Letterforms Study Group—Third session 12 January 2023: Color and Letters
The third Letterforms Study Group session was held on January 12, 2023 at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Columbia University. Our host was Jane Siegel, Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services. The attendees were Patricia Childers, Liz DeLuna, Sam Henri-Gold, Steve Kennedy, Claire Lukacs, Scott Santoro, Rebecca Lehman Sprouse, Beth Tondreau, and Carmile Zaino. A tenth person was a last-minute scratch.
The theme was Color and Letters. The idea for the session was inspired by the magnificent Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, Etc. (Greeneville, Connecticut: Wm. H. Page & Co., 1874) which we were unable to include in the Wood Type session at the Herb Lubalin Center of Design and Typography at The Cooper Union since they do not own a copy. However, Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML for short) has several copies. With Page’s Chromatic Wood Type as a centerpiece I created a list of items that focused on the use of color in printing with an emphasis on its impact on type and lettering.
We began by looking at an amazing manuscript that Emily Runde Iqbal, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Collections at RBML, suggested: a Spanish Gospel Lectionary (1577–1588) (Western Manuscript 029). The frontispiece has classical capitals lettered in gold leaf on a burgundy ground. Although they are beautiful, it is the interior of the manuscript that is truly breathtaking: the pages look like they have been set in type! They have been written out in consistently precise serifed antica umanistica hand.
The Spanish Gospel Lectionary was intended as a baseline for assessing printed works. We compared its full color to the limited (or non-existent) color that characterized books from the time of Gutenberg until the mid-19th century. The first two books we examined were a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1455) and Das Evangelium Markus (Offenbach am Main: Wilh. Gerstung, 1923) designed and rubricated by Rudolf Koch (1876–1934) and set in his Maximilian typeface (1913/1914).  The former had been rubricated by someone soon after it was printed. Running heads, in alternating blue and red versals. had been added to indicate each book of the Bible. The scribe had also made red slashes through the capitals beginning each verse. These additions were done to aid the reader in navigating the biblical text. In contrast, the multi-colored initials and chapter titles of Das Evangelium Markus are entirely decorative. But in both cases color was added by hand because printing in color was expensive—and remained so well into the 20th century. (Only 150 copies of Das Evangelium Markus were printed.)
To show how much of an obstacle cost was to printing in color I followed Das Evangelium Markus with the first edition of A History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983). Meggs’ groundbreaking book lacks color—a serious problem given that roughly two-thirds of its text covers works printed in color. The situation was rectified with the second edition, published in 1992.
Not only has printing in color been expensive, but for a long time it was technically difficult. Accurate registration was hard to achieve using wooden hand presses printing on dampened paper. The presses vibrated from the force exerted in impressing type and woodcuts into paper. And the paper itself shrank as it dried and then expanded again when it was re-dampened for another run. One early successful attempt to precisely register and print two-color initials is the famous 1457 Psalter of Fust & Schoeffer. Although Columbia RBML does not own a copy of that work, they do have a 1458 Canon Missae by Fust & Schoeffer with similar two-color initials. It is bound inside a copy of the Missale Cracoviense (printed by Schoeffer in 1484). I was not previously aware of this book and am glad that Jane Siegel recommended adding it to the study session.
Although most of the participants in the study session began their careers as graphic designers in the analog era, we still took a detour to examine how designs were created for color printing in the mid-20th century with an examination of two mechanicals for book jackets designed by Philip Grushkin (1937–2001): The Years of the Pilgrimage by Kenneth S. Davis (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1948) and Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1956).  Registration and crop marks were a part of mechanicals that involved more than one color.
We fast-forwarded to the middle of the 19th century for our next four items: Nesbitt’s Fourth Specimen of Machinery Cut Wood Type (New York: George F. Nesbitt, 1841), The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, in Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols Are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners by Oliver Byrne (London: William Pickering, 1847), Handbook of Medieval Alphabets and Devices by Henry Shaw (London: W. Pickering, 1853), and Specimens of Printing Types, Etc. Cast and Made by George Bruce… (New York: George Bruce & Co., 1853). The Nesbitt type specimen is the first to show chromatic type, albeit only in red and blue with black. Chromatic types were designed in the same manner that Fust and Schoeffer had used in their 1457 Psalter and 1458 Canon Missae with the interior part of the letter design being a separate element from the outer one, thus allowing each to be inked separately but printed simultaneously.
Oliver Byrne’s Euclid is justly famous for its radical attempt to teach geometry by substituting colored shapes for their related words in the theorems. We discussed the visual strangeness of the book with its modern-looking geometric shapes in the primary colors of red, blue and yellow combined with a text set in Caslon type and medieval initials; and the question of how easy it actually was for students to read the book. Despite the fascination the book has exerted among modern mathematicians and designers, it was not a success in its time. 
