Book Reviews—Typeforms and Breaking the Rules

This review of Typeforms: A History by Alan Bartram (New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2007) and Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900–1937 by Stephen Bury, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) appeared in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society New Series no. 12 (2008).

Typeforms: A History
Alan Bartram
London: The British Library and New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2007

In 1968 Lund Humphries published An Atlas of Typeforms by James Sutton and Alan Bartram. Within its large format pages the authors concisely traced the history of Latin scripts, both carved and writtn, from Ancient Rome to the 16th century; and the evolution of roman types from the Incunabula to the early 20th century. They did this with a combination of an admirably concise text and judiciously chosen images. The historical material is linked to the living tradition of type design, which at the time meant metal type (foundry, Monotype and Linotype). Typefaces of the past are shown in use at original size in conjunction with alphabets of related 20th century types at display sizes. Selected letters from both the types of the past and those of the present are greatly enlarged to facilitate examination and comparison. The Atlas is well thought out and beautifully designed: the text is set in Monotype Univers, there is generous white space, the manuscript and book exemplars are reproduced at real size, the inscriptional letters are shown in detail, and the modern type specimens are also displayed in text settings. The book is not perfect—it ignores blackletter entirely, relegates decorative and script types to a 2-page sampling, and leaves out notable faces by Zapf, Trump, Weiss, Excoffon, Frutiger and Goudy—yet it remains an excellent introduction to the history of roman type for design students. Unfortunately, the Atlas has been long out of print.

Typeforms: A History, Bartram’s latest book, is billed as a “successor” to the Atlas. It reprises much of the material from the earlier book but it is not a substitute for it. The most obvious difference is that the large format is gone, an unavoidable victim of the economics of publishing. But there are also substantive changes, losses as well as gains. The introductory survey of Latin scripts has been dropped and the samples of printed books have been reduced to a single page of excerpts. On the plus side, the text settings include twin showings of metal and digital versions of typefaces and a “parallel history” of inscriptional lettering from the Renaissance to the Victorian Era has been added.

Bartram is not keen on digital type. He rightly points out its deficiencies vis a vis metal type. As a demonstration he takes texts set in metal type from books printed letterpress and then reproduces them using their digital equivalents. Inevitably, the latter appear lighter and weaker. (The comparisons are reminiscent of the Monotype and Linotype settings in Typefaces for Books which Bartram co-wrote with Sutton in 1990.) The showings are instructive but Bartram is not being entirely fair. Typeforms would have benefited if he had included showings of original digital types such as Renard by Fred Smeijers, Lexicon by Bram de Does, MvB Verdigris by Mark van Bronkhorst or Cycles by Sumner Stone that have been designed specifically for text.

The emphasis on metal type in the Atlas was understandable given the historical moment at which it was published. But it is less defensible today. Not only are digital faces slighted but there is no mention of wood types or phototype. This gives Typeforms a slightly musty air. It would have been instructive to see how “newer” designs such as Frutiger, Trinité, ITC Charter, Swift, PMN Caecilia, Scala, Celeste, and Mercury would have stacked up against their metal forerunners.

The inclusion of examples of architectural and inscriptional lettering is the principal selling point of Typeforms. “Type occurs in a context: it is not something that happens in a vacuum, disconnected from its period, its surroundings or contemporaneous events,” Bartram opines. His point is a good one, but by limiting himself to samples of lettering on buildings, bridges, monuments, tombstones and locomotives he is not supporting his argument fully. Where are the examples of non-type lettering on posters, packaging, billheads and other ephemera? The burin, pen and brush have been passed over in favor of the chisel and the mold. Moreover, these images are not fresh. Bartram has recycled them from two of his earlier books, Lettering in Architecture (1975) and The English Lettering Tradition (1986). The most recent items are three examples of Italian Fascist architecture.

There is nothing wrong with an author revisiting and reusing older material, but in the case of Typeforms the result is less than expected. The book is less than its parts. An Atlas of Typeforms, Lettering in Architecture, The English Lettering Tradition and Five Hundred Years of Book Design (2001) are all Bartram books that belong on the shelves of anyone interested in typography. Typeforms is useful but not essential.

Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900–1937
Stephen Bury, ed.
London: The British Library and Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007

Breaking the Rules is a compact survey of printed material produced by the avant garde between 1900 and 1937, the year of the Entarte Kunst exhibition in Munich. It is essentially divided into two parts: four general essays by editor Stephen Bury followed by a series of 29 “city” essays by other authors.

