Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: Function, Restraint, and Subversion in Typography [Vol. 4, #5]

A Review of

Function, Restraint, and Subversion in Typography.
J. Namdev Hardisty
Hardback: Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2010.
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Reviewed by Will Fitzgerald

Many of us who love words love to gaze at their shape, and think on their shaping. Some of us learn the technical language of fonts, of ascenders and x-heights; ems and ens; serifs and leading (pronounced like the metal, not the action). Someone I knew cried out at the opening titles of the most recent version of True Grit: there should have been a ligature of the letters “f” and “l”, but that particular title did not have it. He cannot remember now what the title said.

Books such as Function, Restraint, and Subversion in Typography allure people who love the shape of words. Its black cover, with its title embossed in black; its author’s name in white. A table of contents dominated by images of pages of designed type. The introductory matter with its acres of whitespace—and starting on even page instead of the customary odd page.  And pages and pages of the products of design. This is, in the postmodern way of speaking, design porn.

Hardisty’s introduction, “A disclaimer in four parts,” explicitly disavows the notion that he is presenting a movement to follow: “This is not a manifesto.” But what is it? “In some ways, this book is a piece of old-fashioned art criticism.” He looks, describes what he sees, and offers us his informed opinion. And lots of gorgeous pictures. Hardisty is a design principal at The MVA Studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his focus is on European and North American design—especially European design. This is part, I guess, of his old-fashioned criticism, which looks towards Europe to teach us art (criticism), apologizes for American crassness, and mostly overlooks the global South and East. But it is also part of his interest in “function, restraint and subversion,” (FRS is the Delicio.us tag he used for design he wished to write about in this work) and he claims such design is to be found, mostly, in Europe and North America. For the most part, the book is organized around presentation by individual designers and design houses, with the occasional essay thrown in.

What I found instructive in this work—for I am not a visual designer or an architect—are the connections that Hardisty makes between architectural movements and typographic design. This is not surprising, perhaps, given that it is published by an architectural press. But that their might be a strong connection between the Brutalist architecture of the mid-century and typographic design of today came a surprise. Those concrete stalinisms of state universities made me shudder; but there is, in their subversive minimalism an inspiration for a certain typographic style. Easier to see is the connection between various forms of simple, clean modernisms that inform both the product design and the product advertisement of a company like Apple. And how a designer like Daniel Eatock can subvert this simplicity with his “world’s largest signed and numbered limited edition artwork” and generic greeting cards.

A book like this helps you see the designed world in new ways. Do my particular views on engineering design develop humanistically, or from contingent design fashions? A book like this makes one wish one knew so much more about design and architecture. A book like this makes one wish for an index (sadly lacking). In the end, I find myself leafing through through the work, catching inspirations, and relishing that I live in a world of such inventiveness. Perhaps it is enough to enjoy the many design blogs available online. But Hardisty’s book, with its high-res pictures and insightful collections, is worth delving into.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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