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Visions of the Past: 100 Years of Type in Design at Century Exhibit

As part of the AIGA’s year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary, the graphic design organization invited Monotype to curate an exhibition. In response, Monotype, led by type director Dan Rhatigan and creative director James Fooks-Bale, chose to invite other companies and institutions to join it in a collaborative “slice of history” show focused on interesting artifacts. Rhatigan and Fooks-Bale brought in Condé Nast, Mohawk Paper, the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at the Cooper Union, the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, WI, the Type Archive in London, Pentagram, British designer Alan Kitching and, of course, the AIGA itself. Century: 100 Years of Type in Design, the resulting exhibition, opened May 1 at the AIGA National Design Center on lower Fifth Avenue. It’s consciously different from Pencil to Pixel, the exhibition that Monotype put on a year ago in Tribeca. In that show, Monotype—now the repository of the renowned British Monotype Corporation as well as the libraries of its longtime rival Linotype, the International Typeface Corporation (ITC), Bitstream and Ascender Corporation—trumpeted its rich typographic heritage which stretched from Centaur, Gill Sans and Times Roman to Futura, Helvetica, Univers and Palatino to ITC Avant-Garde Gothic, ITC Galliard and ITC Franklin Gothic. But with Century, Monotype has chosen to downplay typefaces—up to a point—and stress graphic design. The company’s intent has been to treat type as an ever-present element in graphic design.

Thus, Century is neither an academic exercise nor a comprehensive look at graphic design in America over the past 100 years. It is simultaneously eye-opening and frustrating. This is because each of the partner exhibitors chose items from their own archives or collections with Rhatigan heroically trying to insure that there were some threads tying several of them together. (The most successful of these is the work of W.A. Dwiggins which appears in the cases of not only Monotype, but also of the AIGA, Mohawk Paper and the Lubalin Center.) The lack of a central curatorial voice is both the weakness and the strength of Century. On the other hand, the unfamiliarity of many of the items on display, such as work by unidentified or lesser-known illustrators and designers sitting side by side those of icons, is not only intriguing but refreshing—and, in some instances, truly thrilling.

Title page spread from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Design, lettering, illustration and ornamentation by W.A. Dwiggins. (Courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Typography and Design, Cooper Union.)

What follows is a short summary of Century, focusing primarily on the items that grabbed my attention coupled with some thoughts on what is missing. Every visitor to the show will surely find other items that speak to them, eliciting surprise and awe.

View of Century: 100 Years of Type Design. Installation by Abbott Miller. (Photograph by Bilyana Dimitrova.)

The installation of Century is the work of Pentagram partner Abbott Miller who has brought his typically informed and quirky intelligence to the design of the exhibition space. The first thing that one notices upon entering the gallery is an overall polka dot pattern on the walls and floor. It may seem like a weird thing for a graphic design exhibition but it turns out to be inspired. The polka dots are actually an array of periods (full stops)—at least 300 of them, no two alike—taken from digital typefaces in the current Monotype library. Trying to identify them will thoroughly entrance (or frustrate) visitors. Even confirmed typoholics will not be able to figure out more than a mere handful of them. (They are not numbered or captioned, but Miller is planning a take-away guide.) The display shows how even the tiniest aspect of a typeface has a distinctive personality.

Detail of drawing by Eric Gill for an unreleased typeface, 1935. Apparently, Gill has simply retouched Gill Sans as the basis for the new design. (Courtesy of Monotype.)

Monotype’s contribution to Century, two cases and seven wall vitrines, are largely a parade of the usual suspects: Centaur, Joanna, Times Roman, Albertus, Futura, etc. But there are also a few exciting surprises, chief among them being retouched drawings by Eric Gill from 1935 for a rejected typeface that echoes Robert Hunter Middleton’s Stellar and a 1927 letter from Stanley Morison to the Drawing Office at Monotype in which he explains the corrections Gill wants for the g and y in his Perpetua typeface. The Monotype cases also include a type specimen from Hamilton Wood Type that, contrary to expectations, shows wood type versions of Kabel and Bernhard Gothic rather than the usual 19th century grotesque or slab serif. It is typical of the revelations that Centennial has to offer.

Poster for Jambalaya, the 1997 AIGA Conference in New Orleans. Design by Stefan Sagmeister.

