all keyed up

how many times do you walk pass something and not pick it up? how often have you been to a flea market, looked and examined something and not bought it? then later, the next day, the next week even, you can’t seem to get that thing out of your head. sometimes you regret it, other times you go back and it’s still there, waiting for you. here is one such item for me. the mw studio was located on wooster street, just south of houston, for 13 years. we were on the fourth floor right below a manufacturer of brass fittings for bathrooms. they had been there for 30-plus years. at the time, we lived on ninth street in the village, and i would walk through washington square park almost every day. walking home one evening, past dusk, i crossed houston and as i reached the north side of the street something caught my eye. i looked down and just lying next to the curb was this set of keys, splayed out pretty much like this. i stopped and stared. i didn’t reach down. i just looked for a few seconds and let the image imprint on my brain and continued my walk home. not sure why i didn’t pick them up, but as i walked i kept thinking about these keys. i don’t collect keys, so i saw no reason to pick them up. just an interesting artifact. as i walked up la guardia place, there at the stoplight was a locksmith’s truck. i continued on walking north through washington square park and, as i exited the park, there was the same truck at another traffic light. well, those keys kept calling. as I walked up fifth avenue, i turned left onto ninth street, reached into my pocket and pulled out my own keys. i looked hard at them, then i turned around and went back for these keys. as i got closer to where i first saw them, my step quickened. would they still be there? as i hit houston street, i found myself running. i could see when i got about ten feet away that they were still there, and they’ve been sitting in my desk drawer ever since. lovely, aren’t they?

without jackets

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.


riddle me this

here is a rebus card that i have had for many years. these have always fascinated me, but i have never been very good at figuring them out. this one is pretty straightforward and easily translated, i think. give it a try. i remember a tv show growing up called ‘concentration.’ two players were required to solve a common phrase written as a rebus. this was one show i actually watched. this postcard was made sometime in the late nineteenth century, and i love it for the drawings as well as for the simple typography. the hand-engraving and hand-coloring are so seductive. i often say i don’t collect certain items that i’m sharing with you, but i often discover them in numbers when i start looking over my collections. there are moments in my collecting when i am asked by a dealer—whether at a flea market, paper fair or antique show—”what do you collect?” i smile, knowing he has no idea what exactly this question means to me. since there is not one answer, i usually say i’m a generalist and, if the dealer is more of a specialist, i will certainly ask if he has a particular item. (though i am embarrassed to say ‘paper clips,’  ‘anything using a rebus,’ or ’19th-century examples of shorthand.’ the difficulty in buying paper is that it takes a great deal of patience searching through box after box. of course it is that one item that keeps you coming back. by the way, please keep coming back to visit me at amass.

first things first

everyone is pretty familiar with this particular issue of a.d. with a cover designed by paul rand. here is my copy. it’s not particularly hard to find but i was happy when i found mine, pre-ebay. i see it on there from time to time. one dealer is currently selling it, though bundled with two other well known issues. i’m going to share a secret related to mr. rand and this book. it might not be a secret and but even the master missed it.

in book collecting, the term ‘first edition’ is extremely important. there are reviewer copies that go out before a book’s release, but these are not considered first editions. not all books are issued as first editions, but those that have great value for collectors. in the world of ‘modern firsts,’ a first edition faulkner with a dust jacket is worth considerably more than a second edition. there can be special editions, signed editions… to me, it seems to go on and on, but that is the fun of it, too. i know of one first edition photo book which actually says ‘second edition’ because the publisher wanted to imply that the first edition had sold out. ah, the fine art of marketing. when visiting the new york antiquarian book fair at the park avenue armory, there are dealers devoted to selling modern firsts. a category that i happily do not collect, which doesn’t mean that i don’t collect first editions. i try to collect all of tschichold’s books in all their various published editions. one particular book that has escaped my collection is the danish edition of typographische gestaltung.’ (one of my favorite title pages of all time, though the referenced image is from the german edition.) what does this have to do with this particular edition of a.d.?

well, this cover is a key— though certainly not the only key—to the first edition of rand’s book, ‘a designer’s art,’ published in 1985. the words ‘first edition’ do not appear in the front matter, but the numbers 2 through 10 do. the number 1 is missing, which indicates the first printing, and this is enough to establish the book as a first edition. why does this matter? to some people (very few, i think), having the first edition of a rand book, or any book for that matter, means very little. however to some it adds a monetary value over later editions. if you search abe books, you will find a wide variety of prices for the first edition. i have seen a designer’s art first edition, unsigned, for 600 dollars. there are signed, unsigned. dedicated vs just a signature. an associated copy. endless, really. another way to tell if it’s a first edition is on page 168 of rand’s design of a.d. magazine.

if you look closely, you will notice something missing. the title of the publication is a.d. those two letters appear on the back, cut up. but the ‘u’ is missing. it seems the u fell off somewhere along the way in production. mr. rand kept his mechanicals, his paste-ups. remember those. i recall bringing this to mr rand’s attention, but i don’t actually remember his reaction. whether he knew already or or not, was i the first to bring this to his attention? i do know that in subsequent editions it has been corrected. i’m not sure if he found the letter or had to remake it. so the secret’s out. or maybe it wasn’t a secret at all.