“When I look at a Victorian type specimen book, I feel like time flattens out.” writes David Jonathan Ross for his Font of the Month Club.
“I’ll catch the 1880 vibes, for sure, but also whiffs of 1970 and 2022. I’ll see frilly fonts on one page that feel hopelessly antiquated, relics of a bygone era. Next to them, I’ll see fonts that feel strikingly contemporary, virtually indistinguishable from what’s popular today. It’s funny to see them coexist, and it reminds me of how limited my definition of ‘contemporary’ can be.”
I have two thoughts here. First off, I love Ross’s latest typeface Glyptic.
Second, this post reminds me of a random late-night ebay purchase a couple of months back: Nineteenth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages by Nicolette Gray published in 1938.
(This is a little known secret that ebay is a fount of amazing old type specimens and books and what not.)
But the book: it’s certainly not as colorful as the topic. There’s a lot of stodginess and pudding-ness when it comes to the writing, with a serious lack of hop-skip-jumping that I demand. However! The back portion of the book that documents old book covers and type from the 1800s is what caught my attention.
All that stuff is magic.
I can’t help look at this work from the 1800s and think about how contemporary or modern it feels, too. Some of the letterforms look perfect for a heavy metal album more than a century later...
As David said, these letters make me question how I think about “contemporary” and “modern”. The closer I look, the more I see how limited and shortsighted my understanding of typography really is. I see these predefined buckets: 1890s, 1920s, 1950s, 2000s. I see them as scenes that are over now and if you use any font from these eras then you’re desperately lost to nostalgia.
But the work in this book says heck no to all that. There are no buckets! Screw the buckets! Down with contemporary and modern and old!
I reckon this shows us a way out of the intellectual cull-de-sac that we find ourselves in, the typographic equivalent of saying “that is so 2005” when we see a popular style from 50 years ago making another resurgence. But so what? Why can’t we take those old letters and do something new with them?
To me that’s just as exciting as designing a completely new style of typography.
What if we changed what gothic letters mean in the popular imagination? What if they were no longer associated with the work of scribes in monasteries but something futuristic instead? I think that’s possible only if we get rid of these contemporary/modern/old buckets that we’ve placed these typefaces in.
"Northumberland" here looks fit for a modern murder novel or a Christopher Nolan-esque thriller. But here it is, hanging out in the 1800s.
Nicolette Gray even writes about this in the intro to her book but frames it as if all this work must be kept at arm’s length or only referenced so as what not to do next:
Perhaps when we have run through the gamut of Victorian invention we may be able to begin for ourselves.
I sort of disagree! Instead of seeing all of this material as dead weight or a nice collection of stuff fit for museums that we should never return to because it’s already happened and the scene is over, I’m a bit more hopeful. I see this work as ripe ground for exploration, improving, remixing. I don’t see this work as a bunch of stuff that happened in the 1800s that we shouldn’t return to but instead a blueprint for what we can distort, defile, demolish.
When I look at these old fonts I see the future. As bright and as weird as that might be.