Junk Type: Typography · Lettering · Badges · Logos
captured by Bill Rose
New York: Universe Books, 2016
Note: I was recently asked by Gregory Cerio, editor of The Magazine Antiques to review Junk Type. Gregory decided that the review I had submitted was not right for his audience and, after several discussions about how to revise it, we mutually agreed to cancel it entirely. He then very kindly suggested that I use it on my blog instead. Here it is, unaltered.
I am a graphic designer, specializing in calligraphy, lettering and typography. I am also a design historian. In both of these roles I find Junk Type by Bill Rose to be simultaneously irritating and fascinating. In his annoyingly brief forward Rose explains that the book is his collection of iPhone photographs of “vintage typography”—not actual items he owns—turned into a book. His rationale for his website recapturist.com and for the book is flimsy. Rose finds material from the pre-digital era to be charming—and endangered. His mission is not to save it but to save images of it. He hopes his images will inspire a “renaissance of vintage typography in contemporary design” and become a reference source.
But Rose does not mean a reference source for historians of American society, design or even “vintage typography.” His idea of a reference source is for Junk Type to be a swipe book for current graphic designers. This is an idea made explicit in Mike Essl’s introduction. Essl, a graphic designer and teacher at Cooper Union, shares Rose’ nostalgia for the fast-disappearing material world—in which he includes plastic items as well as the metal ones of Junk Type. But it is not only nostalgia that he finds in this material, it is ideas to steal. He explains, “Not I don’t condone wholesale theft—don’t just scan one of these logos, trace it, and call it a day. That would be tacky. Instead, lift one small amount, like the way the E is made of lightning bolts in the word ‘Zipper,’ or the way the word ‘TRIFA’ is stretched to fit into a shape. Junk Type is an archive of small ideas for you to lift and use in your work.” In his opinion the book is the perfect antidote for designers looking for new ideas that cannot be found in their design software.
Essl’s notion of using a book like Junk Type as a source of ideas outside of the computer is nothing new. In the 1980s and early 1990s as the personal computer became the dominant force in the production of graphic design, a spate of books about cigar box labels, matchbooks, luggage labels, fruit crate labels, and trademarks from the 1920s to the 1960s were published. Reflecting the same nostalgia that animates Rose and spurs Essl, Luggage Labels: Mementos from the Golden Age of Travel and the other books of its kind were pounced upon by graphic designers looking for new ideas. Retro design became one strand of post-modernism. The most visible practitioners were Joe Duffy and his protegé Charles Spencer Anderson, who coined the term “bonehead design” to describe the anonymous vernacular design of the first half of the 20th century. Bonehead design became the basis for CSA Archives, Anderson’s digital stock image company.
In the 1990s there was a backlash against this retro work. In a Print magazine essay entitled “Good History / Bad History” (1991), Tibor Kalman, J. Abbott Miller and Karrie Jacobs savaged it, calling it hack work done by designers starving for “inspiration.” They specifically challenged the rationale that both Rose and Essl are using to validate Junk Type. But, Essl correctly points out in his Introduction that the anonymous designers of the badges in the book copied the work of others and that such “stealing” was not only common, but commonly accepted. I would extend his point to say that this was true also of artists and designers in general—including many well-known ones—from the Renaissance to the beginning of World War II. And in recent years designers such as Louise Fili, Matteo Bologna and Jessica Hische have fashioned careers built upon retro lettering and imagery.
Junk Type has, by my count, 368 images of badges (excluding those used in the endpaper collages). Only 80 or so indisputably include typefaces and none of those as an essential part of their design. The dominant aspect of these badges is lettering, much of it script or sans serif. And it is the scripts that tend to leap out—though most of them are pedestrian or worse. The few exceptions are Resco (a nail trimmer), Chevelle, and the wonderful oversize S in Wee Walker Shoes. Among the other styles of lettering, the most appealing are the reverse weight slab serif of Pastoil, the double ff combination in the sloping sans serif Whiffit (a bug spray), the smudged and rusted Gulf Kist, the flowing Art Nouveau capitals of Lincoln (not the car company), the 1950s goofiness of Mercury (the record company?) and Playtime chalk, and the 1880s style of Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Co. There is very little else to get excited about in Junk Type, though I agree with Essl about the joy of seeing a slew of trademarks using lightning bolts. But only the one bisecting a G within a broken circle (for an unidentified company) is truly beautiful.
While most of the badges are for unfamiliar companies (e.g. Wheary Trunk Co., Poloron Products, and the wonderfully named Natco), a large number of recognizable ones are present as well, among them Agfa, Bell & Howell, Du Pont, Philco, Remington, Speedball, and Westinghouse. But few of the big names are memorable.
To return to my opening statement, as a lettering artist I find books like Junk Type to be a source of inspiration in the manner that Essl describes; while as a design historian I find such books essential in finding material to support a widening of the field beyond the canonical works of high design. At the same time, as a lettering artist I find very few of the badges in Junk Type to be inspirational. Most of the designs live up to the title of the book as junk. Similarly, as a design historian I am especially distressed that the book is totally devoid of any information about these badges.
There is no essay about the history of badges or of aesthetic trends in badge design or the influence of badge design on contemporary graphic design. The images in Junk Type are not captioned. There are no names of companies or products, no dates, and no geographical information—even though much of this information can be gleaned by looking at the photographs and doing some basic Google searching. The badges are grouped in some mysterious manner, but the groupings are marked only by blank white pages rather than thematic section titles. Given that there is no essay, there is no bibliography either. Essentially, Junk Type is another example of what has been called design porn. Design porn, like regular porn, is popular—a guilty pleasure. I enjoyed leafing through it and I am sure many other designers, historians and collectors will too.