Type: the influential Mr Lubalin

Is Herb Lubalin behind the current predilection for elaborately decorative typography? This autumn’s Lubalin Now show made the case for the designer’s enduring appeal

The use of decorative type, as so beauti­fully realised in work by the likes of Alex Trochut, Si Scott and Marian Bantjes, has been gathering momentum for some time, but seemed to reach critical mass over the past 12 months. What’s behind it all? One theory being advanced is the influence of Herb Lubalin, the American art director and designer who died in 1981.

Lubalin’s work has been made accessible to a new generation via showcases on websites such as Design & Typo (typogabor.com) and on various Flickr streams but, for the real thing, devotees head down to  the Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography in New York. The Study Center (founded in 1985 by the cu and friends of the designer) has a core collection that includes an extensive archive of Lubalin’s work dating from 1950–1980. In September, it moved to an extended space in the CU’s new building (more on this on our website).

Curator (and designer) Mike Essl marked the occasion in November by staging Lubalin Now, an exhibition of the work of 23 designers and typo­graphers who either directly reference the work of Lubalin, or, as he says, “share a kind of formal kinship” with the great man. “Over the last few years I began to notice an increased use of the Lubalin and Carnese typeface Avant Garde,” says Essl of the thinking behind the show. “I also became aware of the work of Justin Thomas Kay, a designer who freely references the work of Lubalin. From there the idea began to snowball as I continued to see references to Lubalin in advertisements, on television, and in design work  that I found on websites like fffound, Flickr, and Behance.”

Kay, who designed the logo­type for the exhibition and also has work in the show, says that he became interested in Lubalin in college. “I had a professor who saw my back­ground in illustration as well as my obsession with learning as much as I possibly could about working with type. He gave me a copy of the ‘blue Lubalin bible’ [Gertrude Snyder’s Herb Lubalin: Art Director, Graphic Designer and Typographer, published in 1985] and I became immediately enthralled with the way Lubalin made type speak as the main illustrated element in his work,” he says. “I love his ability to take chances in then-modern typographic convention for the sake of his own vision of what typo­graphy could be.”

Why is Lubalin such an influence today? Perhaps the answer lies in the origins of his work. Lubalin was reacting against the conformity of the 60s. In a famous essay in u&lc magazine in 1998, design writer Steven Heller wrote that “like the 60s itself, type was ready to explode off the page and into the popular culture” and Lubalin was the man to light the fuse. He was a rebel, a rulebreaker. Those today who are searching for an antidote to the watered down versions of Modernism that pass for ‘good design’ have found the perfect role model.

Lubalin Now, featuring the work of 23 contemporary designers along­side Lubalin originals, is at The Cooper Union, NYC, until Dec 8. lubalincenter.cooper.edu

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