In everybody’s life there are defining moments. The first time one falls in love is such an occasion – the actual moment often being a matter of hindsight and/or nostalgia. I remember sitting on a curb in the dusk of an early summer’s day waiting for a girl who didn’t show up. She told me later that she loved someone else. It is the sudden understanding of feelings that must have been there for months and at the same time the agonizing pain of the heart ‘that even a bullet cannot cure.’
Then there is the first encounter with truly great fiction. In my case it was Joyce’s Ulysses. I took the novel from the shelf in a friend’s study and was bowled over by the first sentence about stately plump Buck Mulligan coming down the stairs. It changed my life forever.
I experienced a similar sensation when confronted with 17th century books. Twenty-five years ago I was not enthused by my master-course in Dutch literature. I was going through the motions of a study I did not appreciate. We were taught analytical bibliography. The teaching up till that moment was limited to the discussion of rather boring texts. However, one day we were each presented with a book in order to do a simple autopsy. The volume on my desk was a play by Joost van den Vondel, published in 1648, and bound in a cover made of white vellum. I had never touched a similar book before.
This was the first of some 100.000 books I have opened since. For a number of reasons I have been able to read only a few of them. Lack of time, leisure and linguistic knowledge – I know a little Latin, but no Greek or Hebrew, nor am I fluent in the early versions of modern European languages – prevented me from reading more widely. But I have handled the books. The best way to study typography is by trying to understand the structure of books you are unable read. There are no facts, opinions or other challenges to distract the mind from the real subject-matter of typography, i.e. the way information is organized in book form.
It seems at times that we restrict attractiveness to looks, ignoring the fact that the beauty of a face is made up of intelligence and gentleness as well. The same applies good design. My initial love for books was all about the mise-en-page, but it was the underlying content that came to appeal to me just as much, even if I was unable to read the book. I did not know this at the time, just as I did not realize that the design of books was a conscious process, practised by people who had gone to school to study it. Early printers were certainly not educated in that manner. They learned their trade in the workshop by imitating the books that were printed by earlier generations. Historically speaking, all innovation in design came from outsiders, from scholars and businessmen who had turned to printing, questioning the how and why of age-old methods.
On Dutch books
When I started my career as a professional book-historian and bibliographer I worked exclusively with 17th century Dutch books. During its golden age (ca 1625-1670) the Netherlands produced almost half of the total European book-output. Nowadays most of these books are not widely known – with the exception of those printed by the Elzevir-dynasty. The Dutch Republic counted many outstanding printers: Blaeu (world famous as a mapmaker, but little known as a printer) Van Ravesteyn, the Van den Rade family and many others. About 2,000 printers are known to have worked in Holland during the 17th century. They published books for the local market, they catered for an international circle of scholars, and smuggled Bibles to England. Enjoying relative freedom, they printed books that were forbidden elsewhere in Europe. The design and style of books printed in the Netherlands were derived from printers who had fled Flanders out of fear for the Spanish inquisition during the late sixteenth century. These Flemish printers had in their turn been influenced both by the great French masters of their age, and by Swiss publishers who printed the works of theologians like Calvin at Geneva and Basel.
Dutch printers gave the elegant books of the French a twist of their own. Their preferred format was a broad quarto (about 24x20cm), they liked their ornaments big and their fat typefaces well inked. The quality of both printing and paper was excellent, at that time better than the books produced elsewhere in Europe. Their books were cheaper too. Thanks to the foundation of the University of Leiden with its high standards of teaching, the level of scholarship was outstanding. It inspired the quality of academic texts that came from the Dutch presses. The works of Descartes and Spinoza were published in the Netherlands, together with those of all the lesser luminaries who are presently forgotten but who were famous in their own time.
Having studied Dutch books for about ten years, I turned my attention to those printed elsewhere. This initial lack of involvement was not only caused by my professional activities – I catalogued Dutch books for a living – but also by the problems that a different approach of design creates. A different taste has to be acquired. It almost seems that a liking for the subtle and beautiful is more difficult to develop than an appreciation of the simple and crude. Today I love incunabula – the earliest printed books that show the struggle of printers to liberate themselves from the style and methods of the manuscript era – but I remember disliking, almost hating them for their primitive pages and for their lack of such essentials as a title-page, headlines and page-numbers.
The same goes for 16th century French books. Their style is subtle yet bold. In France, printers started out in a medieval mode. Early 16th century French books have the flavour of their cathedrals. They are filled with all the trappings of Catholicism and decorated with the stone gargoyles that have become famous ever since. Within a decade all this changed half way in the 16th century. After the fifties nearly all books printed in Lyons or Paris were in the austere style that we identify with the Estiennes, Vascosan or the De Tournes.
