Calligraphy and Letterpress in Design Education

Article excerpt

WHEN proto-graphic designers invented writing five thousand years ago, they provided a cornerstone of civilization. Scribes were the first to record history, and preserve knowledge. After the appearance of letterpress printing in 1455, leading typographers continued to rise from the ranks of scribes. This phenomenon persisted even through the twentieth century, as classically-trained calligraphers and letter cutters--Jan Tschichold, Paul Renner, Eric Gill, William A. Dwiggins, Rudolf Koch, Georg Trump, Adrian Frutiger, Hermann Zapf, Summer Stone, and Matthew Carter--blazed new trails in typography.

Until recent decades, professional schools of art and design continued to teach lettering with traditional tools. Both the United Kingdom and the United States fostered movements to bring italic handwriting into elementary schools. Any child who learns to write italics with an edged pen is "civilized" in the truest sense of the word, being linked to a continuous graphic design tradition that goes back to the scribes of the Pharaohs whose pens and papyrus were made beside the Nile River marshes. Calligraphy teachers such as Lloyd Reynolds, Alfred Fairbank, Charlotte Stone, Rosemary Sassoon, and Paul Standard have observed the energizing transformation in young children as they become conscious of participating in a craft that is both ancient and sacred.

For graphic designers there are practical benefits from learning calligraphy too. Jan Tschichold, considered among the greatest of modern typographers, said near the end of his career,

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   I feel there is no better training for a typographer than practical
   calligraphy. All my knowledge of letter-spacing and leading is due
   to my calligraphy, and for this reason I regret very much that
   calligraphy is so little studied in our time.... Anyone who has
   ever done lettering by hand knows much more about the qualities of
   right spacing than a mere compositor who only hears certain rules
   without understanding them. (1)

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Tschichold's early design education came from Edward Johnston's Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. Published in 1906 and still in print, the book is a three-in-one manual of practical instruction, theory, and history. It is claimed by some to be unmatched by any handbook ever written.

Four years later, in 1910, there appeared a German translation by Anna Simons, a young German designer. The book added to the work of Peter Behrens, Rudolf von Larisch, and others to spark the revolution in German design that would spread around the world. Among numerous German and Swiss typographers who learned from Writing & Illuminating & Lettering were Paul Renner, Rudolf Koch, Adrian Frutiger, and Hermann Zapf.

Although Johnston was transmitting an historic European scribal tradition, his theory of Essential Form of letters (Grandform in German) provided a modernist key that helped unlock the nationalist black-letter tradition that confined German book designers. Cultural pride prevented borrowing the roman letters of their Italian, French, Dutch, and English neighbors. However, the pure geometry of Johnston's letter skeletons was untainted by associations with rival cultures.

Many would try their hand at putting Johnston's Essential Form into a typeface, but none with greater success than Paul Renner, German calligrapher, book designer, and friend of Anna Simons. His typeface Futura (1927) was an immediate sensation, and continues to be widely used eighty years later. A chapter on stone inscriptions in Johnston's handbook was written by his young colleague Eric Gill, whose Gill Sans (1928-29) rivals Futura for pure essence of letter form--but its lowercase incorporates some Humanist shapes that are more readable for longer texts.

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It is instructive to consider a paradox of modernism--that Futura, the ideal letter form of the machine age, with its illusion of compass and straightedge engineering, was created by a master of calligraphy. …