Henry Shaw’s Handbook of Medieval Alphabets and Devices was published by William Pickering, the publisher of Byrne’s Euclid. The book is part of the Gothic Revival in England that began in the 1830s and lasted into the 1860s. Shaw’s redrawings were printed in a variety of colors (yellow, ochre, brown, green, blue, and red), but notably only two pages were printed in more than one. The cost of printing was the same, or only a little more expensive, of a book printed only in black ink.
The 1853 Bruce Type Foundry specimen book was printed entirely in black—except for three pages at the back in bright colors that come as a sudden shock. What is peculiar about the pages is that they show combinations of decorative border but the pages bear no names or numbers identifying the designs. The pages have puzzled me and I had hoped someone else in the study group might have a theory about them. But no one did and so they remain a mystery.
Henry Shaw’s method of livening up a book by shifting colors from page to page was also used by Ludwig Petzendorfer for his Schriften-Atlas: Neue Folge (Stuttgart: J. Hoffmann, 1903), a compendium of contemporary lettering, monograms, and typefaces. The book is a very useful guide to what was happening with letterforms in the 1880s and 1890s as several different aesthetic movements —Artistic Printing, Arts & Crafts, and Art Nouveau—overlapped each other. Petzendorfer occasionally employed two colors on a page, one for each lettering example or type specimen.
For The Ghost in the Underblows by Alfred Young Fisher (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1940), Alvin Lustig added a suite of abstract designs composed of type material and printed in red and black. to accompany the long poem. Although his use of color did not involve type or letterforms, I included the book in the study group session simply because the designs are stunning.
In contrast, W.A. Dwiggins (1880–1956) used colored type as a narrative element in his design of the limited edition version of The Time Machine: An Invention by H.G. Wells (New York: Random House, 1931). The narrator’s text is printed in a rusty brown while the text of the Traveller’s story is printed in black. By the time Dwiggins had turned his creative energies toward book design, he considerable experience with applying color to letterforms in unusual (for his time) ways. For over a decade he had been experimenting with printing lettering in various colors on different colored stock for several clients in the paper industry. 
After this, we returned to looking at items from the 19th century with an emphasis on four books that used color lavishly: Specimens of Druggists’, Perfumers’, Manufacturers’, and Other Labels Engraved and Printed by Charles Shields… (New York: 1846), Harpel’s Typograph by Oscar Harpel (Cincinnati: 1870), Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, Etc. (Greeneville, Connecticut: Wm. H. Page & Co., 1874), and The Color Printer by John F. Earhart (Cincinnati: Earhart & Richardson, 1892). The book of labels by Charles Shields was new to me. I plucked it sight unseen from CLIO, the online catalogue of Columbia University’s libraries—and was very glad I had. The book is a catalogue showing the various label designs in a multitude of colors plus gold, as well as embossing, that Shields offered potential customers. It is a visual delight, especially given the date when it was published.
Harpel’s Typograph is a landmark book. It ushered in the Artistic Printing movement that dominated American and European printing into the early 1890s. The two things that stand out among the many specimens displayed by Harpel are the non-standard colors (e.g. acid green, yellow, pink, and violet) and type set non-traditionally (e.g. diagonally and on a curve). These designs challenged the norms of letterpress printing in an attempt to compete with chromolithography.
The Page chromatic wood type specimen is one of the most celebrated type specimens ever produced. There is nothing that matches its combination of scale and variety of colors. Much of the credit for the book’s success is due to the use of inks from H.D. Wade & Co. Page acknowledged this debt with credit at the foot of each specimen page and one full page that read, “Printed by Wm. H, Page & Co., with Wade’s Ink from H.D. Wade & Co., 50 Ann St., N.Y.” 
As impressive as Page’s chromatic wood type specimen is, The Color Printer is its match. Earhart’s book anticipates the Pantone Matching System with its thorough demonstration of how to create numerous colors by mixing twelve basic ones in a methodical and mathematical manner. Furthermore, it shows what halftones, quarter-tones, and tints of the colors look like; as well as the colors mixed with white, printed in two-color and three-color combinations, surprinted on one another, printed with gold, printed with black, printed on colored enameled paper, and contrasted with one another. The latter predates the work of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. 
After being wowed by these 19th century masterpieces, we fast-forwarded to the 1920s to look at two amazing books by Thomas Maitland Cleland (1880–1964), a contemporary of Dwiggins who deserves to be better known. The first was A Grammar of Color by A.H. Munsell and T.M. Cleland (Mittineague, Massachusetts: Strathmore Paper Company, 1921)—see the image at the top of this post—and the second was The New Cadillac (Detroit: Cadillac Motor Car Company, 1927).  For the latter, Cleland—who was paid $10,000—not only designed the book and its typography, but he also contributed nine illustrations of Cadillac cars in fantastical settings, twelve illustrations of Cadillac models, and twenty-seven small illustrations of details of the various cars. The illustrations were printed in up to five spot colors. 
