The Elements of Typographic Style

I’ve been reading The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. When I ordered it, I noticed the mild coincidence that the author has the same name as the chap who translated the poetry of the Haida (the native inhabitants of the Queen Charlotte islands in the Pacific Northwest). As it turns out, though, it’s the same man. Which certainly explains why the books of Haida poetry are so attractively designed.

Haida mask

Alderwood mask of a woman of high rank, possibly Djiláquons. Haida, around 1830; in the British Museum.

It’s an impressive combination of talents, but there is a natural fit between poetry and typography. After spending all that time choosing and arranging words, what poet wouldn’t want them physically arranged on the page with equal care?

The parallel is marked: it’s all about the combined effect of a thousand tiny decisions. The poet and the typographer have to believe that every tiny tweak matters, that no detail is unimportant.

Now, with powerful computers at home, we all have the possibility of being our own typographers. But one thing that’s clear, reading the book, is that it’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s a lot more to it than choosing the least ugly font that came with your computer, picking a type size and a line height and letting the computer do the work. The point this was really brought home to me was where he argues convincingly that digital fonts often come from the foundries insufficiently precisely kerned, and that you will probably need to spend a couple of days with each new typeface manually adjusting the kerning so that even unusual letter pairs found in words like Ypres, Rwanda or Vázquez will be properly spaced.

section of William Caslon’s specimen sheet

A section of a specimen sheet printed by William Caslon; from Wikipedia.

Even so, there is a lot of information and advice in the book which can be used even for the normal user of Microsoft Word; about choosing the right type size and measure, arranging the text block on the page, and creating headers which are harmonious with the body type, for example.

This is one field where the internet lets us down, of course. I can specify a typeface – from a very limited range I can rely on the reader’s computer to have – a type size, a line height and a line length, but I can’t control the way your system and browser deal with the kerning, anti-aliasing or any of the other nuances that completely transform the appearance it will have on your screen. Still, even here, some knowledge of typography can only help, and the technology is moving fast.

It’s an interesting, readable and, as one would hope, very attractive book. The Haida poetry is fascinating as well, but that would need a post to itself, methinks.

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A moment of mild embarrassment

Ingmar Bergman has died. Really, it’s all over the blogs, so it must be true. But here’s the thing: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single Bergman film. Not one. Not even the really famous ones, like umm… you know the one… it has chess in it?

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‘Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan’ at the BM

I went to see Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan at the British Museum last week.

The exhibition presents works by members of the Japan Art Crafts Association (Nihon Kōgeikai), many of them designated ‘Living National Treasures’ in Japan, a title conferred by the Japanese government on exemplary individuals who carry on Japanese traditions.

In other words, it was lots of contemporary – or at least C20th – Japanese ceramics, kimonos, lacquer, metalwork and so on. There’s a wide range of techniques on display; the ceramics include stuff which is artfully rough-hewn as well as things which are finished to within an inch of their life; the kimono fabrics are a mix of tie-dyed, woodblock-printed, embroidered and woven. I didn’t find the items on display universally covetable; many were just not to my taste. Many of them wouldn’t have particularly stood out in a jumble sale, to my ignorant eye. I don’t think the lighting helped, mind you; it was perfectly competently lit, but I think most of them would have benefited from natural light. Others were absolutely gorgeous.

The things that appealed most to me were the lacquer and the woven kimonos. I find lacquer an incredibly tempting material; I can’t see it without wanting to pick it up and stroke it. Even just the plainest matte red and black lacquer rice bowl is a delight; I wish now I’d picked one or two up when I was in Japan, but the good ones seemed so expensive that I didn’t. The woven kimono fabrics were made with a technique called kasuri, which is the Japanese name for what I would usually call ikat. That is, the threads are tie-dyed in advance so that they form a design when woven together. Because the colour on the threads never quite lines up precisely, it forms soft-edged patterns which I find very attractive. They were mainly dyed with indigo for that classic blue and white Japanese look.

The BM website doesn’t offer any photographs, so I can’t easily illustrate any of my prejudices, but this website devoted to Japanese pottery and this virtual museum of traditional Japanese craft have plenty of pictures of the sort of thing in the exhibition. Those sites also demonstrate that even a passionate interest in visual arts doesn’t necessarily get carried over into web design. This tea bowl is from the second of those sites:

Tea bowl, Shino ware

Generally I’m slightly ambivalent about the Japanese attitude to art and craft. One is always told that the Japanese make no distinction between the two; and in some ways I find that a deeply admirable attitude. What’s great about it is the value placed on the making of beautiful things. Not just that there is a cultural and monetary value placed on beautiful objects, but that the job of making them is treated as a serious and important business. Curiously enough, I think the closest analogue in Western culture is the respect given, not to craftsmen, but to designers – Christian Dior, Charles Eames, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hermann Zapf – who, if not exactly household names, are still remembered in a way no hands-on practitioner is. Not that the craftsmanship of the Japanese is at the expense of being designers; they are more like designer-craftsmen in the William Morris tradition. To some extent they are even descendants of that tradition, since Morris was surprisingly influential in Japan.

