January 23, 2011

Big Type

Design: Dennis Ichiyama

Graphic designers love wood type primarily because it is BIG – and sometimes very weird.

Advertisers in the mid-nineteenth century needed a way to mass-produce posters to grab attention in visually noisy urban settings, and casting very large letters in metal was cumbersome and expensive. Until offset lithography gained traction in the late 1800s, it was not possible to reproduce drawn lettering. Wood type, produced by craftsmen from master templates with pantographic routers, provided specialist printers with large-scale type that could be combined with metal type and printed on letterpresses.

The sheer scale of the letters – combined with the need to capture attention – inspired an explosion of creative innovation in type design during the early 19th century. All the rules that regulated the design and production of type for books were reversed and pushed to extremes – serifs became thicker than stems, or even dropped off altogether; letters expanded or condensed to deliberately ridiculous ratios and twisted into grotesque shapes; ornaments blossomed within and around the forms as each clowned for attention.

For our modern (and modernist) sensibilities, however, these design experiments were a sideshow compared to the power of the basic forms of the letters. The real payoff is in their large scale and the way their size reveals the formal qualities. In his book On Typography, the English type designer and typographer Eric Gill wrote, “The shapes of letters do not derive their beauty from any sensual or sentimental reminiscences. No one can say that the O’s roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple or of a girl’s breast or of the full moon. Letters are things, not pictures of things.” Letters dance between their roles as the couriers of meaning and embodiments of abstract form. Big wood type, and the big inky forms it makes on paper, are gratifyingly “thing-y” in a way that letters on a screen can only approximate.

The abstract qualities of letterforms – and the exquisite delight that the printer/designer experiences pulling the first proof off a letterpress – is one of the themes of “Typeface”, a documentary film we watched in last week’s Design Meeting at Corey McPherson Nash. Created by Justine Nagan, and featuring the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the film begins as a celebration of a vast treasury of industrial and design artifacts and the artistic activities it inspires. Young designers from Chicago make the 175-mile pilgrimage to Two Rivers literally run from their car to the building, and they become even more reverent as they view the displays and the presses. Designer and educator Dennis Ichiyama brings students from Purdue University to the Museum, conducts weekend workshops and produces exquisite abstract posters in vibrant colors.

Before long, however, the film shifts to a more elegiac tone as it reveals how on most days the huge factory spaces of the Hamilton Museum are empty of people, except for the somewhat discouraged Director, Greg Corrigan, pictured uncrating boxes of old type with a crowbar. Two Rivers was an industrial powerhouse in its day, but now it is just another mid-western town in economic freefall. The Museum was intended to give new life to the town, but the trickle of visitors, however enthusiastic, is not yet enough to sustain the investment. The film leaves us with the impression that unless something is done to save it, the Hamilton Museum may eventually go the way of the technology it celebrates.

Poster Design by Dennis Ichiyama

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