where did you find it? who designed that? did you ever see this? so many questions and often not many answers. there is so much to love: books, collections, cancelation marks—too many to name. the hunt reveals many surprises. when i pulled this book from a shelf, opened it and discovered that someone had created his own book of collections, i was thrilled. of course the book had to be mine. i bought this in a random book store, possibly the strand here in new york city, though upon reflection it may have been the midway bookstore in st paul. i have mentioned before that in my past travels, when i arrived at the airport, i would simply tear out the used book section of the yellow pages (when was the last time someone mentioned that?!) and then i’d head off to the various bookstores with this list in hand. one of my favorites in the minneapolis/st paul area is the midway bookstore. i have had countless great finds there. many used books stores have sections devoted to ‘leather bindings.’ the value or interest in these books is primarily derived from their bindings (another amazing category of book collecting) and the subject matter doesn’t warrant it being placed anywhere. often this is puzzling to me. in any case, i will browse this section from time to time. when i pulled this slim edition off the shelf and peeked inside, i was rewarded to see it filled with cancelation marks. these were not cut from covers or letters but appeared to have been cut from a reference book and one that was fairly old. scott’s reference books for stamps and cancelations have been around a long time. since i collected coins as a kid, i was more familiar with the red and blue books of coin collecting, but i am also acquainted with scott’s. i am never bored by the world of philatelic collectors. the endless permutations fascinate me, though not enough to become a collector myself. recently, i have been reading a very interesting book, a history of britain in thirty-six postage stamps by chris west. i believe it was spawned from the bbc radio program, a history of the world in a 100 objects. if you’ve never listened to it, you should. it can be fascinating. looking at these pages and cancelations brings to light interesting design questions. who designed these? i know many special fancy cancels were designed by postal agents themselves. they cut them right into rubber. many of these scraps are from all categories of ‘marks’ that are placed on an envelope during its life in the mail. each one tells a story. just like this book does.
i have written before about the various permutations of one particular book and i recently learned about an interesting variation within another book i own: karel martens’ printed matter/drukwerk from hyphen press. karel martens may be my favorite designer working today. i eagerly collect his book designs, read his interviews and envy those who study within his program at werkplaatz typografie. i don’t always like the designs from the werkplaatz but they always encourage me to consider the possibilities of typographic choice and investigation. i immediately purchased printed matter/drukwerk when it was first issued in 1996. a second edition appeared in 2001 and an expanded edition in 2010. many years ago, i bought an edition i had never seen before. a book dealer in germany who knew i collected contemporary dutch book design sent an email saying he had something special for me. it was printed matter/drukwerk, but with a white jacket. at the time i had never seen this edition—not in articles or publications, nor did i have any info on this edition. permutations in book editions is a facet of book collecting that i just love. there are historically subtle differences in the title pages or a misprint on a specific page that will separate a first edition from a second edition. i noted a special difference in rand’s designer art in this blog. when i first obtained this ‘white’ edition i did not look into its origin but simply placed it on my shelf with, admittedly, materialist pride. a first edition has its special allure. ‘first edition’, two words fraught with meaning. i’m not sure if when buying a book you care about whether or not you’re buying a first edition. i often do. i still prefer reading a hardbound copy of a book over a paperback, though i do purchase paperback editions, but i haven’t been seduced by the ipad or kindle. i attend book shows, both antiquarian as well as commercial. this past fall i attended the art book fair at ps1. each year, publishers and independent book sellers are organized by printed matter, one of my favorite book stores in manhattan. it is a wonderful book fair. i still prefer to purchase books at these events and it’s important to arrive there early, which i don’t always do. at this particular fair, i walked around eagerly and discovered many wonderful editions that i had seen on the internet. i ran across a dealer from holland who was selling karel martens’ new book, full color. i immediately bought five copies. yes, five. christmas was just around the corner and i like to give gifts to the designers working with me. not everyone is as manic as i am about the latest books released and so many people just buy their books on amazon. but i try to support the local booksellers, so i was thrilled to buy these copies of martens’ book. as i was chatting with the bookseller, i was excited to learn that mr martens would be in attendance the following day to sign copies. i rearranged my saturday schedule and, when the time drew near, i gathered together a bunch of books designed by martens for him to sign, including his latest book i had purchased. i arrived and waited my turn. i introduced myself. i had never met him before but i knew we were just one degree apart so i mentioned the person we had in common and we spoke briefly about him. i handed over my pile of books for him to sign. the bookseller had already sold out of martens’ new book and, when i pulled out my copies, a few people standing nearby asked to purchase one. i thought it odd that the bookseller had not brought enough copies. after mr martens signed his new books for me, i presented the ‘white’ edition of printed matter/drukwerk. he looked up and asked how i had obtained this particular copy. i told him and he said this was a rare edition and was done especially for the day he was awarded the heineken price. only a small number were printed and i was lucky to have one. as a book collector, i already knew that a rare edition is desirable and a signed copy even more so. it was nice to hear mr martens tell me its origin and have the answer to a question that had long lingered. soon after, i did a quick search and hyphen’s press website provides a clear and interesting breakdown of all the editions of printed matter/drukwerk. so fulfilling for a manic collector like me.
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 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.
martha graham. merle armitage. an alliance i love. not sure how many of you out there know mr. armitage’s work. he made his way, his own way. the linked article fills you in and gives you a nice overview. i discovered his work after buying an annual of aiga’s fifty best books. these are amazing references for any book collector. (the current fifty best books exhibition is up now.) i sought out early copies of these books and then tried from the illustration of each book to determine its value and sought out the ones that looked interesting to me. i discovered many book designers i had never heard of. i think there should be a show of fifty books from fifty years. the best of the best. that’s one jury i would love to be on.
as you can see in this book on martha graham, mr. armitage has a flair for the dramatic. i would never say his designs were subtle; expressive would be more like it. this is my favorite of the books he designed. it was the first book on graham and he does it right. i have not read it, though, so i can’t opine on the prose. in the article i reference, he says he often wrote the books just so he could design them. his books are not expensive to collect. i don’t know many people or designer friends who collect his works or have heard of him, for that matter, but i’m happy i started collecting his book designs twenty years ago. maybe you’ll enjoy discovering his work.
over the next five days, i will share five different books designed by ladislav sutnar. think ‘orange.’ i love orange. i don’t wear a lot of it but i do have an orange lacoste shirt, an orange hermès hat and one pair of neon orange nike air rifts. oddly, that’s it. however, i do own a great number of orange items. many are in the form of books designed by sutnar. take off the dust jacket and you find a wonderful world of subtlety, drama, creativity and originality. remember, these books were designed in the 1930s.
this collection began with the discovery of a box labeled ‘sutnar’ at ‘the art of the book’ room at the sterling library at yale. the sterling library is vast. heaven, actually, but aren’t all libraries? ‘the art of the book’ houses many amazing things, and i sometimes think i was the first person in years to look through this archival box. there was no order, no organization, no cataloging and no shortage of wonderful things to examine. i would bet that, 20 years later, no one else has looked at that box. where do i find these books? living in the states makes it difficult. there are a few dealers who sell the czech avant garde, and i acquired most of mine from one particular dealer who now specializes in cookbooks. recently there was an ebay auction with many wonderful examples of sutnar designs and i didn’t win a single book, much to my disappointment. so many i had never seen. hopefully, these will be fresh to you.