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A2Z+ Alphabets & Signs: Julian Rothenstein and Mel Gooding, published by Laurence King

Work / Publication

Ten examples of rare letterings, from 19th-century alphabets to preliminary drawings of Futura

A2Z+: Alphabet & Signs by Julian Rothenstein and Mel Gooding is a rich archive of rare lettering and printed graphics, all collected from obscure sources and private collections. Ranging from modernist to antique, avant-garde to classic, this update to what was formerly A2Z+ includes over 100 new pages.

Julian, an editor and designer, and Mel, an art critic, writer, curator and lecturer, collected the 350 included illustrations from books, advertisements, packing, posters and technical manuals from around the world. Below, Mel picks out ten personal highlights from the book – released today and published by Laurence King – ranging from 19th-century classical alphabets to the preliminary drawings for Futura.

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W.E.B Du Bois, Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia, (USA, c.1990)

W.E.B Du Bois, Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia, (USA, c.1990)

The first thing that strikes me about these charts is their purely formal beauty and coherence. They are like constructivist paintings executed in startlingly vivid and marvellously coordinated colour. The second thing is their extraordinary effectiveness as infographics: so much information conveyed with a visual economy and graphic clarity. I’m astonished by the sheer diversity of the charts: the dynamic way in which the diagrams reflect different kinds of information: statistical data becomes image, becomes information. Eye to mind.

Julian writes: “In my research for the book these hand-drawn charts from 1900, devised by the African-American sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois were the most important discovery. Intended to show ‘the history of the American Negro, his present condition, his education and his literature’ they resemble spectacular modernist paintings. The charts are masterpieces of information graphics, but were devised long before the term was invented.”

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Snellen eye charts for non-readers (Netherlands, c.1870). Courtesy of BV Uitgeverij De Bataafsche Leeuw, Van Soeren and Co., Amsterdam

Snellen eye charts for non-readers (Netherlands, c.1870). Courtesy of BV Uitgeverij De Bataafsche Leeuw, Van Soeren and Co., Amsterdam

It was in 1862 that Herman Snellen, a Utrecht optometrist, devised charts of carefully size-adjusted letters that, viewed in a mirror, tested with scientific accuracy the patient’s visual proficiency at different distances. In 1870 he developed non-alphabetic charts like these, with calibrated lines and abstract figures for the young or illiterate. Designed with utmost simplicity of means, these eye charts have an abstract economy that anticipates modernist aesthetics: “less is more” here led to a welcome extension of a crucial diagnostic device. Sans serif letters were an early introduction to optical charts, giving them an elegance that predates much of modern typography.

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Jazz Age alphabet by Karel Teige with Vitezslav Nezval (Czechoslovakia, 1926)

Jazz Age alphabet by Karel Teige with Vitezslav Nezval (Czechoslovakia, 1926)

The Czech, Karel Teige, was one of the 20th century’s most original, versatile and creative intelligences. Poet, architectural theorist, surrealist collagist, inventor of the picture-poem, book designer and all-around modernist, he was the letter designer of this marvellous alphabet, made in collaboration with the dancer, Milca Mayerove and the poet Vitezslav Nezval. Teige saw the deep connection between letterforms, poetic utterance, dance, and the dynamics of bodily action: how the written language, as well as the spoken and sung word, have their origins in movement, pose, and gesture. This was an alphabet for the new rhythms and syncopations of the Jazz Age!

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Modeles de Lettres pour peintres en batiments (France, early 1900s). Courtesy Collinge and Clark

Modeles de Lettres pour peintres en batiments (France, early 1900s). Courtesy Collinge and Clark

In the 19th century, the city became a landscape to be read as well as navigated by foot or carriage. Civic buildings, constructed hoardings, shop fronts and factory walls became surfaces for writing, pages of the city as a book. Woodblock letters for shop-front signage had a physical weight and visual presence. They were expensive, however, so it became necessary to employ painted lettering that presented the illusion of three-dimensional letters. Hence the publication of sample alphabets for sign-writers. Simple or elaborate, these alphabets even featured painted shadows. These fantastic alphabets were adopted for use in posters and book jackets, newspaper and magazines, lettering on fairground rides, and railway and omnibuses: any signage that was intended to catch the eye amid visual competition.

