In my last post about the radicalism of Omega designs at around the time of the First World War, I mentioned that the context in which they were produced was the dominance of Arts and Crafts design. Art history focuses on innovation and the history of this period tends to be the history of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, so, even if we understand that Omega were designing for a minority with avant-garde tastes, we can easily overlook the fact that the taste of most design-aware people was based on styles developed in the 1880s.
In 1916, Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, published Arts & Crafts – A Review of the Work Executed by Students in the Leading Art Schools, from which the illustrations here are taken –a fascinating record of what students were being taught at that time. Since the 1880s, many art school principals and lecturers had been drawn from members of the Art Workers Guild, and by the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts influence was firmly established. Both style and teaching methods changed, with a new emphasis on “designing in materials” rather than on paper. And as Holme’s illustrations demonstrate, art students were producing nothing like the Post-Impressionist and quasi-abstract designs of the Omega Workshops.
I knew that Parma was the home of a great ham and a great cheese but I didn’t know that it was the home of the great printer and typographer Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) until I went to the exhibition of his books at the St Bride Library in the City of London, next to St Bride’s, the printers church. (Closes 12th October 2018.) 2018 is the bicentenary of his Manuale Tipografico, published posthumously by his widow.
Bodoni was the creator of the beautiful typeface named after him, a typical late 18th century innovation with a vertical emphasis and a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes. It is particularly good for title pages but was also designed as a book face. Bodoni’s practice was unusual in that he was type founder, printer and publisher, when the custom at the time was for booksellers to commission books from printers, who bought their types from specialist founders.
There is a biography of him in Wikipedia – its entries are variable but this account is good. He came from a family of printers and played with his father’s print paraphernalia as a boy. He started young in the trade, showed his brilliance quickly and his fame spread. He planned to come to England to work in Birmingham with John Baskerville, another great type designer, also an energetic businessman and political reformer, but was prevented by illness and went instead to work for the Duke of Parma in a small provincial town in northern Italy. He stayed there for the rest of his life, producing some of the most beautiful books ever printed. His elegant title pages, with few words, lots of white space and little ornament, have the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” of neoclassicism.
The curator at St Bride’s pointed out to me that, if you didn’t know anything about the history of type, you would think they were printed in the 1950s. I asked him if the books were all from the St Bride’s library. Some were, but most were his. He is a passionate collector of Bodoni editions and keeps his eye on Italian auction houses, going on buying trips several times a year. The Italians require export licences for anything over fifty years old, and after making his purchases he has to wind his way through the Italian bureaucracy to get these lovely editions out. He lives in a world of books. His wife is an antiquarian book restorer and has a workshop cluttered with bookbinding tools she has inherited from previous generations of bookbinders.
Twentieth century type founders reproduced Bodoni’s classic typeface and added condensed and bold forms for titling. To my eye, Bauer’s version is the closest to the original.
Bauer’s 20th century version of Bodoni, from The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces, by W.T.Berry, A.F.Johnson and W.P.Jaspert (London: Blandford Press, 1958)