When I was a printer at the Bixlers’, every day at noon the Skaneateles firehouse would sound its horn, letting us know it was time to break for lunch. Three fourths of us would go home for an hour (there were only four of us) and I would stay at the shop to study books and teach myself to identify typefaces and typographers.
There was one book in particular to which I often returned: The Typographic Book, 1450–1935, by Stanley Morison and Kenneth Day. It had everything that impressed me: It was big, scholarly, and beautiful—and set in Bembo. I read it cover to cover, and almost twenty years later I can recall not one word or thought imparted by its authors. However, I’ve always remembered the title pages shown therein, and for years I turned to this book whenever I got stuck. All the old guys (I don’t think there’s a single woman in this volume) had already tackled any problem I thought I could ever encounter—and under much less civilized circumstances.
The whole history of printing is contained in the 500 or so pages of this book—or, rather, I should say the highlights of the history of printing. The history of printing is filled mostly with garbage—just as the history of mankind is filled mostly with misery and oppression, war and disease. For every book by Bodoni or piece of common printing done uncommonly well, there are countless pieces of typographic trash. That’s the history of printing—although not the history that generally interests us. And that’s not what The Typographic Book is all about either. It’s only concerned with the greatest hits of printing—in the western world. Above the equator. Skipping Mexico and Canada.
But I would study the pages illustrated in this book—sometimes even drawing or tracing them to better understand how they were put together, how each stick and ball was arranged and composed. From the beginning I was drawn to the purely typographic compositions. I knew I could never draw floral borders or dragons or putti or horses. I appreciated the artistry of that stuff, of course, but it wasn’t for me. So I stuck with the purely typographic specimens, trying to figure out how these old guys did more with less. Each page seemed to support Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s conclusion that “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
These modest and tasteful stunners could simply not be any better. There’s no reason to add anything, and there’s certainly nothing to take away. They are perfect. Wouldn’t you agree? Good.
And now a confession: Not one of the title pages shown thus far appears in The Typographic Book. Or, rather, they don’t appear as I’ve shown them. I’ve taken both Saint-Exupéry’s advice and some liberties, and I’ve removed all the ornament and decoration.
Just a minute ago, we all agreed that these title pages could not be any better—and as I’m sure you don’t want to be accused of hypocrisy or inconsistency, I know I don’t need to explain that, after seeing these pages without decoration, adding the decoration back seems unnecessary. The originals, to my eye, are oppressive.
The edited versions make me feel as though I’ve returned from a long summer run to find that my wife has left me a glass of ice water on the front porch. However, the originals make me feel like she left me a cup of hot chocolate on the back steps—and locked all the doors so I can’t get in the house. They’re thick and heavy and dark. Their weight is crushing. Without ornament, on the other hand, the pages are light, clear, and refreshing.
Of course, there are definitely some spacing oddities in my cleaned-up versions. One of the rules I imposed on myself for this experiment mandates that I cannot adjust the position of any of the type. Keeping everything in the same place makes it easier to compare before against after. More important, leaving things as they are forces me to work with exactly the same elements as the old guys—and potentially show that they could have made pages just as lovely by quitting when they were ahead.
Now, to make my point, I’ve obviously chosen the most highly ornamented pages. But the same effect is created even when a single fleuron and arabesque are removed.
The page above is no worse off for the loss of decoration. It’s just not necessary. We don’t suffer without them, and if they hadn’t been there, nobody would have complained. If we could all do without those floral borders, we can survive without the occasional leaf or flourish too. Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to remove.
Now, what happens when we remove the decoration from pages composed by the masters of eighteenth-century ornament?
Certainly nothing bad happens. The compositions don’t fall apart. In fact, these pages by Fournier and Barbou are lighter and brighter and more pleasant to read and look at. They call less attention to themselves and encourage the reader to move on to the meat of the books.
How does the Kelmscott Chaucer hold up?
The title page certainly needs work, but the recto has come alive without the vines and leaves and grapes. If I had the patience to tackle that typeface, I might try to figure out if this page contains any reference to grapes or wine or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’m guessing it does not. (So why grapes?) And without that border the book’s just become ten pounds lighter. Someone might actually try to read it.