AIGA’s two cases, which emphasize graphics related to its own activities, include only a handful of familiar items, chief among them Stefan Sagmeister’s headless chicken poster for Jambalaya, the 1997 AIGA New Orleans conference. Some of the items are fascinating not for their design but for their content as they give a sense of how the organization, and thus the profession, has changed since 1914. In this category are a small poster for a 1933 show of German graphics and announcements for two calligraphy exhibitions, one  in 1938 by the English Society of Scribes and Illuminators and the other in 1999 by the New York-based Society of Scribes, Ltd. Fred Troller’s certificate for the 1982 Just Type competition is a reminder of how eye-opening and influential that show was, especially since it preceded the typomania unleashed by Apple, Adobe and Aldus.

Only two AIGA medalists are included in the AIGA cases—Sagmeister and Dwiggins—but the two Lubalin Center cases are chock-a-block with material by medalists. One is devoted entirely to work by Herb Lubalin and his associates while the other is a smorgasbord of often-seen material by luminaries such as Dwiggins, Lucian Bernhard, Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Will Burtin, Gene Federico, Lou Dorfsman, Chermayeff & Geismar, Push Pin Studios, Karl Gerstner, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Massimo Vignelli and Tibor Kalman. Most of the 17 Lubalin items on display are familiar, but the announcement for lecture series TDC ’26–’66 is not. Its layout, a California job case reinterpreted by Lubalin with lettering by John Pistilli, is a colorful marvel. I was also pleased to see part of the remarkable 8-page spread promoting ITC Cheltenham that ran in U&lc (vol. 5, no. 3 September 1978) which I consider to be Lubalin’s typographic masterpiece.

TDC ’26–’66 lecture series announcement. Design by Herb Lubalin with lettering by John Pistilli. (Courtesy of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Typography and Design, Cooper Union.) Note the stellar roster of designers whose work is being discussed: Saul Bass, Max Bill, Will Burtin, Lou Dorfsman, Robert Gage, William Golden, Morton Goldsholl, George Krikorian, Leo Lionni, Herb Lubalin, Alvin Lustig, Herbert Matter, Paul Rand and Bradbury Thompson.

The TDC ’26–’66 announcement visually links to a February 1965 GQ cover by artist Leo Kaplan that lays out all of the magazine’s contents as a lock-up of metal and wood type. (Could this cover have served as inspiration for Lou Dorfsman’s famous gastrotypographicalassemblage designed later that year?) These designs are a reminder that the mid-1960s were the watershed moment when metal type and letterpress printing were finally giving way to phototype and offset printing. Yet, neither feels nostalgic.

Kaplan’s name is not the only unfamiliar one in the two Condé Nast cases. Other than a terrific May 1941 Vogue cover by Alexander Liberman with a photograph by Horst P. Horst and the legendary original 1925 New Yorker cover by Rea Irvin, the material is largely anonymous. This is both good and bad. Condé Nast seems to have tried to showcase all of its titles rather than playing favorites and thus there is a dull display of every iteration of the House & Garden nameplate and a forgettable issue of Allure rather than the expected pizzazz of its deep Vanity Fair and Vogue holdings. Although there is only that lone Liberman cover representing Vogue, for the revived version of Vanity Fair there is a quartet of 1982/1983 covers and from 2008, “Inside Dylan’s Brain”, a dazzling illustration by Andrew Nimmo and Beth Bartholomew that deftly pays homage to Milton Glaser’s well-known poster of the musician.

Cover of Vogue (May 15, 1941) designed by Alexander Liberman with photograph by Horst P. Horst. (Courtesy of Condé Nast.)

“Inside Dylan’s Brain.” (Vanity Fair, 2008). Design by Andrew Nimmo and Beth Bartholomew. (Courtesy of Condé Nast.)

On the other hand, the Condé Nast cases include engaging material from the early part of the 20th century when the company had its own typesetting and printing facilities in Greenwich, Connecticut. There are some fascinating photos of the plant and employees as well as an interesting specimen book from 1929 (with1939 annotations and additions) and a specimen page of Vogue (a Futura wannabe from Intertype created specifically for the magazine at the request of its art director, M.F. Agha in 1930). And, for typophiles, there is also the elegant binding of Vanity Fair’s Portfolio of Modern French Art (1935) set in an unfamiliar yet intriguing sans serif.

Binding of Vanity Fair’s Portfolio of Modern French Art (1935). (Courtesy of Condé Nast.)

Strathmore Deckle Edge Papers Extra Superfine sample book (1898). Design by Will Bradley. This is one of the earliest paper promotions by an American paper manufacturer. (Courtesy of Mohawk Fine Papers.)

The Gestalt Assault. Promotion for Strathmore Text Electric Colors (1970). Design by Kenneth Kuenster. (Courtesy of Mohawk Fine Papers.)

