Renowned art director, author and editor Steven Heller on his favourite books

19 July 2017

New York-based Steven Heller is an art director, author and editor who is known for his expertise in graphic design. For 33 years he was an art director at The New York Times, and is currently co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author and Entrepreneur Department at the School of Visual Arts, and also writes The Daily Heller for Print magazine. Among many other design and publishing achievements, Steven has been the author, co-author or editor of over 170 books on design and popular culture, most recently The Moderns by Abrams Books and The Typography Idea Book written with Gail Anderson.

With such a deep knowledge and passion for design we felt it was only right to see what Steven has thought worthy to sit upon his bookshelves. Here, Steven introduces his selection which includes a historical tome of serif type, a German picture magazine and a book about printed ephemera:

“When it comes to books there are hundreds that have made deep impressions but for some reason I cannot recall them on command. It is an odd brain freeze phenomenon. Fortunately, I have hundreds of lineal feet of bookshelves and cabinets where these books reside. I keep books but I’ve divested myself of DVDs and CDs (thanks to streaming services). So coming up with five of my many favourites is as easy as pulling off the shelf, turning the pages and re-reading a few pages. Here they are in no particular order.”

Father Edward C. Catich: The Origin of the Serif (The Catfish Press, 1968)

This is the most authoritative history of the serif in brush writing and Roman letters. There have been others, but the work of this Jesuit priest with a passion for letterforms is something of a lettering bible based on his intensive study of the holy grail of type, the Trajan Column.

Through clear and elegant prose he walks, draws and writes his way through the details of the serif’s evolution from stone inscription into brush letters and ultimately metal type. I don’t know whether Catich’s book has had subsequent editions but it should be mandatory reading for everyone today. And maybe even adapted into a BBC drama called the Catich Murders: Killer Type.

David King and Cathy Porter: Images of Revolution: Graphic Art from 1905 Russia (Pantheon Books, NY., 1983)

Thank heavens King and Porter write in English. This is one of many important political design histories that the activist, designer and historian, the late David King, produced on the Russian revolution (this being the first attempt at revolt) and the Soviet avant garde.

This was a brief period when the Czar was temporarily pushed aside in favour of a democratic Duma. The insurrection lasted only a year and leading up to and through the event many illustrated political underground magazines were publishing that influenced the public. The magazines’ respective cartoons were as stinging as any ever created for political purposes. Yet they might have been lost and forgotten had it not been for King’s super collecting prowess.

Heinz Willmann: Geschichte der Arbeiter Illustrierten Zeitung 1921-1938 (Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1975)

I cannot read more than a dozen words in this German language book about an important German communist picture magazine known as AIZ (Worker’s Illustrated News). It was a thorn in the side of the Nazis and the launch pad for the great political photomontages of John Heartfield. I cannot read it, but I get the gist as I see with crystal clarity how important it is for artists to be the voice of political turmoil.

Heartfield was a master at cutting Hitler and his henchmen to size. Okay, it did not stop them from capturing total power and killing millions, but it was a valiant attempt to resist. These days resistance is a sacred word and deed – in the right hands, that is.

John Lewis: Printed Ephemera: The Changing Use of Type and Letterforms in English and American Printing (Faber Editions London, 1963)

This is an essential book if only because John Lewis was the quintessential chronicler of graphic design artefacts. I have the hard and soft covered editions. And when I bought the latter in the 1970s my worldview of Western design history began to blossom.

This stuff, which I’d seen here and there, comprised the roots and routes of graphic design. It made me long to see more, own more and study more about what made printing and type so important to our culture in all its forms. Sure, the book has a dated quality, but the material therein is dated. What better way to appreciate the popular culture throwaways from the late 19th through mid-20th Centuries?


Fortunato Depero: Depero Futurista

Fortunato Depero: Depero Futurista (Dinamo Azari Milano, 1927)

I just wrote a foreword to the Reader’s Guide for the third and most recent reprint of this remarkable Bolted Book by the Futurist gadfly Fortunato Depero. It is a monument to the book arts, Futurist design ethos and personal self-promotion. Depero designed and edited it as a testament to himself, ostensibly a means to get design work in New York City.

He was a master graphiste in Italy and did a few things for Vanity Fair and the New York Daily News in NYC. But he was, more importantly, an avant art genius whose distinctive brutish-playful style might have been ahead of its time. But its time has come. Knowingly or not he is the inspiration for many postmodern, modern and eclectic contemporary artists, designers and illustrators. The reprint has just been printed. It is a treasure. In fact, it is the brightest gem of early 20th Century book artefacts.

Share Article

About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca Fulleylove is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and culture. She is also senior writer at Creative Review, having previously worked at Elephant, Google Arts & Culture, and It’s Nice That.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.