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Book Review: The Handy Book of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic PrintingDoug Clouse and Angela Voulangas’ book The Handy Book of Artistic Printing: A Collection of Letterpress Examples with Specimens of Type, Ornament, Corner Fills, Borders, Twisters, Wrinklers, and other Freaks of Fancy is a long-titled exploration of a relatively short-lived trend in graphic design history. This beautifully designed volume covers a roughly two decade-long design fad from the late 19th-century that has previously been given scant attention by historians. With the emergence of letterpress and other new methods in the 1870s and ’80s, printers of the era showed off their wares and attracted clients in the form of promotional specimens. These particular specimens came emblazoned with the typically Victorian visual traits of excess ornamentation, strange color combinations, eclectic typefaces, and randomly jumbled layouts. Artistic Printing delves into every possible aspect of this phenomenon — how it came to be, a representative look at sixty different printers’ samples, and the movement’s ignoble fall in the juggernaut of 20th century modernist dogma.

This was such a cool book to page through, and oddly comforting in a way. Its centerpiece is the sixty printer’s specimens, each generally getting its own page with a nifty paragraph or two of background info on the opposite page. The specimens cover a gamut from the best of their kind to the run-of-the-mill and tacky. Many have a masturbatory “look at what I can do” bravado (in graphic design, some things never change), but the finest examples leave me breathless as to the care and craftsmanship good letter press printing requires. Sure, they may be as subtle as a lady’s hat festooned with a dead bird, but even the worst samples have a giddy exuberance. This book is the kind of effort that has inspiration on every page, right down to the weird and wonderful 1800s fonts reprinted in the back. One small complaint: in contrast to the lively and informative specimen descriptions, the text in the opening and closing chapters is very dryly written and academic (interesting and comprehensive, but still dry).

The odd thing about this particular trend is that it never fully disappeared. Printers’ ornaments of the era fell into the public domain, eventually getting re-published by the likes of Dover for new generations of designers to explore. As noted in Artistic Printing’s concluding chapter, this style is no more immune from other graphic styles for revival, preferably with a postmodern twist. For a good example, check out the cover story layout in the paper edition of the August 2009 Wired magazine — retro ornamentation everywhere!

The Handy Book of Artistic Printing comes from Princeton Architectural Press. Buy at Amazon.com here.

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

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