Bury’s four essays are on manifestos, livres d’artistes and artist’s books, little magazines, and photographic books are excellent. He points out that the manifestos were often meant to be read aloud and that typographic experimentation was optional. They often contrasted destruction with construction. In this regard he considers Jan Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie (1928) to be a manifesto. In Bury’s discussion of livres d’artistes and artist’s books he contrasts the luxurious, limited editon items produced by artists in France for collectors with the cheap Russian Futurist books that were intended for other artists and writers. The “little magazines” he points out were not unique to the avant garde, but their role was important as they linked artists who were geographically distant, providing both a focus and a forum for ideas. The essay on the photo book is the most revelatory as it includes several artists that are not always linked to the avant garde such as Bill Brandt, Brassai and André Masson.

The city essays are a series of dense profiles of avant garde activity in cities throughout Europe plus New York. They are information-packed, listing every manifesto, journal and seminal book; and explaining who all the protagonists are. Consequently, they constitute an excellent reference source. But this portion of Breaking the Rules is problematical. First, there are far too few images in each city section. Most cities are allocated one, though the major cities receive up to five. But three is not enough for Berlin and even five images seems too little for Moscow and St. Petersburg which share a chapter. This is especially insufficient given that a cover or single interior page rarely does justice to the visual complexity of many printed items. Manifestos, journals and artist’s books are not the same as paintings or sculptures. And reading about art—especially a dense list of names, organizations, theoretical positions and dates can be mind-numbing without an opportunity to see the work being discussed. Some works are especially frustrating because their descriptions are so mouth-watering. For instance, in the Kharkiv section Olga Kerziouk says that Nova Generatsiia (New Generation) edited by Mykhail Semenko 1927–1930 “is renowned for its design. All three artistic directors (Meller, Sotnyk and Petrytsky) paid great attention to layout, typography and illustrations.” But the magazine is not shown at all.

A second complaint is that the thumbnail profiles seem to be aimed at the professional who is already somewhat familiar with the avant garde. Names are tossed around inconsistently—sometimes presented in full and sometimes only last names with no clear pattern—and there are no bibliographies for further reference. The only bibliography is for Bury’s four essays. Furthermore, the authors of the city profiles are not identified.

Thirdly, the sequence and ordering of the city chapters makes little sense. They are arranged alphabetically which works only if one thinks of Breaking the Rules as a reference book rather than a companion to an exhibition. It is odd to have Florence, Milan and Rome separated when all three cities are tied together by Futurism; or to have to wade halfway through the book to get to Paris, “the artistic capital of the world in the first half of the twentieth century”. While the focus on cities emphasizes the urban nature of the avant garde, a broader geographical grouping or even one based on the various isms would have been better. The only thing gained by this approach is an added emphasis on lesser-known figures in less-familiar locations such as Tallinn, Kharkiv and Lisbon. But as it is the narrative jumps about too much.

The organization of the material by cities may be responsible for the uneven distribution and choice of images. While it is refreshing to see work such as the Polish Linja or Ismos from Madrid, it seems odd that Breaking the Rules does not reproduce such essential works as Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Dlia Golosa (For the Voice) and Konstantin Biebl’s S Lodí Jez Dovází Caj a Kávu (With the Ship that Carries Tea and Coffee), designed respectively by El Lissitsky and Karel Teige. For Mayakovsky’s Pro Eto we only get the cover and none of Alexander Rodchenko’s bizarre photo-montages.

Although Breaking the Rules is specifically about printed material there is a lack of information on printing. There is no glossary and terms such as hectograph are mentioned without explanation. More importantly, there is no discussion of the printing techniques and processes used by the avant garde artists to produce their works nor any consideration of how those processes may have represented obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of their visions. How did F.T. Marinetti accomplish his cover design for Zang Tumb Tumb (1914) or Apollinaire his seminal poem “Il Pleut” (1916)? It is not only that the reputed limitations of letterpress printing are not addressed, but there is no mention of zincos, paste-ups and mechanicals, composing machines, specific typefaces, halftone screens, linoleum blocks and other elements that clearly impacted the printed material of the avant garde. (Only rarely do the captions mention the printing technique used to produce a specific work) Bury should have devoted a separate essay to this topic.

In the detailed chronology at the end of the book (and available as a PDF download from the British Library website) there are a few references to key moments in printing and typesetting, but they are an odd group and most are incorrect. The chronology says that zincos came into use in 1902, that offest printing was in widespread use in 1904, that screen printing was patented for use with photography in 1906, that composing machines were in production in 1913 (it does not say which ones), and that “graphic formats standardized on A [not DIN] sizes” in 1926. The first two of these dates are wrong, the third seems to have had no immediate impact, and the fourth is irrelevant. The only typeface mentioned is Times Roman, even though it is clear that Cheltenham (Sorbonne), Bookman, Torino, Block, Akzidenz Grotesk, Futura and City were used by the avant garde.

Breaking the Rules is a useful introduction to the members of the European avant garde between 1900 and 1937, but the book has yet to be written that truly explores the printed material they produced.

Journal of the Printing Historical Society New Series no. 12 (2008)