20th century type

Reviews by Stuart Bailey
396 words2 min read
According to the author, this book ‘takes its narrative lead from folk tales and its metaphor from contemporary music’; a ‘remix’ of an earlier work. Guest-designed divider pages and other gimmickry can’t disguise what is, in fact, a basic anthology – albeit a welcome one in an industry whose technological advances and formal consequences require constant updating. Apparently intending to focus on typefaces, the book is as much a general graphic design history, demonstrating how type and its treatment (now light on screen as much as ink on paper) have become inseparable.

The book is well-paced, collected into decades as testimony to a century obsessed with pigeonholing. As long as the reader remains aware this is merely a helpful distortion of reality, particularly with its bias towards the avant-garde (something that Blackwell points out in his disclaiming introduction), this is a concise and watertight primer. It is designed in 1990s techno vernacular, in turn derived from 1960s Swiss-based International Style. This rigid, minimalist aesthetic employs pages-worth of redundant white space. Even given this excess, the large, well-reproduced images are often presented out of synch with adjacent text, where smaller images in parallel would have clarified orientation and understanding. Similarly irritating is the book’s posing as a tool ‘to prompt research’ despite glaring omissions in a flimsy and eccentric bibliography.


With these reservations in mind, I still recommend this book for architects. Recently there has there been evidence (predominantly on the continent) of a renewed interest in architectural lettering as integral component rather than afterthought. Whilst Nicolete Gray’s ‘Lettering on Buildings’ remains the standard reference in this field, Blackwell’s concise and well-presented type classification guide is an essential appendix. Readers may also find interest in mapping the synchronicity in architectural and graphic development. Cross-fertilization of ideas, and ultimately collaboration, can only be a good thing. Writing in 1928, Jan Tschichold (a modernist-turned-traditionalist and still the century’s most convincing propagandist-practitioner) observed that ‘only in degenerate times can personality (opposed to the nameless masses) become the aim of human development’. Blackwell deems this prophetic enough to be set in the largest type, sampled and repeated at the opening and close of the book. Seventy years on, our own degeneration could use some of the same attitude. It would be nice to see it off the coffee table and on the streets.

  • Born York, UK, 1973. Studied graphic design, Reading, UK, 1991-95. Part of the first group of participants at the Werkplaats Typografie, Arnhem, NL, 1998-2000. Dot Dot Dot magazine editing with Peter Biľak from 2000. Currently leading double life between New York and L.A. Also currently a failed musician.