Publishing today. From Louise Fili’s and The Daily Heller’s latest book, Vintage Graphic Design (Allworth Press) comes this cautionary note: “Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas,” wrote type expert Beatrice Ward in the chapter “Printing Should Be Invisible” in her book The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography (The World Publishing Company, 1956). . . “I always suspect the typographic enthusiast who takes printed page from a book and frames it to hang on the wall, for I believe that in order to gratify a sensory delight he has mutilated something infinitely more important.” Speaking about book typography, she was correct that outrageous type display is anathema to “good design” by drawing attention to itself rather than the word. “Get attention as you will by your headline,” she admonished, adding “. . . your wildest ingenuity can stop people from reading a really interesting text.”
Ward was directly addressing the dangers of typographic experimentation that originated in the early twentieth century yet condemns the marriage of old and new as an act of typographic hubris. “Printing [meaning typography] demands a humility of the mind,” she warned, “for the lack of which many of the fine arts are even now floundering in self-conscious and maudlin experiments. There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page. Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline.” Referring to the “stunt typographer,” Ward implies that while there is a place for “ugly” typography, beauty is the virtue of the wise.
To the contrary, engaging typography comprised of eccentric typeface designs need not always transparent, or represented by Ward’s metaphoric crystal goblet. Often the purpose of type is to stop the eye and excite the senses. Today this prevails more than ever. Since it seems that typographic fashions change more rapidly than ever, au currant or passé are no longer useful descriptions. Typefaces and typographic ornament from historical periods – intricate or austere produced in wood or metal – are impressive when used well. Vintage luster adds a charm and personality that cannot always be found in austere modern faces.
We savor type history – especially of the eclectic cum idiosyncratic kind and the artifacts on which these historical typefaces are printed – as we do, then you will doubtless derive joy from the letters and ornaments culled from the rare and forgotten sources we have reproduced herein.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →