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.
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.
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.
sutnar. certainly one of my favorite designers. i have posted about him before, but included only one of his letterheads. here are two that i attribute to him but cannot confirm that definitively. i suspect they are sutnar, but they lack a certain forcefulness that i have come to expect from him, though these are early, ’37 and ’38 respectfully. sutnar was art director of prague’s largest publishing house, drustevní praise, at that time, so it’s feasible. no matter who designed them,they represent another study in the evolution of the avant garde letter-head that ihave come to love. simple, ordered and exhibiting all the sighs of tschichold’s ‘neue typographie.’ these were a real find. ebay strikes again.
i enjoy searching for vintage ibm materials. i recently purchased a new book (at least new to me): ‘the interface, ibm and the transformation of corporate design.’ i have only skimmed it, but it has already heightened the pleasure i take in that period of design. i started out as a lover of corporate identity, long before the phrase ‘branding’ was used. i often prefer to use the word ‘identity.’ it’s more manageable, in my mind, and often more relevant to many of the clients with whom i work. i’m not sure if rand designed this letterhead, but i expect so. i would guess it’s a relatively early design given the logo. rand was designing pretty much all ibm’s materials himself during the early years. there should be an exhibition of just the ibm stationery materials. there were vast quantities of them. i believe at one time ibm was responsible for using more paper for promotional materials and company literature than any other company in the world. incredible. i remember interviewing at saatchi in the ’80s. i was told that i would be working primarily on the ibm account and was asked how i felt about bodoni. since it was the ibm house font, i gathered i wouldn’t be using anything else. this letterhead is certainly before those days. i love the use of city typeface, too. it works perfectly for me. and that blue edge….hey, i’m a happy collector.
the letterhead. in my mind, it remains my most active collection. that is to say, if i see or am offered one, i usually buy it. the finite piece of paper—either eight and half by eleven or a4—gives me infinite pleasure. i never tire of looking at letterheads, albeit old ones. i recall while working in my second job in houston, texas, i had the opportunity to design a program for a company called milpark that made drilling products. ‘mud,’ in fact. i learned that ‘mud’ is a lubricant that aids in drilling for oil. the logotype was already set when i arrived, but the application had not yet been completed. the colors were black and red, and i happily set to work. i recall taking out my ruling pen, mixing red gouache and using a red rule for the design element. i went to town, working on it for a couple days. the creative director was a designer from cranbrook named craig minor. super great guy. (though he fired me after six months, a story for another time.) this was the feeling-out process for the new designer: a simple project with narrow constraints. after a few days, i pinned all the designs up in the conference room. they filled a whole wall. i remember craig coming in and being a bit surprised. i had done very little editing. hell, i was having fun. i didn’t care about the client, i just loved moving that little red rule around the page. the letterheads i’m sharing from my collection use the square much more successfully than i used my red rule. these designs by max huber are from the 60s or 70s, i believe, though i’m not sure. my apologies, as i do not have access to my reference books to check if these letterheads are included. they were bought at auction along with a pile of other items by max huber. i have always enjoyed the a4 format over the u.s. format. the slightly narrow vertical just seems right. there is an art to placing something on a piece of blank paper. i recall the 2d assignments of my freshman year. a small black square on a ten-inch white square. then, in the spring semester, learning in art history about the story of two squares. i even use this image as my skype picture. (yes, I carry design way too far). the swiss style is always comforting to me. i love the order. i love the simplicity. everything has its place, and moving anything on the page changes it altogether. it was obvious when i made my presentation to craig that my designs did not have this sense of completeness or uniformity. i was learning then. i still am.
examining my collection over the last couple of years has opened my eyes to how much i have (so much so that one psychologist has actually put my blog on his reference list for ocd. funny, right? though not sure i’m in agreement.), and to the fact there are so many wonderful examples of design out there, many of which i own. the idea of ownership and collecting is a problematic one for me. as someone who has collected from a early age, who has been a shopper and worked in the retail environment for over twenty years, i don’t fully embrace the idea or the act of being a consumer. i admire making. sculptors like martin puryear, james turrell and the early work of the painter ellsworth kelly make me go weak in the knees. i have dreamed of stepping ‘off the grid,’‚ although not the typographic one‚ to fly to japan and apprentice with this japanese master. why? well, i would be forced to learn japanese, for one. also, i would work with my hands. i would make something i could give my daughter. ‘see? i made this.’ rather than ‘say, look what i found today in the street. look what i bought at the flea market.’
