• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: X, Cross, Sunbursts and the Book That Marks the Spot

This post is about Hornung's Handbook of Designs and Devices, a book many of you may own, if only hidden away somewhere on your shelf—or a book you should own. Mine is a 1946 reprint of the 1932 original. There are more contemporary printings to be found from Dover. Inexpensive, and worth every penny.

There is a story for me behind this book, meandering though it may be.

Thirty years ago, while foraging around an old bookstore in Catskill, New York, I stumbled across three large cardboard boxes filled with alphabetically ordered file folders with handwritten labels of typefaces. All the folders contained sample sheets and sketches of a particular typeface. I was thrilled when I learned the boxes had belonged to Clarence Pearson Hornung (1899–1997). He was a trademark and industrial designer of some renown—who, as author of many design books in and out of print, must be thanked for his invaluable contributions to our knowledge and practice of graphic design. I owned a number of Hornung's books, including, at the time, an important historical overview of American Graphic Art. co-authored with Fridolf Johnson (1905-88), an illustrator, calligrapher, printer, historian and executive editor of American Artist magazine

Many famous trademarks and symbols from the mid-20th century were either inspired or liberally drew from Hornung's work, or were designed by him.

An anecdote: During a patent review of the then, new U.S. Civil Defense Fallout Shelter symbol, it was noted that the design originally appeared in Hornung's Handbook. Thus the scarily ubiquitous sign was inspired by his obsessive passion for collecting and categorizing all manner of graphic design and illustrative material, from type to ceramic tiles. I knew about the latter because a friend had purchased a collection of the tiles from Hornung. He was then pretty old at the time, not long for this world, as it turned out, and had been divesting his well-documented holdings—most of it quite rare by today's standards.

As a practitioner and designer for American Typographers, Hornung created colophons and other book-related materials for Book League of America, Farrar & Rinehart and Vauguard Press. He supplemented this work with book designs for Harper and Row, as well as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His Handbook of Designs and Devices was first published in 1932, subtitled 1836 Basic Designs and Their Variations Drawn and Cassified by One of America's Foremost Industrial and Graphic Designers. The exhaustive study contains almost every essential geometric configuration and shows how each evolved into others. About his methodology, Hornung wrote: "It is obvious from the organic plan and arrangement of the plates [images in the book], that the classification of designs is built upon the construction of the elements themselves, and not upon their symbolism. This approach may seem strange to many readers, but the author [third person] has chosen a geometric order deliberately."

In explaining why he authored this volume, Hornung stated, "Hundreds of volumes devoted to the study and application of designs have been published during the last few decades," but each one was beyond the financial means of a student. His goal was to make an affordable compendium. He succeeded.

"The use of over eighteen hundred illustrations appearing in this volume has resulted from a close study of those art cultures of the past wherein the geometric and abstract phase of design have been dominant," he wrote. "The matter of correct nomenclature has presented many unsuspected difficulties. [N]ot only is there a wide divergence of opinion depending upon books consulted, but in many cases there were no accepted terms whatever." Hornung's Handbook tries to address this "vexatious problem in a most direct manner." What I found invaluable were his taxonomies on the cross and swastika.

For designers who use shapes, patterns and do-dads in their work, this book remains the quintessential guide. It is also fascinating to learn the numerous ways that images, signs and symbols are so common to design in general, are so variously named as they evolve from one form to another.