Surprisingly, the material in Mohawk’s three cases is taken not from its own excellent archive of historical and contemporary paper promotions but from the even richer one of Strathmore Papers which Mohawk acquired a decade ago. A few months ago Chris Harrold, vice president of business development/creative director at Mohawk, began to finally dig into the many boxes of unopened Strathmore material at the company’s Port Albany warehouse and was stunned by what he found. Mohawk’s contribution to Century is his attempt to share this historic treasure trove with a wider audience of designers and printers.

On display are an astonishing abundance of largely unfamiliar paper promotions and specimen books ranging from the first ones for the company (and possibly for any American paper company) by Will Bradley in 1898 to one from 1970 by Kenneth Kuenster showcasing gestalt theory in psychedelic colors. The highlights are contributions to Strathmore’s “Paper Is the Part of the Picture” campaign from the 1920s by C.B. Falls, Walter Dorwin Teague, Ralph Barton, Helen Dryden and Dwiggins; a 1933 sample book of Alexandra Bond by Lucian Bernhard; Bradley’s odd yet endearing 1954 portfolio (done when he was 86 years old!); and T.M. Cleland’s magnificent design of A Grammar of Color by A.H. Munsell (1921), one of the landmarks of 20th century American bookmaking that reminds us that there are other color systems besides Pantone. Another Strathmore specimen from 1953 by Will Burtin is in the Lubalin cases.

Interior spread from Orginations by Fashion paper promotion (1925), part of the “Paper Is Part of the Picture” advertising series begun in 1922 and continued into the 1970s. Illustration by Helen Dryden with lettering by George Jensen. (Courtesy of Mohawk Fine Papers.)

Pentagram’s single case is a bit disappointing. Instead of a survey of the work that the firm has done since Colin Forbes established the New York office in 1978, the firm chose to focus on recent work involving custom type design. So, iconic designs such as Michael Bierut’s posters for the Yale School of Architecture and Paula Scher’s posters for The Public Theatre are absent as is any work by Forbes, Woody Pirtle or members of the Austin and San Francisco offices. The only familiar items are an issue of 2wice magazine by Abbott Miller with an Egyptian typeface designed by Chester; and Miller’s redesign of the Guggenheim Museum identity with a typeface by Jonathan Hoefler. The one item that intrigued me the most was the identity system for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with a version of F.W. Goudy’s underappreciated Goudy Text—“repointed” in Pentagram’s view; damaged in mine—by Joe Finocchiaro.

Wood type Q and 2. (Courtesy of Hamilton Wood Type Museum.) (Photograph by Paul Shaw.)

The Hamilton Wood Type Museum contributed the expected hunks of wood type—including an enormous 2, though not the biggest one in their collection—and some original letterpress prints to Century. Their material echoes Alan Kitching’s contribution of five posters created to honor five graphic designers who were born in the AIGA centennial year of 1914: Tom Eckersley, Abram Games and F.H.K. Henrion from England, Josef Müller-Brockmann from Switzerland and Paul Rand. (For some reason, Emil Ruder, another centenarian of note, was left out.) The posters were designed with wood type—Kitching uses the bed of a press as his canvas—and originally printed letterpress in succulent and blazing colors before being recreated as silkscreen prints by Advance Graphics in London. Not your great-grandfather’s wood type at all.

Homage to Josef Müller-Brockmann (2014). Design by Alan Kitching. Silkscreen print by Advance Graphics.

Overall, I have a split response to Century. As a design historian, I feel let down. I had hoped to see a comprehensive reassessment of American graphic design history over the past one hundred years by AIGA in exhibit form with an overarching narrative that could have served to fill in the gaps in the survey books by Meggs et al. As a designer, however, I am elated. Century is replete with so many unexpected and unexpectedly sparkling items that to point out its conceptual shortcomings feels churlish.Monotype, a company with only a minimal stake in such a narrative, should be commended for not only for overseeing and coordinating Century but for bringing in other companies and organizations to provide a wider lens than its own holdings could provide. It was a wise move that has paid dividends. The exhibition is on view from May 1 at the AIGA National Design Center in New York City. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Learn more about Century: 100 Years of Type in Design. Additional Resources: Upcoming Online Learning Opportunities HOWU, an online learning platform for graphic designers, is now accepting registrations for the following upcoming courses: Typography Bootcamp, Infographics How To: Data, Design Distribute, Preparing Your Portfolio Bootcamp, Principles of HTML, CSS and JavaScript and Wireframes and Prototypes for Designers. Register now for any of these dynamic courses.