I Love Typography

Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov: The Collection of Dmitry Y. Chernikhov

Yakov G. Chernikov (1889–1951), was a Russian artist, designer, and architect learned in classical and modern styles. As a draftsman he was on par with Piranesi and Rembrandt; his most forward-thinking drawings resemble the style of Yoshitaka Amano. This combination of knowledge and skill made him one of the most accomplished Russian Constructivist writers and architects; Chernikov designed sixty buildings—although most were not built—and wrote numerous books about architecture and graphic design.

Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov: The Collection of Dmitry Y. Chernikov

In the late 1920s the state-controlled world of Soviet architecture began to turn against the Constructivists. In 1932 Stalin tired of the pointless political debate between Constructivism’s remaining supporters and many critics. He barred architects from political speech and limited Soviet architecture to classical revival. Unable to practice in his Constructivist style, Chernikov began drawing architectural fantasies that were usually not intended to be built. But he still needed work free from politics and in the 1940s he began to study and draw typefaces, an activity unlikely to draw attention.

Intended for used in an architecture textbook Chernikov’s typeface drawings are examinations of historical alphabets. These are not the overly rationalized alphabets of the renaissance, although Chernikov did examine the alphabets of Durer and Tory. Chernikov’s letters are modeled on historical forms, drawn onto grids with notation about proportion and geometry. The grids are arranged as tables for easy comparison. Consistent with Chernikov’s belief that graphics are superior to words these tables can be understood without Russian literacy. Most of the alphabets are Russian Cyrillic but there are also examinations of Slavonic, Latin, Greek, Phoenician, Persian Cuneiform, Cypriot, Demotic, Hebrew, Burmese, Samaritan, Tibetan, Syriac, Ethiopic, Palmyrian, Manchu, Arabic, Formosan, Iberian, and Georgian alphabets.

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Chernikov also excelled at non-objective drawing, leading him to develop complex ornaments in a new constructed style. His ornamental drawings reveal a powerful imagination and great technical skill. Chernikov achieved accuracy and beauty that rival great Islamic ornamentation without aping it. At a glance these ornaments resemble Spirograph drawings; examination reveals myriad circles painstakingly drawn along a path combine to form lively gestures. Chernikov drew by hand what today can seem only possible with a computer.

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Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov: The Collection of Dmitry Y. Chernikov is composed primarily of images from the collection of Dimitry Chernikov, one of Yakov Chernikov’s sons. For the first time it presents all of the typeface drawings at full size and in color. Also shown are architectural drawings and ornaments collected from a notebook and two other books. Facsimiles of a sketchbook and a diary supplement the book.

Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov: The Collection of Dmitry Y. Chernikov

An essay by architecture historian Dmitry Chmelnizki discusses Chernikov’s life and work. Essays by Dmitry Chernikov illuminate his father on personal and familial levels. These writings are short and to the point, putting Chernikov’s work in the political context of its time without getting mired in Soviet history.

Every image in these volumes is wonderful. Most of them appear at full size; this makes the typeface drawings especially useful as every small number, letter, and line is perfectly legible. Seeing the architectural drawings at size reveals Chernikov’s ability to draw gesture and detail with equal skill.

Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov: The Collection of Dmitry Y. Chernikov

The notebook and diary facsimiles are a brilliant addition to this set. How often does one wish to peruse the notebooks of a genius? Now we can see right into Chernikov’s process. The diary will not be useful to those who cannot read Russian, but I expect that those who can read it will be happy for the chance.

Designer Daniela Donadei has taken advantage of the grand scale of Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov (335mm x 458mm) to create a monument. Text is laid out like a lectern bible typeset in Akzidenz-Grotesk. Few books show so much respect for their subject. The set comes in a box that is attractive, sturdy, and will protect the notebook and diary. This design is exquisite and perfectly executed.

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Graphic Masterpieces provides a fabulous presentation of genius. As an art book it provides eye candy of the highest caliber. As a work of book art collectors will adore it. I can find only one notable flaw: an edition of 500 should prove far too small.

Graphic Masterpieces of Yakov G. Chernikhov: The Collection of Dmitry Y. Chernikhov.
Dmitry Y. Chernikhov, Author; Uta Keil, Editor; with an essay by Dmitry Chmelnizki.
Designed by Daniela Donadei.
$148/€148, Published by DOM publishers, ISBN 978-3-938666-61-6
Limited Edition of 500.
Text in German, Russian, and English. The English text was reviewed.