As a complement to Cleland’s work we looked at the contemporaneous Water Colour Printing: An Explanation of the Jean Berté Process of Water Colour Printing (New York: Aldus Printers, Inc., 1929). The Jean Berté process used water-based inks and rubber plates to achieve bright colors in letterpress printing that resembled pochoir or stencil printing. 
We concluded the study session with a bound volume of Westvaco Inspirations for Printers and French Fries by Warren Lehrer and Dennis Bernstein (Purchase, NY: Ear/Say, 1984). Westvaco Inspiration for Printers, a promotional magazine published by the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. from 1925 to 1962, is most famous for the 59 issues art directed by Bradbury Thompson (1911–1995) from 1939 until its demise.  The study group was interested in Thompson’s innovative use of the process colors cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (commonly abbreviated as CYMK) to not only create secondary colors such as green, but to suggest motion. He primarily applied these effects to shapes, illustrations, and photographs—but rarely to type.
French Fries, designed and printed by Warren Lehrer, is similar to Massin’s famous interpretation of La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) for Gallimard (1964). Both books are plays in which each character is represented by a different typeface; and levels and intonations of speech are indicated through the size and placement of the typeface. Characters talk at the same time and both plays culminate in a shouting match. While La Cantatrice Chauve is printed entirely in black-and-white with text set in metal type, French Fries is printed in three process colors (there is no black) with text set in phototype. What distinguishes French Fries is that Lehrer has given each character his or her own color to go with a unique typeface.
The third Letterforms Study Group session was packed with an amazing array of colorful printed items. Getting through them all in two hours was made possible by Jane Siegel’s organization of the material and her assistance in arranging and re-arranging the various items as we made our way from the 16th-century Spanish Gospel Lectionary to French Fries.
1. Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library owns three fragments of the 42-line Biblia Latina by Johann Gutenberg. We saw the leaf from II Maccabees 1–2.
2. These mechanicals are part of the Philip Grushkin Papers at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. See Philip Grushkin: A Designer’s Archive (New York: Glenn Horowitz, Inc., 2013) for an overview of the collection.
3. See “Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics—Byrne’s Euclid: Geometry Understood via Color-coded Diagrams” (2011) by Susan M. Hawes and Sid Kolpas for an overview of the reaction to Byrne’s Euclid.
4. As part of the study session we looked at several covers of Direct Advertising from vol. XII (1926). Dwiggins designed the cover lettering for the trade periodical in 1919. With the exception of two issues, his design lasted until 1928. To keep the covers from looking predictable, he constantly changed the two colored inks and the colored stock. The full range of these covers and the surprising color combinations Dwiggins concocted for them can be seen at The Definitive Dwiggins no. 328—Direct Advertising & Sample Book of Mill-Brand Papers (Part III). Dwiggins applied a similar strategy for the covers of The Paper Book which was cooperatively published by the Crocker-McElwain Company and the Chemical Paper Manufacturing Company from 1924 through at least 1927.
5. We also looked at the 2017 Rizzoli facsimile of Page’s masterpiece to compare it to the original. Our unanimous conclusion was that it was a poor job, especially because it was printed on coated paper which completely changed the colors, making them more garish.
6. Although there are several digitizations of The Color Printer available online, none of them match the original. See the Internet Archive, The Clark, Smithsonian Libraries, and Getty Research Institute versions.
7. For more on A Grammar of Color see Paper Is Part of the Picture no. 12—A Grammar of Color (1921). We also compared Cleland’s use of printed color to Dwiggins’ hand-stenciled color as seen in Henry Lewis Bullen’s certificate of membership in the fictitious Society of Calligraphers (1925) (see the image at the bottom of this post).
8. Cleland did the color separations himself. See the Princeton University Graphic Arts Collection blog for a showing of the progressive stages of a Cleland illustration composed of thirteen pochoir plates.
9. Jean Berté was a fictitious name. For additional information on the Jean Berté Process see Paper Is Part of the Picture no. 18—Bert Chambers Joins Strathmore and “Multicolour printing: the ‘Jean Berté’ watercolour printing process” by Nan Ridehalgh in The Journal of the Printing Historical Society, New Series 15 (2010).
10. Thompson became art director in 1938 and some sources say he art directed 60 issues. I have not investigated his work for Westvaco to see which source is correct. Although most commentary about Westvaco Inspirations for Printers has focused on Thompson, it should be noted that many of the earlier issues sported beautiful covers, including six that T.M. Cleland designed in 1927 alone (nos. 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, and 29).
For information on how to join a session of the Letterforms Study Group write to Paul Shaw at email@example.com.