what do you do with things you for which you have no categories, or even collections? i often buy the darndest things: labels, scraps of paper, stickers. some i don’t even know their original use. what do i do with them? they are filed in a book designed for stamp collectors. i place these oddities without regard to topic, style or category. maybe they should be categorized under ‘what’s left?’
in this particular book, i have an old ration sticker, revenue stickers and an assortment of oddities. all bought with one thought: ‘typography.’ these books for stamp collectors are great. i try and buy old ones as they have more character then the new ones. i believe fewer and fewer companies make these books and the richness has disappeared. i have many stories about finding these books. in this day and age, with ebay, it’s fascinating to me how everyone thinks what they have is valuable. i have heard this from other dealers, too. professional dealers spend much more time going to flea markets, yard sales and estates sales than i. many individuals think because something sold for x on ebay, that is the price. as we know, it takes only two people to bid up an item. when a dealer (i mostly buy from dealers) suddenly realizes that he may have priced something incorrectly, the reaction makes me smile (or roll my eyes). Usually i get a ‘that’s valuable?’ look. he has a chance to reassess and then i hear, ‘not for sale’. i have to be careful since i am a very particular collector who doesn’t just go for the familiar.
being a paper clip collector, i am intrigued by the many different shapes. i will be looking through a box of old documents and often there is more than one box. if i’m up for it and have my patient hat on, i will dig in. i start pulling out documents with paper clips that i may or may not have and the dealer will come over and start examining my selections. now, he has never gone through this box and has already said so, but out of all this paper i have selected five things. why? this is curious to him. how much? ‘a hundred dollars.’ i say to myself, ‘i only want the paper clips.’ so i walk away after spending over a half an hour. the dealer looks at me harshly. ‘well, how much do you want to pay?’ of course i want to pay five bucks. ten bucks tops. i don’t even make an offer since we are so far apart. right before i leave the show, i swing back by the dealer and see that the papers are how i left them. no one has even looked through the box, so i offer the dealer twenty bucks and tell him i just want the paper clips. he says ‘get lost.’ nice, right? this happened at the allentown paper fair many years ago. i have learned from these experiences and it has to do with this book that contains these oddities.
in paris there used to be a philatelic dealer on rue due madeleine. right on the corner. it was a good size. i would always go in there and use my poor french and ask for odd collections and such. often dealers will buy old collections and these collections will be in these books i seek out. there will be stacks of these with a simple listing of what’s inside. such as, ‘algeria’ or ‘german pre-war’. of course i’m not interested in the stamps inside, just the old books containing them. these collections can be quite expensive and often prevent me from buying the book, but i remember asking the dealer—the daughter of the owner—if she had ‘new old stock’ of these books. i did not know this phrase in french. i should have learned it long ago. anyway, she pointed along the staircase leading to the basement (needless to say, i so wanted to visit the basement) were there were shelf after shelf of these books. all sizes. my face lit up. i gave myself away. she handed me one and i nodded: ‘perfect, j’aime ça.’ i recall it coast about ten dollars. then i asked if i could by more. ‘no. not for sale.’ the books had been sitting on that shelf for 40+ years. but once someone comes along and shows an interest, they bear consideration. i guess one is better than none.
book design. page design. title pages. dust jackets. binding. every book i buy, new or old, has these elements. however very few are designed better than this book, the tables of the law by thomas mann designed by paul rand. with all the things written about rand, it’s amazing that none dissects or highlights his ability. i mean really examines it critically. i can look at his career and tell you some of the high points (like this book) and certain low points (his logo for amex) and see inspirational design. the book jacket, binding and book typography were all done by rand in 1945, almost 70 years ago. shit. it remains fresh, except maybe the jacket color, which is a bit drab. but read the book and the color makes sense. i’ve bought countless books for their design, many in german, dutch, czech, japanese…but this one from knopf is translated from german for the american market. thankfully, i can read it and that helps informs my understanding of the design. the tables of the law is about the early life of moses and rand’s design evokes restraint, refinement, sophistication and reflection. what i love most about this book is the grid. the lovely grid. rand once said in class, “a grid is like a musical instrument. it’s only as good as who’s playing it.” well, the grid for this book is a classic mirrored symmetrical design, with generous proportions. it never bores me to examine it. the typographical hierarchy is rich and detailed.