I think we should all hope to live our everyday lives surrounded by well-designed and well-made things, and one part of achieving that is giving due respect to the people who design and make them. So I think that is a Good Thing. My ambivalence about it arises from the fact that actually I do think there is an important distinction between design and art. I don’t think that an earthenware sake jug, however exquisitely glazed, has the potential to be a great artwork in the same way as a Rembrandt or an El Greco. When I was living in Japan I went to few galleries of Japanese art, and a few exhibitions of ceramics, and I saw some lovely things; but I tended to think that flip-side of granting importance to craftsmen was a tendency to reduce the likelihood of producing an El Greco. All art seemed to be pitched at the level of the decorative arts. I’m wary of expressing that sentiment, because I know I’m an outsider with an extremely superficial knowledge of Japanese culture, and I think of the beautiful work of Hokusai and Hiroshige which would seem to cast doubt on my theory, but that’s how I felt.

The other slight concern is the essential conservatism that the attitude can produce. Not that Japanese culture has any shortage of modernity; but it can seem a little schizophrenic. There’s a risk that the admiration for design and craftsmanship in something like a kimono gets put into a tidy mental compartment and held separate from the manufacture of MP3 players, kettles and apartment blocks. I guess though that that tension between tradition and innovation is a separate issue, really; the important thing is to value well-made, beautiful things and not to treat them as disposable.

Anyway, I’d recommend the exhibition. And if you’re visiting the British Museum for any reason, I’d suggest having lunch at Bi-Won, a Korean restaurant on the intersection between Coptic Street and New Oxford Street. It’s very reasonably priced, the food is tasty and it’s very close to the museum.

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scrabble scrabble scrabble

There’s something alive in the chimney. Which is mildly creepy. I just hope to god it manages not to die up there. On the subject of which:

Q. What goes ‘shriek shriek bonk’?
A. A parakeet flying into a window pane.

Which I heard happen yesterday, but as there wasn’t a stunned parakeet lying outside the house afterwards I assume it managed to escape without too much more than a headache to show for it.

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Digiscoping parakeets

The parakeets only reached this part of London about three years ago, but now we have flocks of them every day; there are often seven or eight on the feeders and more in the surrounding trees. They’re attractive and full of character, but as ever with foreign species you worry about their impact on the native birds; they must be competing for nest-sites if nothing else.

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Digiscoping woodpeckers

I was having a go at photographing the juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker that comes to the birdfeeder, but it’s kind of tricky. My success rate when digiscoping is never that high at the best of times; and as you can see, it’s not temperamentally inclined to stay still:

Still, the motion blur can be a fun effect:

And it makes it all the more gratifying when one of the pictures comes out just right.

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Cycads

I thought these unfurling cycad fronds in my mother’s garden were rather remarkable:

The cycads are an ancient family of plants, more recent than ferns but predating conifers and much, much older than flowering plants, so there’s a certain fittingness in the fact that a cycad at Kew Gardens is thought to be the oldest pot plant in the world. Apparently other botanical gardens make the same claim, but in all cases the plant is a cycad.

In the book The Island of the Colourblind, Oliver Sacks wrote about a couple of neurological disorders concentrated in Pacific island communities. The first half of the book deals with a form of congenital colour-blindness; the second dealt with lytico-bodig, a neuro-degenerative disease found on Guam which is similar to Parkinson’s or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). One of the major hypotheses for the cause of lytico-bodig was toxins from the local cycads, the fruits of which which were used as a source of starch.

In that book the cause of lytico-bodig is left unresolved; the cycad theory was undermined by the fact that the fruit was carefully processed before eating because the locals knew it was poisonous raw, and tests on the cycad flour revealed very very low levels of remaining toxins. But I learn from Wikipedia that an intriguing theory has since emerged to explain it: that the local fruit bats fed on the cycads, and very high levels of toxin built up in their tissues; it was eating the bats that provided a large enough dose of neurotoxin to cause lytico-bodig. You can read the details here.

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Dutch Portraits at the National Gallery

I went to see Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals yesterday. It was pleasantly quiet; I guess the prospect of lots and lots of paintings of men in black suits with white ruffs and little pointy beards doesn’t produce a frisson of excitement in your average Londoner.

And from that point of view, the exhibition is very much what you would expect; there are no startling surprises. There are some very good paintings though.

bit of Rembrandt

Whenever I go to an exhibition with a couple of named artists in the title, I tend to find myself treating it as a competition; Rembrandt vs. Frans Hals. I think it’s a very high compliment to Hals that for much of the exhibition, they’re neck and neck. It’s only when you get to the late Rembrandts that it becomes completely one-sided, but then those late Rembrandt portraits are, I think, among the finest works in the history of art. Of those I haven’t seen in the flesh before, the most remarkable is the incredible group portrait of the syndics (officials of the Draper’s Guild) which I’ve included a little section of above.

