BY Emily King in Profiles | 06 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

Everyday Exotics

Ornamental typefaces

BY Emily King in Profiles | 06 JUN 02

To mid-20th-century type aficionados the letters that appear on the cover of Pulp's latest album, We Love Life (2001), would have been known as 19th-century 'exotics', a blanket term that was used to cover all of typography's ornamental ventures. Nowadays the 'exotic' category is no longer in regular use. Digital technologies have encouraged flights of fancy of all sorts - many not so much exotic as quixotic - and it makes no sense to put all of type design's less practical outings under a heading that suggests nefarious pleasures. While breaking from typography's rigid prescriptions used to be a heady business, unorthodoxy has now become grindingly routine. The British doyenne of exotica was Nicolete Gray (the Americans have Rob Roy Kelly, but he is much more into masculine workaday wood types than twisted leafy letters, and that is another story ...). In her seminal book Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces (1938) Gray describes faces such as the Pulp lettering as 'the brilliant creation of [a] fantastic period, when everything comes alive, like a Nordic forest in the night, and grows impish, or sinister, or holy'. 1

Gray developed her enthusiasm for elaborate letterforms in the face of an austere typographic traditionalism in England (exemplified by Stanley Morison) and an even more austere Modernism emerging in Germany (embodied by the young Jan Tschichold). Refusing to curb her passion for the ornate, Gray argued that '19th-century ornamented type design and jobbing printing are one of the folk arts of the early industrial society' 2 - not merely a caprice, but a full-blown custom. Gray was not alone in her love of exotic alphabets: the poet-cum-architectural critic John Betjeman fronted his 1933 architectural treatise Ghastly Good Taste (a defence of Victorian architecture when it was at its most unfashionable) with a piece of belligerently over-the-top design in which a fat face, a blackletter and a 3D twig type all vie for attention.

Gray's and Betjeman's forays into decoration have the quality of a typographic day out, but for others these letterforms were the stuff of the day-to-day. Through the 1930s, and probably on into the 1950s and 1960s, local print shops continued to use 19th-century type in the traditional manner. The adoption of decorative letterforms by urban sophisticates was a brief confluence of two distinct streams, a nexus that reached its height in the early 1950s with the Festival of Britain. Deciding that 'nothing could be more British in feeling than the display types created by the early 19th-century type founders', the typography panel of the festival went about furnishing the displays with an Egyptian slab serif modelled on those cut by the type founders Figgins, Thorne and Austin between 1815 and 1825. 3

Of course this supposed connection between 19th-century decorative type and Britishness was bogus. A number of very similar letterforms had been designed in Europe and the US, and to identify the style as British hinged on the belief that the 19th century was the time when Britain was living out its very own national essence. A decade or so after the Festival of Britain the fabric of national typographic identity began to unravel. After arriving in London from New York in 1961, the designer Robert Brownjohn spent a day roaming around London taking photographs of street typography. Although many of his brilliant images show letterforms deriving or surviving from the 19th century, the project had nothing to do with nostalgia. Brownjohn was looking at the present, not the past, employing a Pop sensibility to reveal the letters trapped in the grimy layers of postwar British deprivation.

In the 1960s revivalism went off on a whole new track. In becoming raw material for designers promoting psychedelic music, 19th-century letterforms were given a new lease of life. In the work of Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson in California and Michael English and Nigel Waymouth in Britain fat faces and slab serifs were distorted, twisted and flushed with colour, becoming extraordinary liquid shadows of their stolid former selves. Full-blown graphic psychedelia was short-lived, but its legacy was significant. By the early 1970s designers such as Milton Glaser and Herb Lubalin had reworked it into a robust commercial style, and its influence has inflected every typographic revival since. Republishing her book in a new edition in the mid-1970s Nicolete Gray acknowledged the shift in emphasis. She added a new section on the Art Nouveau faces that had become so popular, and described some of the types as 'primitive pop', implying a common spirit between original 19th-century design and its late 1960s revival.

One of the forces driving late 1960s revivalism was the spread of photographic type technology. Jonathan Hoefler, a contemporary type designer with a historical bent, suggests that 'phototype made it easy to reproduce pictures'. Designing a set of eight revival fonts called Historical Allsorts, Hoefler, rather than slavishly recreating the forms of the original metal letters, allowed the computer to make uninformed guesses. He calls the process a 'technological resurrection', a wholly digital technique that produces some surprisingly idiosyncratic characters. While design is not in the throes of one of its more revivalist moments right now, there are probably more typographic revivals taking place than ever before, simply because digital technology has increased the volume of type design activity so many times over that there is more of everything than ever before.

The Pulp letters, created by Louis John Pouchée in the early 1820s (a remarkably early example of an 'exotic'), were printed from the original wood-engraved blocks. These are very rare and their use in creating the Pulp logo lends the design a fetishistic quality that is slightly otiose: Pop revivalism has always had more to do with aesthetics than with provenance, and the authenticity of the letters seems irrelevant. But they are very beautiful. In the context of the cover of We Love Life the type refers to nature in a pleasingly straightforward manner - the song is called 'The Trees' and the words are leafy. My favourite appearance of the album's publicity posters, which bore a single letter, was in the railway tunnel on Bermondsey Street. Pasted atop an inch-thick accretion of posters and illuminated by a tired orange glow, it was the perfect spot for a tribute to nature created by an early-industrialized society hell-bent on its subjugation.

1. Nicolete Gray, Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces, Faber & Faber, London, 1938, p. 60.
2. Ibid., p. 1.
3. Charles Hasler, preface to A Specimen of Display Letters Designed for the Festival of Britain, 1951.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.