Friday, 7 January 2011

Illustration on the doorstep

Aubrey Beardsley, Arbuscula, proof copy from the Leonard Smithers Collection, 1898. (University of Leeds Special Collections)

The exhibition over at the University of Leeds’ Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, ‘Fancy and Imagination’ profiles book illustration in England at the turn of the last century. It is well worth a visit. Although centred on Beardsley’s style and his grotesque erotica, other less well known illustrators are also on display with good examples of the actual books. I was interested in particular in William Morris’s vision of the integrity of book binding, design, type-setting and illustration which is clearly in evidence as they have several examples of embossed book covers, bindings and actual pages as well as the illustrations themselves.
One other issue that is of continuing interest is the integration of contemporary technologies with older formats. This is something every designer and illustrator has to contend with and is of particular relevance today. The late 19th century innovations in photomechanical methods of reproduction were integrated with traditional techniques such as woodblock engraving. Line block work could be positioned alongside woodblocks on a letterpress bed and locked together with both metal and wood type. The techniques of relief printing could also be harnessed in cover embossing and there are several beautiful examples of embossed covers on display in the exhibition.

The illustrated quarterly, such as the Yellow Book, could be seen as an early example of zine type formats, again the integration of illustration and text being vital to the ‘feel’ and the signification that this was at the time new, raw and vital.

Thinking of raw and vital images from the same time of these book illustrations, I saw an example of the suffragette penny recently. Stamped over a 1903 penny, the words ‘Votes for Women’ still resonate through time. The idea still comes through almost as powerfully as it must have done at then, the ringing hammer blows of the maker as she stamped each letter right across the copper face of the then king, reverberate and chime with more contemporary concerns with subvertising and the use of banknotes to signify ideas.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dymo Tapes

Just before Christmas I was wondering around Smiths doing some last minute shopping and came across Dymo tapes and the little handset used to punch them out. They have now been re-packaged for children, but they are still basically the same as the ones used for Punk graphics in the 1980s.

Dymo tape machine

Strange how typefaces move around in public consciousness. Dymo embossed tape lettering became common during the 1970s and was ubiquitous as a workshop/work based information tool. Its raised surface meant that lettering stayed legible longer and the plastic tape was hard to destroy when touching surfaces with dirty greasy hands. The simple colour offer; black, red, yellow, blue and green was used to provide a basic easy to read coding that could be positioned on the edge of storage bays or around the various dials or switches of an appliance.

By the end of the 70s the tape had become synonymous with manual work. It was also used by non designers (especially by those who worked in industries where a knocked off Dymo might be available) as a lettering tool and you can often find examples in old photo albums or other home based image systems that needed labels.

Then in the early 1980s along came punk graphics and Dymo tape lettering became a symbol for working class revolt and the typeface found its way into the world of the graphic designer.

It was soon overused and dropped out of sight; in the industrial world Dymo all but replacing it with non embossed printed lettering machines.
But now it’s back and being put to use by children and because of its new positioning some, (for me at least) weird associations are being made. In particular this Christmas card. The incompatibility of typefaces creating a meaning that is rooted in classic post-modernist kitsch.

Kitsch is a form of art or design that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style or a worthless imitation of art or design of recognised value. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons while making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal. Kitsch also refers to the types of art or design that are aesthetically deficient and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art or design through repeated conventions and formulae.