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  1. Nora

    Hi James, a very smart review. Thanks for the insight and good pictures. I put a link also via Slanted

  2. Fantastic article! Really interesting. I love the way he formed his typography in those grids. I must have stared at the ‘Y’ in this image for ages. I love how he’s drawn the perfect circles and got the measurements exact.

    In most things, imperfection looks better than perfection. Typography is different, having a perfect typeface makes both the user and the designer feel great.

  3. Thanks for the excellent introduction to a wonderful publishing project and a new (to me) artist of the impeccable.

  4. Kayser

    Excellent.
    I fantasize developing technical hand-drawn skill as that of the old architects. Chernikhov is no doubt a genius.

    Nice article. Another title in my list of books to acquire.

  5. Nice write up. I love reading the history of those who have influenced us today.

  6. Zandt K.

    Very nice, keep up the good work.

  7. @Luke Jones: What about imperfect typefaces such as Jenson?

  8. Francesco

    This post is epic fail.

    Serif typefaces, most importantly the ancient and classical ones, DON’T DERIVE FROM GEOMETRY!!!

    Serifs derive from calligraphy, from the use of quill or something similar….thinking that typefaces are geometrical forms is just a terrible mistake.

  9. Francesco

    Thanks for leaving a comment.
    I don’t see how your opinion on the origin of all serif typefaces makes this post an ‘epic fail’. Moreover, to say that serifs are born of the pen is not wholly accurate. Serifs are to be found on, for example, Trajan’s Column — the work of a stone mason rather than a penman.

    There are many fine typefaces that owe a lot to geometrical forms, and although our present-day letterforms, of the serif variety in particular, owe much to the pen, typefaces should never be slaves to any tool.

  10. Francesco

    No you’re wrong. I’m sure that in the Trajan Column a stone mason used the work traced by a penman on the rock as a guide to sculpt its form.

  11. Francesco

    Also, many of the modern typefaces that SEEM to be geometrical (Helvetica, Futura, etc) are FULL of calligraphic corrections to make those typefaces more read-friendly.

    I’m not sure about it but I think that the only one (speaking about FAMOUS typefaces) font which is completely rational is Avantgarde by Lubalin.

  12. Vladimir

    Very interesting and informative review!
    Thanks to you I found new person (shame on me i dont know about Chernikhov anything until now) whose typeface designs make me proud of my national typeface scene. And, of course, it’s one of not so many sources of inspiration for making cyrillyc typefaces :-)

  13. “Serif typefaces, most importantly the ancient and classical ones, DON’T DERIVE FROM GEOMETRY!!!”

    I never said that they did. Nor did Chernikov—his work examines the shapes and proportions of the font. No matter how a letter is made its strokes have length, width, and shape, and any examination is thus an examination of the geometry of the letter. The real epic fail here is your jumping into an argument about a subject you do not comprehend at a level necessary for adult conversation.

  14. Sandy

    Oh dear, poor Francesco. You really do need a few lessons on the history of lettering. I’d like to recommend reading The Origin of the Serif by Fr. Edward M Catich as a starter. His studies of the Trajan column changed much of the way we view early writing. I can assure you nothing was traced. The Roman Caps are most assuredly geometric in their foundation just as early architecture had its origins in geometry.

  15. Great insight James. I too posted a link on Reason to Read (http://kyleread.tumblr.com). I cannot believe they are actually only printing 500… far too small. does any one have any other advice on further research on cyrillyc type design?

  16. Wow, what the hell - only 500? Every designer should have access to this.

  17. It’s amazing to look at this expert craftsman, and then realize that he was two or four years older than I am before he went to study under his master. He started writing his books almost ten years later.

    Maybe I have a chance!

  18. [nod] @James

    Francesco if you had looked into the fact that Chernikov was an architect (and one of the most modernist of his time), you would have seen that geometry dominated much of his work (by the very nature of his craft and his unique vision). As such, even his approach and experiments in typography proved to be geometric. Have you ever drafted anything?

    If so, then now you’re only playing semantics (and on incomplete history). which makes sense considering how you enter conversations. stick to pixao.com.

    points for your assertiveness though.

    anyway
    James, this was a good review/analysis. Chernikov has been finding some resurgence as of late. yes, good collection at icif.ru

  19. Thanks for sharing this glorious inspiration. Chernikov’s craft is astonishing. Stalin’s repression resulted in overpowering creative tension worthy of Wagner.

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