be referred to as type from the Low Lands, i.e. including the current Flanders — displayed its own characteristics, just like typefaces from other countries with an approach of their own. Some keywords: practicality, openness, sturdiness. Also: probably the first type culture that consistently tried out larger x-heights and shorter extenders. Yet it’s hard to define the “Dutchness” that is hidden in their construction and in the relative simplicity of its details. However, that spirit is somehow visible throughout the centuries, culminating in the highly original work of 20th century figures like Jan van Krimpen, Bram de Does. Gerrit Noordzij and Gerard Unger.

Devoting most of its pages to the twentieth century, my book also features hundreds of examples of individualistic lettering — from geometrically construction Art Deco shapes to commercial art and script forms — with many lettering designers showing a highly personal and eclectic approach which seems to have little patience for nostalgia.

This book is an important chronicle of a significant legacy. How long did you research? And write? 

Thank you! My research had three parallel tracks, which happened simultaneously. I spent many hours in libraries and archives; I met and interviewed practically all living type designers in or from the Netherlands. And finally: I indulged in an intuitive kind of research that was often pure serendipity and mostly consisted of visits to dozens of antiquarian bookshops, book fairs and markets. It was hard work, but also great fun. My wife and I chanced upon work that was forgotten, well-known but hard to find, or simply shouting at us to be bought (and not too expensive).

Writing the book wasn’t my only job. Between 1997 and 2003 (the years of research and writing) I wrote for various magazines, did graphic design for cultural institutions in Belgium, and also worked as an editor and designer for the Dutch-Flemish FontShop. The latter opened up the digital type design world in a very informal and enjoyable way.

As for the digital era: I did look into all type designers that came from the Netherlands or worked there permanently and I only left out a few individuals whose seemed unprofessional or had stopped working in type after a few years. In general, even the imperfect work was often intriguing and very personal. I may have underestimated a couple of designers who were just starting up at the time. I don’t think I would work the same way today, fifteen-to-twenty years later.

You published in 2004. Now using your own imprint you republished based on crowd-funding sources. Do you have a sense about why 3500 copies was the limit?

Those 3,500 copies were the run that 010 Publishers chose for the original edition; it seemed a very reasonable number. However, the edition was sold out after about 4 years, and for various reasons, there was no reprint. The book soon became an expensive collectors’ item. When their imprint was taken over by the Architecture Institute, the original owners gave me back my rights. I was too busy as an editor and consultant for FontShop International and, later, MyFonts, to respond to the many requests I received. But in 2018 the time was right. Proposals from other publishers had not really convinced me, and the plan to thoroughly update the book felt more and more like a bad idea. Many people loved, and desired, the original book. A rigorous update would have meant:

rewriting the second half, and replacing much of the intriguing pieces in it by new, possibly less cutting-edge work. And so I produced a near-facsimile of the original, printed at the same printer and sold at the same price as in 2004.

After an amazingly successful Kickstarter campaign I decided to produce 3,000 copies. Maybe that was a bit too optimistic.

In doing your own publishing what are the challenges you’ve face and continue to face?

We encountered problems I had not expected. When producing the cover, which was an updated version of the original design, it turned out that today’s “silver” ink is more environmentally friendly and contains less heavy metal than the old one, and was hard to read on the greyish blue background. I had to return to the printer in Belgium a couple of times to experiment with alternative technique. Similar thing for the shipment: many copies were lost or damaged by the couriers that the fulfilment agency had hired. I suddenly found myself a business man and administrator — that must have happened to hundreds of software and font designers who decided to go it alone. But a book can’t be pumped through wires, and that made each transaction more complicated. So I have welcomed the help of various retail platforms, including the international distributor Idea Books in Amsterdam, who also sold the book worldwide in 2004.

Many students and young designers told me they were “desperately” looking for an affordable copy of the book. Online its prize went up to $500-1000. So in the end … I felt producing a high-quality reprint was my duty.

Some books go onto the web and are there forever. Why didn’t you go that route?

I don’t like half-baked solutions. But I actually did a very informal survey on Twitter to find out if an affordable PDF version online could work. Type designer Ramiro Espinoza, living and working in The Hague, commented: “Don’t! People love to see those letterforms ON PAPER!” And he offered to help me revive the old Quark Xpress files assisted by his partner Paula Mastrangelo. Without their enthusiasm, the printed version might never have materialized. I was also very grateful for the unproblematic OK from the original designers, Bart de Haas and Peter Verheul.

Finally, what is different, if anything, about this edition?

First of all: the interior looks even fresher and more precisely printed. As for the text: My personal copy of the first edition had several dozens of Post-Its, marking tiny errors: a wrong date or nationality here, a typo there. I think we managed to eliminate 99% of those errors. And I added one picture — my own photo of Van Doesburg’s lettering in the Aubette building in Strasbourg, which at the time of my research was not accessible —they were still busy reconstructing it. And so I visited that place six or seven years ago and found just one word (“messieurs” over the bathroom door) which to me seemed authentic.

And I added a short 2018 appendix to the introduction, explaining how the book’s revival come into being. And the main difference — ha-ha — is that it’s not sold out, and that hundreds of copies are still waiting to be owned.

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