i don’t collect business cards but i have many. here is the business card of walter w ballmer, the designer of the olivetti logo i am familiar with. i have no idea what he is referring to when he says “i’ve had much pleasure to receive some of your graphic works.” i found this in a book on design. there was no indication that the book belonged to mr ballmer, but i added it to my collection of olivetti ephemera. this is not a huge category but, sadly perhaps, it is yet another category. the collection ranges from trash cans designed by sottass to a few choice typewriters and olivetti ads that span the 40s-70s. (many can be seen here.) felix has a wonderful example of mr ballmer’s work. i’ll scan some of my ads that don’t seem to be a part of this group. it’s nice to know that a least something is not on the web. or maybe i just didn’t look hard enough. that is something of which I can’t usually be accused.
my collection of letters starts with the envelope. up until the nineteenth century, most of the letters were folded to make the envelope. here is an example: you can see the wax seal which was used to hold the folded letter shut. what makes this envelope special to me, of course, is the label, “353 from rathwnow.” i haven’t shown this to a postal dealer, so i have no idea what or why this label was attached to this letter. i just loved the letterforms. loving type is an odd thing.
there are so many of us who share this passion. what make a letterform special? what draws us to a particular font? how many new typefaces are designed each day? do we really need them? i always look forward to working with interns or new designers and they bring in their favorite typefaces. often these fonts are completely new to me. many i don’t like, but i try and set aside my prejudices and see what they see. how does that particular typeface add to the design where another doesn’t? this is certainly the case with these letterforms. the surprise of finding these numbers on a letter amidst a pile of other nineteenth-century letters said buy me. wonderful, isn’t it?
i pay attention to title pages and i have many that i admire. is it silly to buy a book for its title page? i previously shared the book by ee cumings and i wonder: is the title page similar to the letterhead, in that both are defined, limited spaces? the title page sets the tone for me. the skill of the designer is revealed within this page. this example is designed by jan tschichold. i collect books he designed during the pre-war years but also those from the ensuing era, when he recanted the dogma of neue typographie and designed in a traditional style. his penguin years exemplify this. his ability to design a page, to orchestrate the page and balance the elements, always seems right to me. when teaching typography, i think it is important to strive for a design in which the addition of another element alters it in such a way as to take away from a balanced composition; no matter if it’s a traditional design or an asymmetrical one. reaching this stage can be a struggle. when i look at tschichold’s work, I feel the design would become something else if another element were added (or something subtracted). i remember in school taking a two-inch black square and placing it in a ten-inch white square, and the teacher asking me to move it around. if placed it in the center, it said one thing; moving it to the edge said another. the composition changed dramatically. so simple, yet so powerful. i have often sat and done this exercise with a student. with each movement of the square we talked about how it changes our perception of the page. the thinking is that using type enhances the composition, gives it more purpose. i think it took me twenty years to understand and articulate this. remember when you were doing all these exercises? now, when i look at a title page, i am rewarded by the care and diligence with which it was composed. maybe you see the same thing?
black is not my favorite color, but when it comes to piet zwart, black means something completely different. here are three letterheads he designed. the first is his own invoice, the others he designed for bruynzeel. what excites me is the defined space. there is so much that can be done within that space, and learning to control that space always excites me. zwart’s own letterhead, typical of the neue typographie of the period, is one of the favorites of my collection. i especially like the bold black rule highlighting the name and town of voorburg. its positioning on the bottom third works nicely in the confined space. zwart’s personal invoice is such a bold statement in contrast with the two bruynzeel letterheads. these two letterheads are both more subtle, but nonetheless masterful. most of the items in my collection usually come with a story, some more interesting than others. the first two letterheads were bought sight unseen. i subscribe to a host of auction house email updates. i used to get their catalogs, but if you don’t purchase anything they stop sending them. anyway, these two letterheads were purchased in a lot of other dutch items. the listing was for “materials designed by zwart.” actually i had to have the listing translated, and fortunately someone in the studio could read and speak german. i emailed the auction house and asked for some pictures of the items. this was quite a few years ago and that process was not as seamless as it is now. i received the pictures: they were of a bunch of papers lying on a table. nothing was completely clear, but I could make out the zwart letterhead and that was all i needed to convince me. i don’t remember how much i paid, but 360 dollars seems to rings a bell. there were a dozen or so items, so i felt it was really good deal.
the third letterhead, with the dynamic red arrow and photo illustration, was a real find. i have mentioned the book fair that takes place each year at a public school in the west village. although i have not attended for the last few years, in the past i eagerly queued up on opening night. the entrance fee is usually higher then, but getting the first look is thrilling. i have always felt i was searching for items, books and paper that other collectors either weren’t interested in or overlooked. (everyone always likes to think they were there first. “i bought that when they were just fifty cents,” goes the boast.) the fair is divided into three rooms. as you enter there is a winding group of dealers, a connected room with six or seven dealers and the main auditorium that holds the majority of the dealers. at that time, there was only one book dealer, irving oaklander, with books on typography and design. oaklander books has been around since i came to the city and his shop on west 26th was a delight. he knows his stuff. mr oaklander has been the recipient of much of my hard-earned money over the years. you will never meet a nicer individual.
once the doors open, we’re off like racehorses. i’m usually methodical and visit each booth. if i see a familiar book, i check the price. i am amazed that some books have remained the same price for the twenty five years I have been collecting. as i walked around the book fair that day, i spotted the bruyneel, but only the side with the hands and door lock was visible. i tried to contain my excitement and not give away that I just peed in my pants. i casually looked at the other things on the display table before asking about the invoice. i don’t remember my exchange with the dealer, but i know i was overwhelmed to find such an item at an american book fair. i was rewarded further when I turned it over. I knew at once it was designed by zwart. the dealer only knew it was dutch. such a wonderful addition to my collection, and i am thrilled to share it with you.