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.