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An Overview of the Evolution of Typography

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The industrialization and mechanization of the process of making goods during the latter half of the Industrial Revolution created an immense malcontent within society. During a time of socialist ideology and labor union formations for workers, came a sense of malcontent towards the mass production of items, with apparent quality deficiencies. Whilst the new industrial age was enabling mass production of goods for consumers, it also dehumanized the process and divorced the artist from the manufacturer.

William Morris (1834-1896), was a figurehead at the beginning of change during this time. A poet, writer, designer and architect and in the latter part of his life typographer. Morris believed in the art of handcrafted. To Morris, who was a socialist in his political beliefs, the use of machinery was detracting from the art of designing and manufacture, and the skills that were used to do so. This ideology was the catalyst for his devotion to the return to the ‘old ways’ of production. Morris took his ideals and assisted in the development of a movement, later to be named ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ in Great Britain, and within this movement, he began reconnecting the artisans with the finished products. Arts and crafts for Morris centred around the juxtapose of the aesthetic and the utilitarian. William Morris was quoted saying, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

Morris was keen to develop typography, that too reflected his views on returning to the ‘old style’. It was in the area of literature, this was to mean revisiting medieval texts with Germanic calligraphy and illumination along with the thick, heavy Blackletter.

Morris began to develop an interest in perfecting a characteristic style of typography for himself, having attended a lecture in 1888 at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. The speaker was Emery Walker (1851-1933), a typographer and printer and with his lecture, where he used photographically reproduced lantern slides of Nicolas Jenson’s typefaces, he captured Morris’s interest. Following the lecture, Morris believed, that with Walker’s assistance, he too could produce a new typeface, based around Jenson’s work, to assist him in the production of what he referred to as the ‘the ideal book’. Thus in 1891, the Kelmscott Press was founded. Together he and Walker produced several new typefaces, the first being named ‘Golden’, based around the Jenson type. Along with ‘Troy’, for which he designed two sizes and ‘Chaucer’.

Morris and Walker produced the ‘Golden’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Chaucer’ types for use in Morris’s publications as well as a republication of Chaucer’s works. The fonts were all thick heavy-set serif fonts that were complemented only by the extremely high quality of the hand pressed and highly decorative books created for them. Conversely, while Morris and Walker held socialist ideals that literature could and should be aesthetically pleasing and accessible to society as a whole. The reality was that the labor intensive and costly production of such literature rendered the material inaccessible to all but the wealthy in society, who were able to afford their craftmanship. All of the typefaces were cut and cast by hand by Morris and he was quoted to say: “I was not much of a typographer before Mr. Walker took me in hand”.

The forward motion of industry and the disdain it brought forth from designers, architects and artists fueled the Arts and Crafts movement. Whilst the movement did not promote any one style, it did promote an emphasis on simplicity and a return to individual expression, and it was to this end that the Kelmscott Press inspired many more press houses to open their doors. The ever-growing literate population were seeking literature and the various press houses all sought to produce their styles, under similar values to Morris.

One such notable press house was Doves Press. Founded in 1900 by Morris’s friend and colleague Emery walker, and one Thomas Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922), an English bookbinder and designer. Following the death of Morris in 1896, Cobden-Sanderson, a fellow socialist and friend of Morris, turned his attentions to typography and it was in 1898, after the closure of the Kelmscott Press that he wrote in his journal, “I must, before I die, create the type for today of ‘the book beautiful’, and actualize it – paper, ink, writing, printing, ornament, and binding”. Whilst he shared a social consciousness with Morris, his artistic expression while bookbinding was questioned by Morris. Questionable affordability by lower social classes was due to the labor intensive and handmade nature being fostered by the Arts and Crafts artisans. Albeit the clientele to which Morris sold was of the upper-middle class, again due to the manufacturing methods employed. Although not as vehement as the Luddites, Cobden-Sanderson expressed his dissatisfaction at the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution by stating in his journals in 1909: “It is my wish that the Doves Press type shall never be subjected to the use of a machine other than the human hand”.