as a design student, i visited the steinhour press in vermont. it was a wonderful place where they printed amazing books, all by letterpress. the type was set on monotype machines and i remember seeing the galleys of type. one specific thing i learned on that visit was line count. i always wondered how a book, such as ‘the table of the law,’ maintained such a perfect grid. seems like a silly question now, but at the time i had no idea. i had never designed a book—brochures, yes, but not a novel. as you know, orphans are rather unsightly and what happens when you let a line carry over to the next page and leave a horrible orphan or widow? the manager overseeing the page layout said that they simply varied the line count if necessary. ‘the tables of the law’ is set to 37 lines deep, but to avoid poor line breaks several pages cheat, not with the line depth count but in the number of lines between chapters. instead of six, there are times when just five lines are used. what i love most is the page numbers as they relate to the chapter numbers. the relationships are amazing. size, scale and placement move the eye around the page. it makes me laugh to express such enthusiasm for typographical details. one of my favorite books on book design is by Jost Hochuli <http://www.typotheque.com/authors/jost_hochuli>, an amazing book designer of whom I have long been a fan and whose work I also collect. there are many other memorable design elements about ‘the tables of the law.’ the binding is simple and rich with a lush green cloth and gold foil stamping on the cover and spine. what is under the dust jacket is also wonderful: the religious iconography and the spine all covered in gold, which is often rubbed away. i heard about that ms. knopf complained about the production costs of the books designed by rand. it seems they were expensive to produce. i can totally see that. this is 1945 after all. i have no idea as to the truth of this story, but i do believe there was great care given to these designs. i had rand sign all the copies of the books he designed that i had collected, but i never discussed them with him. he was always surprised when i brought him something that he had designed. “where did you fine that? still damn good.” we would spar about whose tschichold collection was better. his was, of course. you can’t compete with personally inscribed editions. back to ‘the tables of the law.’ another wonderful aspect of this book is the title page. one of my favorites. a tour de force of asymmetrical typography. don’t forget the year is 1945 and check out the vertical type of the date. also keep in mind this is metal type. this book is printed with letterpress—metal type. which means the title page would have be laid out by hand. no polymer plates then. when i first started collecting in the ‘80s, i checked out many of the printing houses where these books were made. i had dreams of visiting their archives and discovering correspondence from designers like rand, with marked-up galleys, instructions made and corrections reviewed. Alas, by the time i checked they were long gone. maybe just a little is saved here.
my motto, or one of them, is “you’re only a good as the obscurity of your sources.” when i begin a project—or, frankly, even before a even get a project—my head spins with ideas. what about this? no—that!? that’s too far out. where should the client take this? whom are they trying to reach? their brand is great but they have forgotten their core. i review myriad possibilities and have endless discussions with myself. generally i have a meeting with a client and gauge where they want to go, and that usually narrows down the avenues. many times, my collections come in handy as inspirations and a resource. i rarely buy things or books specifically as sources or references—“this book will be good for letterforms” or “this is good for patterns.” my collections serve me for visual stimulus and what i think will be the foundations for an interesting design somewhere down the line. my collections have also been a way for me to dream. i have dreamed of opening a store for years. (my daughter has even wished she would win the lottery just so she could give me the money to open that store.) many times my collections do aid in the design of a project or to just stimulate discussion with other designers. like this one: hundreds and hundreds of matchbook labels collected by one person. i love that this individual collector had taken the time to organize them topically and visually by color. i bought these because it was such a comprehensive collection, rich with design and history, and because i thought they would look amazing framed. imagine all the red, the black, each a blur of color, only to discover the nuances separating one from the next. many collectors of matchbook labels collect them topically; elephants, birds, deer, etc. but of course i love the typography, the illustrations and the color. we recently did a project for a men’s store in mexico city, silver deer. when the client came to us, he already had the name and a clear idea, however done by another designer, of what the store should look like. well, we tried (and i think successfully) to take him in another direction. we started here, looking at these old matchbook labels of deer, but after a while we felt it looked too specific and too familiar. we eventually presented a more clean and stark identity, a fresh canvas to sell the heritage brands the client was passionate about. i am proud of the design but my heart still has a soft spot for these matchbox labels. it’s wonderful to see the depth and richness that can be conveyed in something that is only 2 inches across. enjoy.
1869. germany. caspar moos. there is nothing modern about this letterhead, however the typography speaks to me. the many covers that i have written about are usually bought for the letterhead contained inside. here is just one of the hundreds that i must own, though i have never counted. i think it’s like counting your chips at the poker table. the realization of what you have changes the game. these letterheads serve as so much inspiration. the aspect of the paper, typography, handwriting and the engraved letterhead all add to its richness. the paper is lightweight, maybe 8lb. i think i bought this for one reason: the nine. the eighteen is preprinted and the last two digits are handwritten with a lovely flair. how does your handwriting look? i bet not many of us write that well. why is that? do they teach penmanship in school anymore? i know i was graded on ‘writing’ in elementary school. i remember my report card—all c’s. this letterhead is in german and i tried to make out the handwriting to translate it for you but i gave up. sorry. other more pressing things to do. whenever i think about handwriting i make a mental note; actually, michael sull comes to mind. I’d like to take one of his classes or workshops one day. i already have the tools. i’ve told my daughter we should do this together. of course i get the roll of the eyes and the ‘what planet are you on?’ look. i am interested in acquiring this skill. some day. just another thing for retirement.
