In support of their unique work to both safeguard and celebrate American wood type, we’re proud to announce the donation of a $10,000 Sustainability Grant to the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Wood type is a vital part of our visual culture. Its riot of technological and typographic innovations remains as relevant as ever to modern typographic practice: whether your favorite font comes in multiple widths, or features chromatic layers, it owes a considerable debt to its wood type forebears. H&FJ has always believed that the preservation and study of historical typography serves even the most progressive experiments, so we’re proud to support Hamilton, not only in its curatorial mission, but for the relevant and exciting programming it provides to both the community in Two Rivers, and the design community at large.
This Sustainability Grant kicks off a new fundraising chapter for the museum, to help secure the future of its new home at 1816 10th Street. If you love typography, we hope you’ll join us in supporting their wonderful work. —JH
An enchanting bit of Gotham seen en route to ATypI Mexico: timbered lettering, on the storefront for Guru, a gallery and design emporium in Cuauhtémoc owned by graphic designer Quique Ollervides. Thanks for sharing this, Nick! —JH
It is 1953, and you are a graduate student at the Yale University School of Art. Alvin Eisenman has just established a new discipline called “graphic arts,” in which you are studying — under the legendary Josef Albers, Herbert Matter, and Alvin Lustig — a new approach to design, which will come to be known as Modernism. Five years from now, the world will witness the birth of Helvetica and Univers, typographic milestones that will forever affirm the ascendancy of the Swiss International Style. It is amidst this visual culture, with its disciplined sans serifs, rationalized grid systems, and asymmetric layouts, that you discover your deep love of typography. So you dedicate yourself to the study of its most unfashionable, shadowy, and anarchic tributary: nineteenth century American wood type. You are Rob Roy Kelly.
Today, Kelly’s name is synonymous with American Wood Type: 1828-1900, his 1969 opus that remains the standard desk reference on the subject. Forty years ago, the manuscript was the result of a long and difficult search for answers. After leaving Yale, Kelly went to the Minneapolis School of Art to establish a graphic design department, and his attempt to procure a collection of material for the school press revealed at once how moribund wood type had become, and how neglected it remained as an area of study. Beginning with a collection of ephemeral type specimen books, and ultimately growing to include several hundred full fonts of type, what quickly became “The Kelly Collection” served as a working library for Kelly’s own research. Between 1966 and 1993, the collection passed through the hands of several individuals and institutions, finally finding a home at the University of Texas at Austin. During this time, Van Nostrand Reinhold’s publication of American Wood Type went out of print; Da Capo Press introduced a paperback version, which also went out of print; what designers and scholars have been left with is the diluted and incomplete 100 Wood Type Alphabets produced by Dover Editions in 1977. Happily, the University of Texas has adapted the original work for the web: The Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection is now available online, featuring much of Kelly’s scholarship, and many of the illustrations from the original work.
In keeping with the traditions of the trade, Kelly’s enthusiasm for wood type was obsessive. Chronicling his work on American Wood Type in the book’s introduction, Kelly wrote, “my reputation as a bore at cocktail parties grew immeasurably during these years,” a sentiment doubtless familiar to anyone connected with type. Like many enthusiasts, Kelly’s devotion to typography was deep, sincere, and consuming, but it was also mercurial. In 1990, when I went to the Modernism & Eclecticism symposium to hear Kelly deliver a lecture entitled “Cast-Iron and Brass Trivets,” I learned along with hundreds of other graphic designers in the audience that “trivet” was not an obscure term of art from the golden age of wood type: Kelly had concluded his study of wood type, and had simply moved on to another area of scholarship, namely cast-iron kettle stands. Somewhere, I hope there is a blog devoted to trivets that will include the opposite anecdote, the story of the eminent trivetologist who was once, bewilderingly, a leading authority on wood type. I suspect Kelly would love it. —JH
The Hamilton Manufacturing Co. traces its roots back to the very first wood types made in the United States. Darius Wells produced the first American wood type in 1828; his business was reorganized into Wells & Webb, then acquired by William Page, later passing back to the Wells family, and finally sold to Hamilton sometime before 1880. The product of this consolidation was a type specimen book issued in 1900, Hamilton’s Catalogue No. 14, which offers a good survey of American display typography of the nineteenth century.
Open to the public is the Hamilton Wood Type Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a collection of 1.5 million pieces of wood type maintained by volunteers of the Two Rivers Historical Society. For at-home viewing, the calendar printer Unicorn Graphics has just launched their Web Museum of Wood Types and Ornaments, which offers a sundry collection of scans and photographs of American wood types — including every page of the great Catalogue No. 14.