Still, I know Rembrandt’s work quite well, and several of his paintings on show here are part of the National’s permanent collection—notably the portraits of Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer. So for me the exhibition was more about discovering Hals, who I really only knew from the ‘Laughing Cavalier’. His most typical portraits are strikingly informal; one of the portraits has his subject leaning right back with his chair balancing on the just the back legs. That ability, to portray people looking relaxed and natural, is a good trick in itself, but he was also very good at using loosely handled paint to suggest textures: skin, of course, and almost as vital for the C17th portraitist, silk, satin, brocade, embroidery and lace. All those black clothes may have been superficially intended as a sober, modest reflection of a conservative Protestant culture, but with the lushness of the fabrics, the effect is no more humble than a little black Versace dress.

bit of Hals

Oddly enough, for a long time, I vaguely thought that The Laughing Cavalier (which isn’t the picture above; that’s part of the wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and his wife) was a Victorian painting. Obviously it’s not of a man in Victorian dress, but I vaguely thought it was a bit of C19th pastiche. I can still sort of see that in Hals’s paintings; often the informality has a kind of theatrical quality to it—cheesiness would be unfair, but I’m hinting in that direction—which is reminiscent of C19th narrative paintings. Certainly it doesn’t surprise me to learn that his reputation was re-established in the C19th after a period of neglect; I can see he would have been to their taste. I wouldn’t want to over-stress that comparison, though, because I can’t stand Victorian painting and Hals is much better than that.

I’ve mainly talked about Rembrandt and Frans Hals, but there were also some lovely paintings by other artists, most of whose names I’ve already forgotten. These exhibitions organised around a period always serve as reminders that for every famous artist there are dozens of very very good artists whose names are familiar only to specialists. Still, painters probably get treated better than poets by posterity, because the scarcity of original paintings lends value to work even by minor artists.

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David Beckham and the Deathly Hallows

With Beckham and Harry Potter both being in the news at the moment, I started seeing them as a parallel pair: you can identify lots of sound reasons why Becks is a big star and the Harry Potter books have sold so many copies, but in both cases you’re left with a sense that their actual level of success is out of proportion.

Becks with a Harry Potter scar

If anything it’s easier to see why David Beckham is a star: he was a key member of the most successful incarnation of the most popular team in world sport; he started going out with, and duly married, a member of one of the most successful British pop groups of all time when they were at their peak; he’s incredibly good-looking, and not just by footballer standards; he played a key role in some of the most memorable moments for the England football team; and his whole metrosexual, homoerotic image seemed genuinely radical in the blokey, working-class context of British football. And he seems like a nice man.

And yet… how did all that amount to him becoming a global superstar, without him, for example, winning the World Cup? Having lived through the whole period of his rise to prominence, I know that, in a British context, it all seemed to make sense at the time. But did the sarong really make a big impact in Tehran? Were the Spice Girls such a big deal in Shanghai? I remember reading about a journalist who went to do a story about would-be suicide bombers in Palestine. While he was interviewing them, someone came in with the football results. “Manchester United won!” (much cheering) “and Beckham scored!” (even more cheering, and cries of Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!). Why him, and not Ryan Giggs, or Michael Owen, or any of his other talented contemporaries? Raul? Batistuta? Figo?

The same can be said about the Harry Potter books (and indeed the Spice Girls). You can easily find reasons why they’re popular: they combine a sense of teen alienation with an inventive magical world; boarding school stories are popular; the wordplay is entertaining. There are a lot of boxes being ticked. But why are they a complete publishing phenomenon? Presumably J.K. Rowling has no more idea than the rest of us. After two or three books, did she ever lie awake at night wondering whether she was going to suddenly lose her touch, and her fans would pick up the next volume, read a hundred pages and never quite feel the need to finish it?

It’s easy to dismiss it as being driven solely by ‘hype’. And there is clearly a snowball effect where the marketing people seize on a success and drive it forward by spending money on it. But if it was as easy as that, there would never be a blockbuster movie that flopped or an unsuccessful second album. LA Galaxy may well be about to discover that no amount of hype can magically persuade people to spend money on something that doesn’t interest them.

And I’m not saying that they are overrated, exactly. Beckham at his best is a very very good footballer; the books are an enjoyable read. But Beckham would have to be Pele, Puskas and Cruyff rolled into one to justify his profile, and the Harry Potter books have been so freakishly successful that it would be disproportionate for anything short of the second coming of Shakespeare. That’s not their fault. I just wonder how it happens. Some magic combination of ingredients? Mob hysteria? Blind luck?

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