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A note on the type

The British typographic historian Harry Carter opened his seminal series of essays, A View of Early Typography, with the simple, concise statement, “Type is something that you can pick up and hold in your hand.” At first glance the statement seems self-evident: Carter was writing during the metal type era, and metal type is a physical object. But Carter’s intention was not so much physical as ontological: an attempt to locate the specific attribute that differentiates the typographic letterform from other — particularly calligraphic — letterforms. This signal characteristic, as Carter saw it, is type’s physical mass, meaning that although the printed image of a typographic letter can be made to look like the written image of a calligraphic one, the typographic letter is distinct from the calligraphic in that it is subject to the restrictions of its physical body.

A piece of type has edges and corners that line up with the edges and corners of other pieces of type. Together, they are locked into a grid and printed. Without extraordinary effort or expense, the typographic letterform cannot be made to break free from the grid, while the calligraphic letter does so with ease. It is precisely these physical restraints that grant typographic letters their unique status as a category of lettering.

As a letterpress printer who designs his own type, I have spent a lot of time thinking about Carter’s deceptively simple epigram. I design my type on a computer and, with few exceptions, print from photographically processed, relief printing plates. For most of the books that I print, and sometimes for single poems or passages, I design a new typeface that is custom tailored in some way to the text. The “T” from Æthelwold Etc has a typeface inside it that was designed only to exist there. My process is not that unusual within the context of the DIY zeitgeist, but it stands in direct conflict with the methods by which my 500-year-old craft has been defined for most of its existence.

Historically, printers have used relatively few typefaces. (There are some notable exceptions to this reality, particularly the great Giambattista Bodoni.) It is simply too expensive, time consuming, and burdensome to produce and store multiple metal typefaces — a single page of metal type can weigh upwards of 10 pounds — so most printers remained content with the few types at their immediate disposal. By contrast, I can attach 20 of my typefaces to an email without overburdening its memory capacity. My typefaces can conform to a grid or they can blithely ignore it, their forms subject to my imagination rather than the mechanical considerations of metal type.

This distinction is precisely what Carter was getting at in his text. To follow his idea to its logical conclusion: By Carter’s definition of type, the alphabets that I design are not typefaces at all but some other, as yet unclassified, category of lettering. Just as metal type can be made to look like calligraphy, my alphabets can be made to look like metal type; but because my alphabets are not subject to the same physical restraints as their typographic models, they are ontologically distinct from them. My alphabets are not metal but ether; they are digigraphic rather than typographic. They look like type, but they do not have to act like it.

Tom-A-Bedlam’s Poem, set in Hybrid Two, from Specimens of Diverse Characters.

Title spread from Prometheus Bound (title lettering designed by Maret, text set in Fred Smeijers’ Quadraat). The frontispiece is drawn with candle smoke directly onto the handmade paper.

I realize that distinctions such as these can seem like academic parlor games, and it is true that while drawing letters I am rarely troubled by whether I am making type or not. I try to draw the finest letterforms that I can and put the philosophical debates aside for as long as possible. But when I begin to assemble my letterforms into typefaces (or whatever they are), my perspective on what I am doing changes dramatically. However fine my individual letterforms may or may not be, a typeface is more than a collection of well-drawn images. A typeface is an aggregate image in flux, one whose final form is variable, determined as much by the words and language it is used to set as by the individual letterforms of which it is composed. How letterforms act and interact when assembled into words is the true measure of their success within a typeface.

Like many type designers, I spend a lot of time looking at and trying to re-create historical typefaces. Most type foundries offer a complete “set” of historical revivals in their catalogues, in addition to whatever original designs they might publish. Enter the keyword “Baskerville” into myfonts.com’s search engine, for instance, and 83 typefaces come up. Some of the results are purposefully ridiculous, but many of them are serious attempts to redraw the letterforms used by the printer John Baskerville in 18th-century England.

Where many of these typefaces fall short is that they re-create the surface image of the historical letterforms without replicating the actions of the historical typeface. The resulting types are strange pantomimes of history, like suburban condominium developments designed in the English Tudor style. They might approximate a pre-Industrial form, but all their lines are perfectly straight, the same weight, equidistant from one another, and aligned; all of which were practical impossibilities in pre-Industrial manufacturing.

In my own work with historical revivals, I try to keep Harry Carter’s adage foremost in my mind. More than a specific reference, Carter’s statement can be interpreted as a broader admonition to understand the medium in which one is working. I design typefaces specifically to print them letterpress. If I design a typeface inspired by metal type, I try to make it act as if it were metal because I am printing it as if it were metal. This approach would not work if I were designing for smartphones or computer screens. (Most of my typefaces are barely legible on a computer screen.) When designing my typefaces, I build invisible edges and contours around the letters as if they were sitting on a metal body, with the hope that they will bump into other letters in serendipitous ways. It is in these unexpected combinations of letterforms, in the complex relationship of line and white space, that the beauty of the printed page resides. The most effective method I have found to capture some of that printed beauty is to design type as if it were something I can pick up and hold in my hand. ■

W.H. Auden quote in Russell Maret's Cancellaresca Milanese caps set amid his Roma Abstract alphabet, from Specimens of Diverse Characters.


T for Truth from Æthelwold Etc.,with the text of the final stanza of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats circulating through the letter, set in Gotica Italica.

Page from Swan & Hoop 1: Mediæval in Padua showing rubricated initials from 12th-century Italian manuscripts. Set in Baskerville Great Primer (body type) and Seria Sans Italic, designed by Martin Majoor.

Binding and box of the standard edition of Specimens of Diverse Characters. The cover pattern is set in Lisbon Ornaments.

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