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Didot Typeface (France, c.1810)

Didot Typeface (France, c.1810)

This elegantly classical alphabet stands here for all the other beautiful typefaces whose use has enhanced human written culture since the mid-15th century. That was when Gutenburg’s moveable type printing and Aldus Manutius’s impeccable book design brought a new clarity and availability to the democratic presentation of knowledge and culture. The Didot brothers – inheritors of the French Enlightenment – belong in this tradition. Their typeface, with its balance of powerful black verticals and delicate, almost invisible line is perfect: the eye and the mind are equally delighted.

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L’Oeil cover (France, 1955)

L’Oeil cover (France, 1955)

Fitting, then, that the title of this most sophisticated and intelligent French art magazine should be in Didot! It speaks of the primacy of the eye, and of the necessity of clarity and enlightened intelligence in the discourse of art. The marvellously random deployment of Raoul Dufy’s blackly calligraphic seashells, all whorls and strokes on a sand-coloured ground, perfectly suggests, in contrast, the essential irrationality of art, its kinship with the contingencies of nature, whose diverse perfections of form are, paradoxically, predetermined. Here is Paul Valéry, that modern epitome of Gallic thought and feeling, writing of shells: “[the human observer] is amazed to find objects which, though it is inconceivable that they should have been made, can be compared to those he is able to make.”

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From The Next Call by H.N Werkman (The Netherlands, 1924)

From The Next Call by H.N Werkman (The Netherlands, 1924)

H.N. Werkman was a heroic left-wing artist, typographer, printer and editor. The Next Call (1923 to 1926) was his own (brilliant but unsuccessful) avant-garde graphic magazine. His most characteristic work used diverse typefaces as abstract motifs, directly inked images from shaped blocks, and large scale woodblock lettering. He loved and freely exploited the inconsistencies of impression that hand working produced in his prints: it gave them a workmanlike and hand-made feel, unrefined and democratic: Everyman graphics. For much of his life Werkman, despite his progressive ambitions, was regarded as an idiosyncratic loner. He paid dearly for his radicalism: working underground, printing subversive pamphlets, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, in 1945 he was captured and shot by the Gestapo.

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Cartilla Escolar Antifascista (Spain, 1937)

Cartilla Escolar Antifascista (Spain, 1937)

This is a page from one of the most moving feature sections in the book. In the midst of its life or death battle with Franco’s reactionary forces, the Spanish Republican government put out this literacy primer for uses in school and in its armed forces. It was a moving acknowledgement of the power of the word, and of the necessity of literacy in making a progressive working class able to rebuild the country after the ravages of the war. The book combined phonetics and politics with vivid graphics. Alas, the Civil War ended in March 1939 with a victory to the fascists, militarily aided by Nazi Germany, and further enabled by the inaction of Western governments. It was the prelude to the World War.

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Book cover, The Baker Jan Marhoul by Vladislav Vancura, designed by O. Mrkvicka and Karel Teige (Czechosolobakia, 1924)

Book cover, The Baker Jan Marhoul by Vladislav Vancura, designed by O. Mrkvicka and Karel Teige (Czechosolobakia, 1924)

Julian and I vividly recall a trip to Prague over 15 or so years ago, combing the secondhand bookshops for examples of modernist book jackets and other graphics from the golden period of Czech graphic design. These were to be included in our follow-up, in-colour extension to Alphabets and Other Signs (1991), our first collection of letters and images, which was entirely black and white. In Prague we learned that a prominent (and percipient) teacher of graphic design at the art school there had used the earlier volume as a graphic primer for his students, valuing especially its freedom from academic constraints. Visiting Prague again last year I discovered that our various successive volumes were legendary in Czech design circles. The great American artist and designer Ben Shahn’s called it “love and joy about letters”: amazing what it can do.

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Preliminary drawings for Futura by Paul Renner (Germany, 1925)

Preliminary drawings for Futura by Paul Renner (Germany, 1925)

Beginning to prepare a typeface for a brave new future. Hope always finds expression in new graphic design. Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said: “give me 26 soldiers of lead and I will conquer the world”. Of the making of alphabets, there is no end (though this is probably the final version of the series).