The AIGA Fifty Books archives

Catching up recently on some long-ago-planted browser bookmarks, I spent some time browsing the online archive of the aiga’s Fifty Books awards, which runs from 1925 to 1979. The images are not very clear, and for the first number of years the archives show only the title page (later adding a chapter opening and in some periods also the binding and/or some other text page), but they are enough to form an idea of the kind of work that was featured in earlier decades and to compare it to what is shown in the successor show.

Tellingly, that successor is called ‘50 Books/50 Covers’ – and the online archive of it (going back only to 1996) includes only covers. This is fully in keeping with attitudes of many publishers and designers today, whose attention is focused almost solely on book jackets or covers; so many publications, websites, and the like purporting to deal with ‘book design’ are in fact concerned only with book jacket (or cover) design – and in most cases ‘design’ is too kind a word for results no more significant than superimposing a bit of type upon what one often suspects is simply a stock photo. Even the part of the contemporary aiga show that deals with books themselves tends to feature poster-like productions that happen to be contained between two covers, clearly the work of graphic designers as opposed to typographers. For all that the organization purports to be attempting to broaden its membership and attention today, book typography doesn’t seem to be on the menu.

The contrast with the earlier shows couldn’t be greater. Even as late as 1979, a number of small- and/or fine-press books were featured, along with very creditable work from university presses, some art exhibition catalogs, and the like – much more like a current annual from the aaup or a fine-press club. Poetry, scholarly non-fiction, late-modernist school texts and some technical books, and boldly illustrated children’s books all feature repeatedly. Perhaps the least change is observable in the latter category, while another genre common to both the older and the contemporary eras – the cookbook – points up the overwhelming changes that have occurred in book design and publishing, from books (at their best) featuring a strong type image (if not always well composed), some number of line drawings or decorations, a bit of wit and whimsy, to overstyled, overproduced, often oversized packages of closeup photography, with very weak typography. Both might be selling an aspirational lifestyle as much as, or more than, teaching people to cook, but the older books are at their best charming, clear, and handy. Textbooks (which are never featured in design shows today, with good reason) have seen analogous sorts of changes, now being largely absurd jumbles of color, type, sidebars and callouts, and more, with hardly any running text and no hint of careful design.

It is fascinating to track style and trends across the years and decades. Though these annuals may not have been representative of the entire book trade, it is surprising (especially given the kind of work featured today) that there are so few books from the late 1960s and 1970s, for example, that seem influenced by the pop, neo-Victorian, and other post-Modernist styles of advertising and magazine work of the time: while the actual typesetting and printing in some cases looks pretty poor thanks to the technological upheavals then underway in those fields, the books nevertheless generally continue to be thoughtfully designed by people who could be called typographers in a way that is too seldom true today. There is some, though not as much as might be expected, Modernist work, particularly in the realms of art and architecture catalogs and guides, and of textbooks.

The books of the 1950s through to the mid-1960s, in particular, are remarkably consistently good. Very many of them are illustrated strongly with prints of one sort or another (woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs, or simply line drawings), harmonizing with the type and the general mise-en-page in a way that is almost unheard of today, often with bindings and endpapers to match: on both of which points they stand in very stark contrast to today’s work, where those aspects of the book are rarely given any thought at all. Two-page title spreads do not appear much before 1950; the further back one goes, the more traditional, decorative and, from a later perspective, jumbled the title-page typography tends to get – though the often rambling titles, pepperings of authors’ credentials, and other wordiness common at that time did not help the typographer’s task, and there are still exceptional models of clarity, poise, and balance, going right back to 1924.

Another trend is telling: work comes not only from small or scholarly presses – the sort which are usually represented in works on printing history – but also from quite mainstream publishers, and from industry, which in another era saw specialty or ‘novelty’ books as appropriate giveaways for clients and put into them the design effort and budget that today might be more wholly dedicated to a corporate identity program and ‘swag’. Americana, including a considerable number of journals of war and exploration by otherwise unknown authors, features heavily in work from all these sources.

One can also track changes, and some lack of changes, in the typefaces used. Kis (‘Janson’) was of course a major force in twentieth-century American work, as testified to in the books on my shelves as well as in this archive – but the prevalence and longevity of Bulmer (perhaps a result of the amount of Americana represented) came as something of a surprise. Baskerville, Caslon, and Jannon (‘Garamond’) are also perennial staples; Centaur, Bembo, and Bell all make plenty of appearances, with Bodoni sometimes called upon to impart a ‘modern’ appearance. Due, no doubt, to the limited choices available, typographers, especially earlier on, mixed serifed faces in ways that their careful successors might avoid. The three series of Weiss initials were quite popular for title pages, but otherwise relatively few German faces made inroads. Of specifically modern American faces, Electra shows up from time to time, Fairfield surprisingly only very occasionally, and Caledonia rather rarely. Goudy’s work appears – moreso when it was newer – but does not make major inroads into the territory held by the classic revivals.

There are, I was pleased to see, a number of books familiar from my own shelves featured in these archives, including several examples from two sources that I have not seen much featured elsewhere: the Peter Pauper Press, whose work appears quite often in the Fifty Books over the course of many years, and the series of Westvaco Christmas gift books (among other works) designed by Bradbury Thompson.*

I remarked earlier on the presence of textbooks in the show; similarly, the inclusion of several liturgical or religious-themed books (e.g, The Daily Office from Concordia Publishing House [1965]; The Book of Catholic Worship [1960s]; the Handbook to the [Presbyterian] Hymnal [1935]; Updike’s Standard Book of Common Prayer [1928]) is a contrast to the state of things today, when some European Bibles, hymnals, and prayer-books are designed and produced to high standards, and are suitably awarded (the Church of England’s Common Worship [2000], designed by Derek Birdsall, being the most familiar to English speakers), but few American ones are worthy of any such notice.

A final, and pleasant, surprise in looking through the archives was the significant number of women designers featured: many more than I might have expected in the era represented.

In all, the archive – though one wishes for much better reproductions – is well worth the perusal, and many of its contents repay much further study. If many legacy typefaces are still unavailable in useable digitizations (of those mentioned earlier, Monotype Bulmer, Monotype Janson, and Barry Schwartz’s versions of Fairfield and of several Goudy faces being the main exceptions; we still await the completion of Schwartz’s Jannon revival) and offset printing usually lacks the richness of letterpress, the typographic refinements available in digital typesetting and the explosion of new type design in recent years – as well as the crispness available in the best offset or digital printing, and even the renewed availability of letterpress – mean that excellent book-making is once again possible. As many ephemeral texts shift, or have shifted, to digital presentations, we can hope for a renewed appreciation, and the renewed production, of better printed incarnations of those books deserving such honor.

*  Thompson was, amusingly to me, called a ‘classicist’ in the juror notes to his Fifty Books of 1968: I would call most of his book work ‘modern classic’ or ‘classic modern’, but a wider audience, knowing mainly his magazine work of the 1950s, would probably still consider him a cutting-edge graphic designer for his time.