09 June 2010

overdue book review / Graphic Forms

In January, 1949 The Bookbuilders of Boston and Harvard University Press presented a series of lectures on "The Arts As Related to the Book". The list of speakers reads like a who's who of post-war book design, including W.A. Dwiggins, Paul Rand, Donald Klopfer (co-founder of Random House), Edna and Peter Beilenson (founders of the Peter Pauper Press), and Merle Armitage (book designer and Art Director for Look Magazine), among others. Later that same year, HUP published a collection of written versions of all the talks in Graphic Forms.

I first discovered the book while working for Michaela Sullivan in Houghton Mifflin's trade art department back in 1998-9. Being my first job, there was plenty for me to learn, and arguably no better place to study than at a house where the presses had been running for over 150 years. For me, a simple walk through the halls to perform some errand or another had the potential to be an education in itself. Framed correspondence from Emerson on a wall here, a storied piece of furniture rescued from the old Park Street offices there, etc. My favorite resource was a sort of art department "library" that housed a jumble of treasures including type specimens from defunct Boston foundries, Dover clip-art, out-dated Pocket Pals and other printing handbooks, AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers catalogs dating back to who-knows-when, old typography manuals, Letraset and photo type catalogs, copies of U&lc from the 70s—you get the idea.

It was in this randomized collection of design documents and that I found a copy of Graphic Forms: The Arts As Related To the Book. I was struck at once by the title—Graphic Forms—it seemed to set a decidedly theoretical tone, given the obvious vintage of the book. I had just come from art school, where a book was revered as the ultimate form of graphic design—a pure, physical manifestation of form following content—and book design (as a practice) viewed as one of the more noble pursuits one could embark on as a young designer. So, for me, the title was right in line with the potential books have to be graphic design, incarnate.

This book—as an object—also just seemed like a cool thing. For me, it embodied the 20th century American style(s) that I had already come to love: new—and sometimes quirky—takes on classicism (Dwiggins, Goudy), and less severe (more humane and fun) modernism (Rand, Lustig). It was like holding a time capsule in my hands—better yet, a time machine that could take me back to a few evenings in 1949, where I could pick the brains of legendary designers in an intimate setting.

Before leaving Houghton for good, I photocopied a few of the articles (the names I recognized at the time—Dwiggins, Rand, Armitage), and read them on the train. And then I filed the discovery neatly away in the section of my memory labeled "cool things I have seen."

A couple of years ago, in the midst of cleaning my office, I unearthed these very same photocopies and was reminded of how special, exclusive and obscure this "find" seemed to me at the time, and what it represented as both as a document and an object. Unlike 1998, 2008 afforded me a small amount of disposable income, along with far more fruitful internet searches—so I looked it up, and found a copy of my own on Alibris, which is the one pictured here. The copy I saw at Houghton didn't have a dust jacket—this one does (bonus)!

The essays offer a fascinating snapshot of mid-century book design. And even while some of the technological and cultural references can't help but date the material, many of the questions posed and issues grappled with still seem relevant today. I am encouraged by this feeling of currency in much of the writing—if we're still considering similar issues some 60 years later, maybe the printed book isn't dying so quick a death after all? Here's a sampling:

"Today's obsession with speed and quantity has profoundly influenced the ways in which we think and feel. Mass production and mass communication, with their characteristic standardized thoughts and vision, have overworked ideas, making of them exhausted stereotypes.... The words design and function are prominent in our daily vocabulary.... Has the term functional design escaped the fate of other repeated terms? Battles are still fought, and the last skirmishes under the banner 'form follows function' are still with us; but there is reason for believing that the underlying thought has lost its living strength."
—from Function in Modern Design by Gy├Ârgy Kepes

"I have been given the assignment of discussing 'function' in connection with the design of trade edition books. But it requires to be said that mu knowledge of trade edition books isn't quite as extensive as it might seem, for the reason that practically all my trade edition books have been made for a publisher who is liberal enough in his attitude toward sales to leave me alone, [that publisher was Alfred A. Knopf—A.] so I haven't been faced by the need to solve one part of the problem, that is, the part concerned with making a "package" that would be sure fire with the customer. For there are two parts to the question of function in trade edition book design...one element asks for an article to be used...the other element demands a sales "package"—an object to catch the customer's eye and persuade him to buy.... And, though you may not be willing to believe it, those two demands do not usually combine to make the best kind of product for either use or sales."
—from Trade Book Design by W. A. Dwiggins

"Many of us who love the book are greatly troubled. But we are not without hope as we face the fact that the contemporary book is in danger, perhaps the greatest danger it has ever encountered. The book, as we know it, has lost its direction, its leadership. It faces new and potent rivals for its place as the king of all media and communication."
—from The New Forms—and Books by Merle Armitage

Graphic Forms is also pleasing as an object: A 6" x 9-1/4" 8vo Designed by Burton J. Jones, The 3-piece case has boards covered in greenish-gray cloth and a black spine stamped with gold foil. The title is stamped in black pigment on the front of the case. Printed on uncoated stock, the 2-color jacket matches the case colors, and functions as an understated (but not too understated) set-up for the proportions found in the text layout. The head of the book block sports a black tint, which is offset nicely with a white headband. The text is set in Dwiggins's Caledonia and the design represents what I believe are some of the best qualities of book design in the years following World War II: classic proportions (page division based on the golden mean), the sensitive use of a typeface cut specifically for machine setting (in this case, Linotype), and the use of quiet but definite typographic contrasts—a sort of lively, warm modernism.

At the moment, between Alibris and Amazon there are 4-5 copies out there for anybody wanting one of their own. You can also read Rand's essay Black in the Visual Arts from Graphic Forms here.

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