on the grid

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.



it all comes from somewhere

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.


the write stuff

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 this one stands out. 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. i had more pressing things to do, sorry. 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.