Book Review—Typography Papers 8

Typography Papers 8
Modern Typography in Britain: Graphic Design, Politics, and Society
edited by Paul Stiff
with contributions from Matthew Eve, Robin Fior, Stuart Hall, Sally Jeffery, Robin Kinross, David Lambert, Petra Cerne Oven and Paul Stiff
London: Hyphen Press, 2009

Typography Papers, edited, designed and “prepared for press” by the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading in England, has always been a somewhat misnamed journal as it has rarely stuck to the subject of typography. That is nowhere more evident in the 8th and most recent issue which is devoted wholly to graphic design in postwar Britain. In effect, this is a collection of essays about an unexplored corner of graphic design history. As such, it provides an alternative to the spate of competing mega narratives by Stephen Eskilson, Roxane Jubert and the duo of Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish.

This is especially true of the opening essay, “Austerity, Optimism: Modern Typography in Britain after the War” by Paul Stiff, which provides an overview for the ten others that follow. Stiff stresses the political and social context in which typography—commonly called “design for printing”—operated between 1945 and 1954. During that eight-year span design was part of the effort to reconstruct Britain as it grappled with rationing and with the formation of a modern welfare state. It was also the moment when the modernization of design (at least in England) began with the emergence of the “small-business model of graphic design practice” that bridged production through specification as an alternative to the studio full of artists.

The names and institutions that appear in the remaining ten essays that comprise Modern Typography in Britain are largely unfamiliar to audiences outside of England (and maybe even there as well). In order, they are: Picture Post; Wolfgang Foges, Adprint, Rathbone Books and Aldus Books; Marie Neurath and Isotype; Ken Garland, Ian McLaren and the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament (CND); Ernest Hoch; Edward Wright and Desmond Jeffery. Several themes emerge in these essays: the impact of Central European emigrés (Foges, Neurath, Hoch among others) on British design, the leftist leanings (running the gamut from Labour liberal to socialist to communist) of modernist design, and the close-knit nature of the design world with its interlocking friendships.

Picture Post was a British counterpart to Life magazine that during its heyday (1938 to 1945) was anti-fascist in content and modernist in layout. It was heavily influenced by its first editor Stefan Lorant, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Hungary. Adprint, Rathbone Books and Aldus Books—all founded by the Austrian Foges—were publishers that focused on illustrated popular educational books. Jeffery was a jobbing letterpress printer who was inspired by H.N. Werkman, Max Bill, Karl Gerstner and Josef Müller-Brockmann. He learned typography from Anthony Froshaug and often set type (usually Futura or Standard, never Helvetica) for other designers, but never considered himself a designer. Politics was an integral part of his life and work as it was for Fior, Garland and McLaren, all of whom were active in the nuclear disarmament movement.

Modern Typography in Britain does not tell the whole story of British graphic design after World War II—its subject matter reflect the leftist leanings of its contributors—but it tells a story that is worth hearing. One that focuses more on politics and design’s role in society than on aesthetics. This is history rather than eye candy.

Remaindered / January 2010