Ornaments became simple arabesques, the severe initials found themselves in a black field dotted with white pinpoints and slightly decorated with some almost abstract plant-forms. The typefaces – still familiar to us – were created by Garamond and the lesser known type-cutters that in time have been absorbed into his great name. The lay-out of the pages had been brought to perfection with headlines that were set in spaced small-caps, the indents that replaced the paragraph-signs and most of all of course the perfect typefaces that were set and printed by masters unsurpassed in their art. In fact a 16th century book of one of the great French printers looks more familiar to us than any book that dates from before or after it. Their style and typefaces were adopted by Stanley Morison in the early 20th century. His work stayed in vogue well into the fifties. And even though the avant-garde has opened up new ways of thinking, mainstream book-design is still done in a way that was first explored almost four centuries ago.
An international style
The first printed books were made to look like the most valued manuscripts of their days. In its first stage, the invention of printing was certainly not as revolutionary as many people think it may have been. Most of the work on a book remained done by hand, especially that on the decorations. Less than 20% of the creation of a book was done by printers. It was not until the end of the 15th century that printing really took off. Nevertheless, the 1,100 printers that were active in Europe in the early days opened up vast domains of knowledge. Their books were often as original as they were beautiful. Those were the days that an expanding printing industry started to find form and style.
Although printing, especially printing in the vernacular brought about a more patriotic awareness among European nations, the printing community of booksellers, printers and type-founders established a truly multi-national trade. With it came an international style. The writers of these books belonged to a cosmopolitan circle of scholars, Erasmus being the prime example of such a thinker. In fact, the Dutch publications mentioned in an earlier paragraph form the epitome of this international style. The works printed by the Elzevirs are the supreme example of this kind of book. Authors and editors of their books were eminent figures in their respective fields, the printing was superb. The same applies to the ornamentation, which in comparison to books produced in France, Germany or Italy at the time, was subdued but effective.
During the early 18th century a new French style ruled supreme once more with a rococo-decoration that was based on marine life and constituted of small ‘fleurons’ instead of the woodcuts that characterized the books of an earlier era. Less frivolous and more in tune with modern taste are the well-known books of Bodoni and the Didots. The style of the Elzevirs returned for a short period in the 19th century when the collector’s craze for their books resulted in a revival of some of their designs.
19th century books and their critics
The demise of modernism has not yet led to a reappraisal of 19th-century book-design. We tend to consider these books over-decorated and lacking in originality. They are the mindless products of early industrialism. This point of view was propagated by William Morris in particular. He wanted to create books that were treated as works of art and handcrafted instead of machine-tooled. A different line of attack was undertaken by modernists who considered all decoration as an almost criminal form of primitivism.
By trying to understand 19th century books on their own terms one will be able to discern their individual beauty. There is undoubtedly an affinity with the magnificence of operas by Rossini or Bellini, or with the novels of writers like Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas. The 19th century reproduction and printing techniques were used to create books that were as haunting as any story written in those days, their gothic revivals having a singular beauty of their own. In our post-modern days we may perhaps be able to absorb their lessons again. William Morris was a formidable critic of such books, although the work of Stanley Morison in the early 20th century has been more influential. As a designer and theorist the latter has done more to give to the book the face we now consider as familiar. It is a rather austere face, but not as forbidding as the works printed in the late 18th century by Baskerville or Bodoni and their kin. The typefaces designed by Morison were modeled on earlier, and to our eyes: friendlier designs of Garamond and Granjon. The decoration is minimal – a line or a single fleuron is considered sufficient. Lately this is changing again, especially in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe.
Opinion makers in our own age tell us that the book as we know it has reached the end of its lifespan. Is this indeed the case? I think not. Perhaps some types of book will expire soon. After all, for our factual information we all check the internet. Then there is the poorly designed paperback we read on the beach. This book will disappear as soon as computers can be dropped in the sand and read comfortably in the full blast of the sun. The well-designed book, whether fictional or academic, will continue for a long time to come. Computerized books on the other hand will continue to be much better designed. The art of design has become more democratic. The instruments we need to make books and typefaces are now available to a broad community of practitioners. To give a single example: in the fifties there were three type-designers in the Netherlands, now there are hundreds of them. Fifty years ago it was virtually impossible to become a type-designer. One had to know the right people to get access to the instruments or contact the specialists who handled them. Learning the trade was restricted to insiders only.
Many beautiful books are produced at present. Each day brings new type-designs and exciting visions of how we can distribute information on the page and throughout a book. Thanks to the revolution in design on the one hand, and to the internet on the other, splendid books from previous centuries have become more visible than ever before and are influential once again. The internet exhibits a wide range of books from different epochs and, in doing so, unites new communities of readers and designers – the people who love and deserve the beauty of books.