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The Visual History of Type author Paul McNeil selects and dissects his six favourite faces

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Released today (11 September), The Visual History of Type is a definitive survey of the major typefaces produced since the advent of printing, from movable type in the mid-15th century to the present day. Arranged chronologically, more than 320 typefaces are presented in the form of their original type specimens or earliest printings, located in their historical context through brief overviews and descriptions of the key characteristics of each face. Here, rather than attempting to provide a potted version of 500 years of typographic history, The Visual History of Type’s author, Paul McNeil, has selected a few of his current favourites from the book for It’s Nice That.

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The Aldine Italic / Griffo’s Italic / 1501

Few typefaces have had as great an influence on Western culture as Francesco Griffo’s Italic. At the end of the 15th century, when most books were large and heavy, Aldus Manutius commissioned Griffo to cut this compact, inclined letterform. Easily legible at small sizes, the Aldine Italic permitted the production of small, affordable, portable books suited to the requirements of an educated, mobile class of literate individuals. Over the next three centuries, the practice of publishing changed everything. By allowing texts to be reliably reproduced and disseminated in an almost limitless time frame, it triggered new ideas that profoundly challenged all forms of institutional control, leading to dramatic religious reforms, radical socio-political changes, and to the scientific worldview that initiated the modern era.

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Courtesy St Bride Foundation

Block / 1908

Although geometric sans serifs are commonly thought to have originated in the 1920s with groundbreaking designs like Jakob Erbar’s eponymous typeface from 1922, there is no denying the brutal geometry that underlies the uneven edges of Block’s monolithic letterforms from 1908. It was created for the Berthold Type Foundry by Hermann Hoffmann, a German type designer with a background in newspaper work.

Block’s origins can be seen in contemporary advertising from Berlin, in particular the lettering of Lucian Bernhard. His exceptional hand-painted posters for commercial clients such as Bosch and Manoli are precisely replicated in Block’s distinctively thickset characters, wonky contours, colossal x-height and stunted descenders. Like the lettering it references, Block achieves maximum impact with minimum means.

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Bremer Antiqua / 1922

Influenced by the British private press movement of the time, The German Bremer Presse was a short-lived printing and publishing operation, active from 1911 to 1939, an era of political turmoil. Its director, Willy Weigand, rejected ornament and illustration in favour of elegant restraint and surviving Bremer Presse editions remain highly prized for their austere, well proportioned pages, unadorned typography, bespoke typefaces and meticulous presswork.

Wiegand designed the Bremer Antiqua type himself, basing its robust forms on the very first roman designs that were cut by migrant German craftsmen working in Italy in the 1470s. The historical, social and political implications of locating German craft traditions so harmoniously within an international frame of reference still resonate today.

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Courtesy Central St Martins

Patrona Grotesk / c1931

Patrona Grotesk is an ingenious Czech contribution to the early modernist project where the alphabet was reconceived as a system of parts that could be arranged as variable components in designs regulated by geometry, somewhat like cogs in a machine. It was designed by V. Kánský for the Prague foundry Slevarna Pisem in around 1931. Patrona Grotesk was based on the breakdown of letterforms into disjointed sections that could be arranged to construct a full range of stencil-like letterforms in various languages, as well as a wide range of novel borders and patterns.

Despite its flexibility and its unique design qualities, Patrona Grotesk, like many other modular letterpress typefaces, is rarely found in the wild, probably due to the time-consuming complexities of hand-setting such small pieces of metal.

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Courtesy Paul Elliman

Found Fount / 1989

Paul Elliman’s ongoing Found Fount consists of a potentially infinite collection of rubbish – tiny pieces of manmade detritus found on the street or in the trash – that he arranges, without any modification, to represent linguistic signs and symbols. Reflecting Elliman’s belief that literacy is a universal attribute of culture rather than a mere technology, the Found Fount project tests the boundaries of representation. Existing as objects that can all fit in the mouth, the elements in Found Fount can also be transformed into representations of themselves as photographs, scans, drawings, vectors or digital type. “Even if we could imagine a world without words,” Elliman has written, “it would be held together by a kind of typography… The structures and formats of an irrepressibly modern world, configured around unit-shifting patterns of production, display and consumption.”

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Courtesy Laurence King Publishing

Lÿno / 2010

If one typeface could encapsulate the post-millennial era, the Lÿno family would be a prime candidate. Designed by Karl Nawrot and Radim Peško in 2009, it has four members: Jean, named after the artist Jean Arp; Stan, after movie director Stanley Kubrick; Ulys, after Ulysses 31, a Franco-Japanese cartoon series; and Walt, after Walt Disney. The formal attributes of each member of this fraternity are conceived as loose characterizations of the work of the individuals after whom they have been named, and the different family members are able to mix with each other at will.

Lÿno’s designs abstract basic typographic shapes to the limits of their function as vehicles for text, treating the alphabet not as some fixed code but as a stimulant for imagining potential meanings. Lÿno’s letters are variegated, unstable and disruptive, and their spirit, is ‘to resist normative tendencies and to reject the idea of definitive form’.

The Visual History of Type by Paul McNeil is published by Laurence King Publishing.