One charming aspect of the Gerrit Noordzij Prize is the design of the award itself. By tradition, it’s something created by the current prize holder, and presented to the incoming awardee. Past winners have used the occasion to create something that not only encapsulates their own work in some personal way, but postulates some connection to the interests of the next designer in succession. Erik Spiekermann, winner of the 2003 award, presented the above to Tobias in 2006: it’s a witty rendering of his twentieth-century Meta typeface, produced in the distinctly nineteenth-century technology of wood type. As a gift to a type designer whose work regularly engages with historical form, I thought it was especially poignant.
The set was made by Scott Polzen, who began exploring the resurrection of wood typemaking while still a student. His latter-day wood types are lovely artifacts, cut from cherry and finished with sandpaper and file, as Polzen explained in an essay in Letterspace, a journal of The Type Directors’ Club. As intriguing as the how of this project is the why: “I’ve come to understand,” Polzen writes, “that my real motivation for this project was to gain a greater sense of participation in the culture of reading and writing: making wood type forced me to think quite literally about how the written word works.” I thought this sentiment nicely echoed Noordzij’s own philosophy about the primacy of written, not printed, words; it makes Polzen’s connection to the award even more apt.
Wim Crouwel will receive the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize on Friday, when we’ll have the first photographs of the award that Tobias designed for him. I will miss seeing it around our office. —JH
The disappearance of wood type has something to do with the slow fade of letterpress from the world of commercial printing; it also has something to do with that dude at the flea market who sells hot-glued wood type sculptures on the weekends. And the Dust Bowl didn’t help: seventy years ago, Americans throughout the Great Plains discovered that blocks of hardwood impregnated with linseed oil could be very useful in a whole new way, so into the furnace they went.
Uppercase Gallery in Calgary has collected some wood type that’s been removed from circulation, and is offering it as the cheerfully packaged Authentic Vintage Woodtype Lettermix. We’re delighted that they chose our Knockout font family for the packaging, a typeface founded in the very sans serifs that their package contains. —JH
Describing the sand casting method for making type, Rob Roy Kelly quotes eighteenth century printer Christian Friedrich Gessner thus:
“The ingredients of casting sand are fine sand, to which is added calcinated baking-oven glue, the redder the glue the better. This mixture is finely pulverized and passed through a mesh sieve. Thereupon the mixture is placed upon a level board. The center is hollowed out and good beer is poured into the cavity — much or little according to the sand used. This is well stirred with a wooden spatula.”
Both H&FJ’s recycling bin and our expense reports are testament to the importance of “good beer” in the type design process, but to have this connection documented in the literature? The potential tax write-offs are positively off the chart. —JH
Three of my favorite things are big type, chromatic type, and type specimen books, and St. Patrick’s Day offers the perfect occasion to bring all three interests to the table, literally. Parked here at our conference table is the 1904 type specimen of the Roman Scherer company, a wood type manufacturer in Luzern who specialized in two-color type. This page shows the shamrocked “Serie 5401” in the gargantuan size of 40 ciceros — that’s a cap height of almost seven inches (173 mm) — which cleverly gives the illusion of a third color by overprinting red and green to produce a perfect black.
The font was manufactured in at least six sizes, none of which have we ever seen in the wild: like the rest of Roman Scherer’s other chromatic faces, which I’ll post later, these seem to have vanished into obscurity. —JH
A few weeks ago, I posted some scans of nineteenth-century wood types by William Page, from the rare specimen book Wm. H. Page & Co. Wood Type of 1872. The designers at the Cary Graphic Arts Press (Rochester Institute of Technology) apparently share my love of Page's colorful woodtypes, for their lovely Wood Type Notecards reproduce some pages from the exceedingly rare Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, &c. of 1874. I don’t imagine I’ll need much of a pretext to send these to my favorite typophiles; I think I’ll save the SIN cards to send to clients who don’t correctly use small caps or smart quotes. —JH
Since the countdown to the holidays has begun in earnest, we thought we’d dedicate the rest of the week to recommending typographic-themed holiday gifts for the designers in your life.
Our own Ksenya Samarskaya liked these Alphabet Mugs from Fishs Eddy. The monograms draw from different decorative traditions: the A and C are from decorated American wood types (and you know we love those), the T from signwriting, and the K and Y from nineteenth-century lettering manuals. (That I love the baroque O, Q, and R should come as no surprise; they’re close cousins of both the H&FJ logo, and the News, Notes & Observations banner above.) —JH