Certainly, all these old guys can be forgiven for adding doilies and dingbats and every sort in the case. That’s just what people expected back then. Plain, simple things were for poor people. Decoration was for the wealthy. When something was heavily decorated, it was clear that excessive labor had been required and paid for. It was not common. It was special.
But what if we apply these same experiments to the work of the early-twentieth-century masters who were more likely to have had a direct influence on us? The work with which we are more likely to be familiar?
The above title pages by Updike, Dwiggins, and BR are not any worse off without their decoration. The new versions of Utopia and Fra Luca de Pacioli could use some further work, sure, but they definitely have potential.
I’ve spent much time recording various definitions of design, my favorite being by Charles Eames, from his film Design Q&A: “Design is a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” For a definition of decoration, I went to William Morris. He described good decoration as:
Something that will not drive us into unrest or callousness; something which reminds us of life beyond itself, and which has the impress of imagination strong on it; and something which can be done by a great many people and without too much difficulty and with pleasure.
That last bit raises a concern I have with the early-twentieth-century book decorators. Their work could not be done by a great many people or without too much difficulty. Even when it appeared simple, it was highly specialized.
The book decoration of the early twentieth century coincides with the rise of the independent book designer. Rogers and Dwiggins and the like were, I am sorry, show-offs. When they were active, there were many people and businesses involved in book production. Book designers needed to justify their place in the process with graphic acrobatics. They were decorating books with bits and bobs that only they could provide. And so the clients kept coming back because it was easy to see what they were paying for.
By the end of the twentieth century, with book production being carried out by fewer hands and fewer businesses, books were smoother, regular, and more consistent. They were more likely to represent the vision of one person—and when done well, that vision was more likely to be aligned with that of the author. Books are no longer produced by a half-dozen independent craftspeople screaming for attention. And so today we see less decoration in book design and printing. Both the designer and the reader can concentrate on what they should be doing.
Certainly, we still see ornamentation in printing. Show-offs and blowhards are forever. To quote Eric Gill, I can only ask But why? In a 1936 letter to the Government Post Office about King Edward’s request for a decorative stamp, he wrote:
I regret to say that I find it impossible to help you because I do not believe that there is in reality any such thing as an ornament . . . unless they spring from the exuberance of the workman and his joy and pleasure in his labour and even then a decent restraint should be observed. And if you say: please add some curlywigs or dolphins or roses or dandelions or shells or Corinthian columns, or something ornamental, I can only say: but why?
The British poet and critic Herbert Read may have had an answer:
The necessity of ornament is psychological. There exists in man a certain feeling which has been called horror vacui, an incapacity to tolerate an empty space . . . It may be an ineradicable feeling. It is probably the same instinct that causes certain people to scribble on lavatory walls. . . .
The Austrian architect Adolf Loos suggested that one can assess the culture of a country by the amount of graffiti covering the walls in a public bathroom. He added that “the evolution of a civilization is measured by the removal of ornament from objects of use.” He wrote this, incidentally, in an essay published in 1908. The name of that essay? “Ornament and Crime.” [PDF] It starts with some thoughts on tattooing—the ornamentation of the body:
The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his paddles or anything he may lay his hands on. He is not a criminal. A modern man, though, who tattoos himself, is either a criminal or a degenerate. In some prisons eighty percent of the inmates bear tattoos. Tattoed men who are not imprisoned are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed man dies in freedom, this is because he has died prematurely, before committing murder.
Loos noted that ornamentation is not cost effective and exploits the worker, that the finer things are simple and plain. They cost less to make but sell for more and are less likely to go out of fashion. It is the less expensive things, heavily ornamented and sold for less, that are ephemeral. They cost more to make, but are cheap so that we can buy replacements when the decoration goes out of style.
Loos conceded, however, that the creation of ornament is acceptable if it brings joy to the worker whose existence is meager and without other options for happiness. A man who goes to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, however, and then sits down to draw patterns for wallpaper is either a fraud or a degenerate. Those are his words, not mine. But they are essential reading if only for the laughs. Surely, he won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with him, but it’s hard to argue with someone who writes that gingerbread is silly when shaped like a heart or a baby or a horseman. It’s gingerbread. It tastes good when it is smooth and plain in shape. Why go through the extra trouble to mess with something so simple? Just eat it.
