Tschichold Afterthoughts

by John Holbo on November 11, 2009

Robin Kinross – who knows more about Tschichold than I – showed up in comments to my Tschichold post to object that the book I said was pretty good is actually a shameful mess. Kinross wrote the introduction to Tschichold’s The New Typography [amazon]. It’s the first English edition of that book, hence a very welcome thing. (Reading Kinross’s intro was part of my preparation for writing my review.) Kinross points out that Master Typographer has garnered some negative reviews – this one, for example. There are really two complaints here: first, the book itself – oversized and weighing in at 5 pounds, lots of pages with only a little writing on them, photos of the subject and others arguably just padding it out – is un-Tschicholdian in design. This is quite true. But I guess I think Tschichold was a bit over-strict, and that some of the slightly weird decisions the designers of this volume made actually work out ok. Or maybe I’m a sucker for coffee table art book monstrosities, when they contain lots of material I actually want to look at.

A more serious complaint is that the writings in Master Typographer are not just mutually uncoordinated, as I noted, but individually sloppy and inaccurate. Kinross says the only full-length monograph about Tschichold I’ve actually read – Doubleday’s[amazon] – is an amateurish mess. Hence Doubleday’s contribution to this Master Typographer volume is not the informative thing I claimed it is, but a mess. Well, this is news to me. I thought the Doubleday was very interesting, but now I pass along the credible allegation that it’s problematic. The Carter review says the same as Kinross: namely, the contents of Master Tyopgrapher need fact checking. I’m not nearly as qualified as Kinross to judge. Then again, I’m not as qualified as Doubleday either. At least one criticism of Doubleday from the Carter review seems to me over-reaching:

Doubleday’s grasp of the material does not seem to have improved since his earlier book was written. He makes the remarkable claim that in England, Tschichold ”helped to bring forth a resurgence of classical typography and book design.” This would have come as a considerable surprise to Stanley Morison, Oliver Simon, and countless other designers in a land barely touched by modernism. Rather, Tschichold, while working within the existing tradition, had a profoundly beneficial influence in raising standards of design. The before-and-after examples of title-pages in the King Penguin series show how he took pedestrian layouts, tightened them up, and injected elements of imagination and wit which have greatly inspired designers who came after him.

Doubleday’s point wasn’t that England had been conquered by modernism, and needed to be taken back for classicism, just that English, basically classical book designs were undistinguished before Tschichold gave them the treatment. So Carter is basically not willing to agree to agree. Well, anyway.

I’ll leave it at that. (I’m still waiting for my school library to get hold of the new Christopher Burke book about Tschichold, Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography [amazon]. Kinross is the publisher, and I have high hopes, since Burke’s Paul Renner book was great. So I feel a bit chagrined to be getting on Kinross’s bad side.)

In other news, I cranked out a couple of S&O pages for the Tschicholdian occasion.



ben 11.11.09 at 6:36 pm

I bet An Excruciating Pause is pretty good.


John Holbo 11.12.09 at 12:41 am

Yes, otherwise they wouldn’t have published it.


ben 11.12.09 at 2:12 am

You and I both know that’s hardly a good inference.


John Holbo 11.12.09 at 3:43 am

No, no, bad books are never published. There is a review process in the publishing industry to ensure quality. Thank goodness.


Salient 11.12.09 at 12:41 pm

#89: Pretty please a geometry textbook with that exact cover.

…What really gets me is that the red thick tentacle is exactly the same length as the black thick tentacle; by optical illusion it looks marginally longer at the bottom. (Would Tschichold have approved?)


John Holbo 11.12.09 at 1:21 pm

Yes, it’s odd, isn’t it Salient. I didn’t intend it, but the thing is optically illusory in a couple different ways. I think it’s safe to assume Tschichold wouldn’t have been very impressed.


Ombrageux 11.12.09 at 7:44 pm

You know, this blog is weird as hell.


deliasmith 11.15.09 at 4:33 pm

The pottery trade is a good source of odd job titles: saggar maker’s bottom knocker’ is worn out now, but the people who put handles on cups are still called ‘cup handlers’.

Looking for the job title of people who put the spouts on teapots I found this.

The volume ‘Soaker to squirt’ includes the following string:

SOCIOLOGIST (profess. & kin.) 054.067-014
sock-and-stocking ironer (laundry & rel.) 363.687-014
SOCK BOARDER (knitting) 589.686-042
sock drier (laundry & rel.) 363.687-014
Socket Assembler (electron. comp.) 726.684-070
SOCKET PULLER (musical inst.) 730.682-010
Sock Examiner (knitting) 684.684-010
sock folder (laundry & rel.) 363.687-014

which is a help in fixing the place of intellectuals in society.

There is no entry for ‘philosopher’.


deliasmith 11.15.09 at 4:36 pm

I should have said at the start of the previous post ‘Apropos the orange O & S titles,’


Tim Wilkinson 11.16.09 at 12:04 pm

Why does that colour’s being called ‘cerise’ irk me? I don’t know if it’s a new-ish (80s vintage?) term – I suspect so. It has the mark of the marketer about it. I think of that colour (or a close match) by the name under which I first encountered it: rose, specifically Tyrian rose. I remember it well, since I quickly realised it was the purest red for mixing colours. It also occurs to me it’s pretty much magenta. And, intimately interrelated with both of those things, that within acceptable tolerances it is in fact Red, primary Red.

Which brings us round to the squidfont, de Stijl, etc and makes me wonder why red as we know it – i.e. somewhere around cadmium, in the scarlet-crimson range – is considered a primary colour (of paint and other subtractive media), and how different the world, and that squid, might look now had lemon-yellow, magenta and cyan been adopted as modernism’s palette. Could there have been a bloodlust of a peculiarly Nazi-friendly type involved in developing that black, red & white colour scheme?


dave heasman 11.16.09 at 12:26 pm

Good old Robin. I wondered what had happened to him; I used to meet him at gigs, then he got married & disappeared. Very nice bloke.


John Holbo 11.16.09 at 1:22 pm

deliasmith, I was going to make one about ‘scranletting’, a la Cold Comfort Farm. ‘Cerise’ is actually the travel books series for Penguin, and has been for many decades, Tim. I don’t know why I changed the colors up for my little parody version. I could have made the travel book cerise instead of green. But I wanted ‘Jules Verdigris’ to have written a green book.



Tim Wilkinson 11.16.09 at 1:59 pm

I was not aware of that. But when did they start to use the word ‘cerise’? I DON’T LIKE IT. I may write a letter. BTW I too would have wanted him to write a green one, and am glad that he did.

But but but – what about the fake primary colours issue? I think that, if sustainable, is actually of some interest – unlike my idiosycratic (and faintly snobbish I suspect, in some obscure way) prejudice about colour terminology.

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