In their age-spotted glory

The Book of Books charts 500 years of innovation in print, from the Nuremberg Chronicle to Irma Boom

The title of the latest design offering from Thames & Hudson holds the promise of a bibliophile’s dream. Its biblical overtones are both a playful literality and a hint at the reverence designers still feel for the book-as-object. Opening this rather serious-looking tome should evoke, for the designer, the same breathless anticipation that the late writer Italo Calvino describes for the compulsive reader: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade….” We might happily expect to forget deadlines in the rapt contemplation of books, lavishly pictured and lovingly described, from every period of history. In this respect, however, The Book of Books tantalises more than it satisfies.

Mathieu Lommen, curator of graphic design at the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam, compiles a visual history of 500 years of book design without stepping outside the University’s own, admittedly vast, collections. Amsterdam played a prominent role in the history of the book trade and the collection, which dates back to 1578, was assembled with this history in mind. So despite some omissions and an exclusively western bent, the authors of The Book of Books put together an informative overview. The presentation has the austere feel of an exhibition catalogue: each featured book is accompanied by a discussion on its main stylistic innovation, with views of the title and representative pages, and close-ups of typography.

Lommen traces succinct links between technical developments and their impact on book design. The usual suspects are spotlighted – type specimen books from foundries such as Vincent Figgins, Thomas Bewick’s wood engravings, William Morris’s densely decorative stylings, while the appearance in print of Eadweard Muybridge’s running horse heralds the introduction of photography. Filling in the gaps, there are examples such as the handwriting manual of Giovan Francesco Cresci, embodying the transition from manuscript to print; the stunning alphabets of Jean Midolle, demonstrating the latest chromolithographic techniques; and the Klinkhardt firm’s sample books of architectural borders from 1882, a testimony to the techniques that the new species of large, full-service printing firm could produce.

Lesser-known selections show the hand of a specialist curator and take us down some of printing’s byways and retrogressions. Published in 1844, the Diary of Lady Willoughby (purportedly a tell-all diary written during the reign of Charles I, but actually a piece of contemporary fiction) was set, a note to the reader explains, in “the style of printing and appearance” of the 17th century. This retrograde move sparked a rage for both “historically allusive” typography, and the modern interpretations of the then-forgotten Caslon typeface that would subsequently dominate the British printing industry. Other entries are typographically charming, or anomalous, such as James McNeill Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Written and designed by the artist, the book broke with all conventions in the placement and combination of type.

Occasional glimpses into the lives behind the printed page give a much-needed humanness to a profession often driven by passion. We learn that the early printer Gheraert Leeu was murdered by his punch cutter over a labour dispute, that Mark Catesby spent 14 years etching and hand-colouring the hundreds of plates that appear in his Natural History of Carolina, and that Willem Sandberg, designer and director of the Stedelijk Museum in the 1950s, used his skills to forge identity papers during the German occupation. Persistence in the face of financial woe is a recurring theme; printers regularly faced bankruptcy for backing books deemed culturally important but without much commercial benefit. These details, though all too rare, might tempt an interested reader to explore particular books and printers further.

The strength – and weakness – of The Book of Books is its simple treatment of a complex and sprawling landscape of design, technology and social context. This is a streamlined, honest look at a field most often represented by glossy crops of covers and fore edges shot at oblique angles. Portrayed here in all of their age-spotted glory, books become outcomes of process, rather than objects of desire.

This strategy enables the reader to get a grip on the broad history of print, but detaches book design from the context of print design. Little loss results from this approach in the first two centuries considered, but the arrival of multiple channels for print coinciding with mass production entwined book design closely with other graphic arts. Showcasing only the books of graphic designers such as Paul Rand and Max Huber means overlooking their wider commercial output. Indeed, after the 1950s, the books selected are often compilations of other print work; from Olivetti’s company photobook showing the iconic work of Giovanni Pintori, to Stefan Sagmeister’s self-promotional Made You Look (which, to its credit, pokes fun at the very idea of a design monograph). The sparse final section on postmodernism and the postscript attempt little engagement with contemporary book design, beyond the assertion that “frontiers are being pushed back again” with the advance of a digital industry.

En route to achieving its main aim of presenting the key developments in book design, The Book of Books pauses to examine the “aesthetic canon” superimposed by those printers and designers who attempted to direct the form of the book through self-produced manuals and manifestos. It’s a tricky move, and in those spaces the reader briefly inhabits a ‘book about books about books’. Some of these have an obvious place in the canon, such as Joesph Moxon’s printer’s manual, Albrecht Dürer’s typographic proportions, and Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. Others, perhaps, betray the author’s interest more than they serve the historical overview, such as Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage, with its manifesto-like pronouncements about the nature of the book splashed expressively across full-bleed photographs.

Regardless, the rise of avant-garde, Swiss and Dutch typographic innovation, heavily showcased in the book, presents something of a challenge: The Book of Books could well have benefitted from a bit of the dynamism in design, and passion for the book, that so many of its featured subjects manifest.

Rebecca Lynch is an independent curator and writer. Her curatorial practice So Far, the Future, opens a new project space this September in Vienna. The Book of Books: Five Hundred Years of Graphic Innovation, is published by Thames & Hudson in October; £42.

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