Why go through the trouble? In 1925, Le Corbusier had the answer:
Today decorative objects flood the shelves of the Department Stores; . . . If they sell cheaply, it is because they are badly made and because decoration hides faults in their manufacture and the poor quality of their materials: decoration is disguise. It pays the manufacturer to employ a decorator to disguise the faults in his products, to conceal the poor quality of their materials and to distract the eye from their blemishes by offering it the spiced morsels of glowing gold-plate and strident symphonies. Trash is always abundantly decorated; the luxury object is well made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture.
Applied to our modern world and most of the things we buy today, that all makes sense. Few things are as decorated as cheap plastic cases for our phones. But how does it apply to printing? What is the poor quality disguised by ornaments in our work? I think they’re disguising not defect in manufacture but a defect in character: an insecurity on the part of the designer. It takes courage to leave off an ornament, to let a piece of typography stand on its own potentially staid merits, to use only one, maybe two colors, to not load a line with swash characters, to use just one or two families of type. It takes confidence to just be. Think of the typography of Jan van Krimpen and Jan Tschichold and Hermann Zapf. So plain and simple and stunning. It must have taken tremendous confidence—perhaps even arrogance—for them to say That’s enough. Just as it took arrogance for me to suggest that ornamental typographers are insecure.
Perhaps, if I had more confidence in what I’m saying now, I too would say That’s enough and be done with this essay. But because I’m not a confident writer, I’ll keep piling on the arabesques and fleurons. Look at me. Listen to me. Love me. See my hard work. Tell me I’m clever and smart.
I wonder if the commitment of some printers to ornament and decoration is influenced by the fact that books about printing and typography are loaded with decorated pages. Of the 377 plates in Morison’s book, maybe seventy are entirely free of any ornament or decoration—and there are hardly any text pages illustrated. They’re almost all title pages. Like animals and small children, some printers and typographers are attracted to shiny things. It takes more work to comprehend the hidden structures of pure typography. But stick a bunch of ornaments on a page and there’s something sexy to look at. It’s pornography. Well-composed type free of trickery, however, is like poetry. It may be difficult to understand, and it takes more effort to wrap one’s head around something so simple.
As porn of the sexual and typographic sorts is everywhere, and as we are inundated by constant distractions in life, why introduce more distraction into our designs? Or, even if it’s not a distraction, why introduce more stuff? Space unused is our friend. It can be the same as a walk in the park, or a gathering with friends. It can be a much-needed time-out.
Or here’s perhaps a more pleasant comparison: Ornament is like ketchup. I recently came to the realization that ketchup is required for terrible, overcooked hamburgers. Eating one without ketchup is unbearable. Remember those disgusting gray meat disks we were served in grade school? Ketchup was the only source of moisture and taste. But a really fine burger, cooked medium rare at a good restaurant, won’t be served with ketchup. Maybe it’ll be on the side for the fries, but it’s rarely right on the meat. A good chef wants us to taste the meat, not drown it in sauce.
Of course, decoration and ornament can be a fun part of designing and printing. (And I do love ketchup.) All kinds of people—designers and users—love ornament. And that’s fine. I’ve no interest in discouraging anyone from using what gives them pleasure. But the pleasures of an individual designer have nothing to do with design. They’re lifestyle choices. If a designer uses ornament simply because he likes it, well, he’s not a designer. He’s an artist. Artists are allowed self-centered pursuits. Designers, however, are craftspeople who work in service to something greater than themselves. I really like the color orange, but it would be ridiculous to use orange as the predominant color on a cover for On Being Blue by William Gass or on the poster for Blue Is the Warmest Color. I don’t doubt that someone could do it successfully, but how would the use of orange in these instances facilitate the understanding of the people who’ll be reading the book and poster?
Every day I read the obituaries in the Times. They are loaded with thoughts on design, usually found in the last paragraph. Apparently, the composer Marvin Hamlisch was fond of saying that “it’s easy to write things that are so self-conscious that they become pretentious, that have lots of noise. It’s very hard to write a simple melody.”
Certainly, simple melodies can have a little flourish, just as an ornament or two won’t really hurt anyone. This isn’t life or death stuff. But we should at least pause before pulling out cases of ornaments or setting all our swash glyphs to prove that we’ve got ’em. It’s true that by showing off, our work will be more likely to get attention. I would rather that my work gets used.