monday december 10th will be the last day of my exhibition at mondocane and there will be a closing party from 6-8pm. please feel free to stop by and say hello. this is a lovely picture of the show shot by my friend grant peterson. many thanks for those of you who have stopped by and sent emails. i learned that facebook isn’t really the best way to invite people, so next time i’ll send a proper invitation. please come and have a beer and tell me what you think of the show. i hope to see you there.
yes, that is what someone said to me yesterday, after winding her way thru the maze of denim, ties, leather goods and assorted items at this year’s pop up flea. i have a table, actually my daughter and i have a table at the menswear market put on by a continous goldberg production. super fun. i have a few of my sculptures from my exhibition but mostly have stuff from my collections. there are paul rand items, 19th century chess sets, olivetti packaging, my 1927 swiss army bike, and of course staplers. all for sale. my daughter’s there too, selling totes with her artwork, cookies, pickles and pound cake, all made by mom in alabama. please come and take a look a say hello. it’s here.
here’s a photogram of my paper clip collection. yes. i collect paper clips. i’m sure i have mentioned this collection numerous times before. and yes i made this photogram—in a dark room. they still exist for my pleasure.
paper clips. a perfect collection for new york city. they don’t take up much room and they are pretty cool. i have written about this collection before, in that, when i attend paper fairs, i look at old documents hoping to discover a paper clip that i don’t have. there are many different shapes and if you look carefully you will see no two like. 48 distinct shapes. the majority are pretty old. they have names like: the niagara, the gem, the eureka, the banjo clip, the owl clip. don’t you just love it. i learned more about my collection when linda sullivan, a professor of design at byu, gave me a copy of henry petroski’s evolution of useful things. there is a chapter on the paper clip and i just loved it. such a simple object with such a history. petroski tells how paper clips were worn as a sign of defiance. cool, right. the book is worth reading. i personally just love the different shapes and the notion or idea that this simple form merits such refinement. it works for me and i am thrilled when i discover a shape i have never seen before. i thought the best way to display my collection was in the form of a photogram. the last time i was in a dark room was in grad school, twenty five years ago. quite a while ago. wow a generation in fact. my daughter came along and actually kept things going when i would got too obsessive. nice to have a level headed person around. an amazing fact about new york is that there is just about everything for everyone. i went to this great brooklyn studio where theo, the owner, had prepared a proper darkroom for me and my daughter. the chemicals mixed. proper instruction and everything in it’s place. we spent the next three hours getting the right density of black and making several compositions. at twenty bucks an hour it was well worth it. spending three hours with your daughter and doing something cool. a wonderful memory. she added a great deal to the experience and what a wonderful result it is. i put one of the photograms in my show but this particular one did not make it. the one that did is gridded and shows a more taxonomy-like approach to the clips. happily, gladly, surprisingly someone bought it. how about that. my show ends on the tenth of december do stop by.
for those of you who made it to my first opening, thanks so much. i was so worried that i would need to stand on the corner and hand out ten dollar bills. it was lovely to see old friends, current friends and make new ones. a special thanks goes to andrew, patrick, lulu, laura, brad, pedro, marlene, and stephanie. all of which, without their help, this event would not have taken place. these last few years have been trying ones for me. i have had support from friends and family which is so important. i am not an easy person to live with and i often cannot see the forest for the trees. i hope everyone enjoyed themselves. for those of you who didn’t make the opening, here are a few pictures. i do hope you can stop by and see it. tell me what you think and most of i hope you enjoy it.
this thursday at mondocane i will be having my first exhibition based on my collections and other artwork. a few years back i made several bronze sculptures of one of my twine balls. everyone loved it. i actually gave one to martha stewart as a thank you for having me on her show. i started casting other objects that i had collected or found along my journeys. a rock. a pea pod. dried bananas. it is amazing how, once it is made of bronze, you look at it differently. i remember at risd, a sculpture student transformed benefit street by simply laying grass the entire block east of waterman street. i watched amazed as students took off their shoes, reached down and touched it. a grass lawn was but 100 feet away. something familiar had changed and how they perceived it changed too. this is my hope as well. please drop by the show. it’s up until the 5th of december.
the avant garde letterhead. ( great book to own) i have written that this is my main collection and i am devoted to it. should there be a fire in my building, i would know which box to grab. this letterhead is from 1931. incredible, right? tschichold’s ‘neue typographie‘ was first published in 1928. i don’t believe this letterhead was designed by kurt schwitters and i’m not sure if he was in hanover at this time, either. i’m not an art historian, but i would love to return to school and get a phd in design history, focusing on this period. many of the teachers who taught design history when i was in school were not art historians but designers who simply had an avid and passionate interest in the design history. i have acknowledged the depth and insight in christopher burke’s ‘active literature,‘ the monograph on tschichold, and strongly feel that all monographs about designers should be this informative. the time, the place, the reactions to current events—so many factors that contributed to the evolution of a particular piece of design are truly intriguing. this letterhead for a book binder—was he so progressive in his company’s marketing? was he even aware of the current design movement or did the designer simply do a barter and so got his way? whatever the case, the design is memorable and worth considering. enjoy.