Cobden-Sanderson and The Doves Press produced what is still regarded today as an outstanding typeface, named the ‘Doves Type’, that signaled a break with the fashion for decorative and overwrought copies of the style being used by Morris. Instead, Cobden-Sanderson sought out the teachings of Edward Johnston at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He aimed to use the calligraphic shapes of the pen to develop his ideas. Edward Johnston his teacher, would later become a major influencer within the graphic arts of the period.

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The typeface developed by Cobden-Sanderson was a personal expression of his socialist beliefs, less ornate than Morris’s developments, the letters were more refined and legible. This newly acclaimed font, with slim forms and tall ascenders, and capitals designed by Johnston, that stood out in red were used to produce the ‘Doves Bible’ (1903-1905). The Bible they produced with their new typeface, again based around the Jenson Roman typeface that influenced Morris, was considered a masterpiece.

However, the success of the font led to a protracted argument about the rights to the typeface, that began with the dissolution of the partnership of Cobden-Sanderson and Walker in 1909. Cobden-Sanderson was awarded the rights to the font, with a stipulation that upon his death, all rights transferred to Walker. The result of this stipulation led an elderly Cobden-Sanderson to systematically destroy the typefaces, by disposing of them in the Thames each evening, after his usual frequentations to The Dove public house. The handcrafted nature of the typefaces meant that no copies were ever made, and up until recent years, they were believed lost forever.

In 2010, Robert Green, with the assistance of the Port of London Authority, reclaimed over 150 pieces of the original typeface from the bottom of the river, and masterfully recreated them using digital products.

The principles of the Arts and Crafts movement with the union of handcrafted and craftmanship coalescing design and beauty with functionality was later to be adopted by the Bauhaus School.

Whilst Arts and Crafts still had a foothold in Britain and America, emerging from the continent was a ‘new art’. Art Nouveau, once again held political agendas around a socialist ideology of art for everyone, yet embraced the use of industrialization to achieve this. A new avant-garde style that reflected the next generation of designers and artists, that purposefully promoted new ideas and distinguished itself from the ‘old-ways’. Art Nouveau was not simply a fashion, it was a concept, and upheld the deep sense of reconnecting society with nature in innovative ways.

One of the modes of expression through which Art Nouveau reached the international community was the poster. Promotional and informational material was not a new concept, the broadsides initially introduced in the 1600s as a result of the development of hand presses were ephemeral. With technological advancements, the broadsides evolved to meet the new demands for display and advertisement material. They were eclipsed by the newly emerging forms of expression and lithographic reinvention of Jules Cheret (1836-1932). Born in Paris to the son of a poor typesetter, he began his career in lithography aged thirteen and over 17 years perfected his art form. Cheret used new techniques with the stone plates to create multi-tonal colors and texture within his artwork by drawing directly onto the surface of the stone. He designed his fonts using this method and believed that lithography would soon replace the old letterpress owned by his father.

It is widely considered Cheret was the father of the French poster cult, and importantly facilitated the liberation of women in Paris with his depictions of young, carefree and vivacious women. Culturally there was a Patriarchal society, and the images and text Cheret created embraced femininity and celebrated women’s sexuality. In previous decades there had been a hierarchy of the arts. The various arts for mass consumption, including the poster were firmly seated at the bottom. However, the economic and artistic conditions in France at this time elevated the ‘Cherettes’ to legitimate art, and according to Collins (1985) they “became a device with which the French economy expanded”.

As advertising became the most demanding area for typographical experimentation in the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, designers looked at the development of typography in a new way. Where documentation had primarily meant fonts needed to be structured and legible, the increasing desire to draw attention to products and ideas meant that letterforms could be utilized in different forms. This impacted on the consideration for letterforms being cut. To meet with the high demand for output, advertising material, especially where the use of large attention-grabbing letters was used, meant production needed to be cheap. Designers simply traced from the hand-drawn characters and then cut them directly from wood.

Such was the evolution of typography, which does not lose momentum, and now continues to develop and improve, meeting the requirements of modern society.

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