i once posted a cartoon from the new yorker about art direction. to this day, i still struggle to answer the question, ‘what do you do?’ when i travel or find myself meeting new people, i rarely ask this question of others. i prefer to start a conversation with a women by asking, ‘what scent are you wearing?’ as an aside, i once had the pleasure of working with chad lavigne, a man of amazing ability, the designer of perfume bottles and so much more. he was visiting our studio and reviewing a presentation with one of our designers. he turned to her and said ‘is that helmut lang you’re wearing?’ indeed it was. it was impressive. not just for the ability to remember a scent (unfortunately i do not have that ability; dates are another matter) but for how that knowledge transformed the interaction between our designer and chad. there was an ease in the conversation; a softness and openness. chad’s ability to communicate was appreciated and received.
now, what does all of this have to do piet zwart? take a look at this booklet, for a door manufacturer no less. it is an amazing tour de force of typographic and design skill. remember, this is the 1930s. this man zwart was an architect. a typographer. a photographer. i highly doubt he ever paused when asked his profession. when i pull this brochure off the shelf to admire it, i can recall exactly when i bought it. i came to new york city in august of 1989. i was invited to apartment-sit two cats and i never returned to new haven. i bought this at the famous ex libris, from michael sheehe and elaine lustig cohen. i paid six hundred dollars in january of 1991. six hundred. crazy. this is certainly one of my most expensive purchases of design ephemera. i would expect there are few examples of this booklet, i have never seen another. zwart designed it, did the photography and, i would expect, worked extremely closely with the letterpress compositor. i have read that this is how he learned typography. for me, he made this. just as puryear makes his sculpture. or karl martens does his design today. he would call it being authentic. i would like to think my blog is authentic. chad was authentic when he recognized doris’s perfume. zwart’s designs are authentic, of his time and his profession.
covers, postal history and handwriting. i never tire of looking for these covers. unfortunately, i haven’t bought many covers for several years now. why? well, as i have said, my collecting has been mitigated these last few years, and also i try to ask myself ‘do i really need another example? these covers are not expensive‚ five to twenty dollars usually‚ although there are times when i choose a cover and the dealer looks carefully at it and names a high price. often the stamp or a rare cancellation contributes to a higher price. collecting covers is a fine art in itself, and there is so much information contained on them, generally revealing their history only to the trained philatelist, which i am not. however, to help clue you in, i once purchased a lovely example which a collector had analyzed and recorded the information about it. i think you will get a kick out of what is revealed: the st. petersburg/warsaw railway, the traveling post office marks. this letter was written on the 6th of july, 1863, and arrived in bordeaux on the 23rd of july that same year. awesome, right? the letter is written in french but I am unable to decipher it and unable to reveal to you what story it has to offer. thankfully a collector took the time to decipher the story on the outside for us, noting the hands through which this letter has passed. it was posted almost 150 years ago, and still it speaks to us. as much as i love the information revealed on this cover, i myself have never taken the time to decipher what is contained on those in my possession. for now, their only purpose is inspiration. maybe some ofthe covers i post this week will inspire you to decipher them.
die form. november 1926. the only issue i own of this marvelous journal. this particular copy was designed by joost schmidt. stunning, don’t you think? you normally see the magazine in this design configuration. walter dexel, if i understand mr. weider correctly, designed the format in subsequent years. moma’s collection of joost’s items has one design in a similar vein, also done in 1926. lovely, too.
collecting can be so gratifying but until i started this blog i never spent enough time really looking at my collections. i have forty or so archival boxes filled with stuff that i have found over the years, and i am only beginning to share them. this journal is certainly one of the specific pieces of modernist design and typography in my collection. at the beginning, it was my wish to focus on this particular window into my collection, and i found along the way that my collection tends to ramble this way and that. i’m not the strict modernist that i thought i was. this issue of die form was bought from another collector-friend in germany. he is an avid collector, more active than i. he knows what i collect, and when he comes across something that’s not too expensive he gives me a call. he is responsible for many of fine examples of letterheads i own. buying from a dealer has a similar feeling to buying on the internet. it’s missing the flea market or the book fair experience. there’s no dealer telling you the merits of the piece, why you should buy, showing off his knowledge and trying to impress you. it’s devoid of that sense of discovery.’i found it!’ however, i do recall walking thought the paris flea market six years ago and seeing a stack of this journal; over a hundred issues. needless to say, i was speechless. i did not look through them nor buy them, though i should have done both. i see individual issues priced at a hundred dollars each. this group was priced at several thousand dollars. i try and forget these moments but they continue to haunt me. for now, i’ll just keep staring at this one. time to frame it, wouldn’t you say?