One of the things I most love about the design of the late nineteenth century is its unpredictability. Across all of the decorative arts there was a strong emphasis on novelty, and a succession of new technologies made it easier than ever to execute these strange and untested ideas. (You can see this in the terra cotta work of architect Louis Sullivan, or the elaborate inlays of furniture designer Gustav Herter.) The period was a riot of ornament, and to be sure, much of the work was awful: most of what we remember today is hopelessly cliché, or cloyingly overwrought. But then there are moments like these.
Above is a piece of nineteenth century engraving, which looks as if it might have been the product of a CalArts group project by Wim Crouwel and Louise Fili. (The rest of my fantasy league is no less oddball; images after the jump evoke Jonathan Barnbrook vs. John Downer, and Max Kisman vs. Marian Bantjes.) These excerpts come from an incredible collection of American sheet music from the period 1850-1920, currently being exhibited online by Duke University. The documents from the 1870s are my favorites, many of which are from the hand of an engraver named Reed (note his signature hiding in the fourth image below.) His stylistic pairings are among the more remarkable — above, the constructed sans serif and swelled rules are unexpected bedfellows. But some of my favorite moments are those in which unrelated visual agendas collide in the letterforms themselves. Is there anything more fabulous than the monoline blackletter of “Mazurka Elegante” below, or the squared-off shapes of the final line, “Tiny Birdlings of the Air?” Will you check out that lowercase g? —JH