When it comes to the Gilded Age, the canon of design history teaches of broadside posters and the Kelmscott press. Wood type and artistic printing have attracted a following and are fighting their way in. Further outside the canon lies a neglected facet of design woven into society, personal lives and business — engraved stationery. The Complete Engraver introduces engraving as a subject worthy of the canon, and is an approachable, interesting, and compelling read.
Designer, teacher, and historian Nancy Sharon Collins is a leader in the preservation and revival of engraved stationery. She collects engraved ephemera, restores vintage presses, and designs stationery that has drawn praise from the likes of Martha Stewart and Vogue. Collins is erudite, formerly of the elite New York design establishment, and now works in New Orleans. She is eminently qualified to tackle the challenge of broadening our view of design history.
Like letterpress and lettering, engraving is attracting renewed interest from artists and designers who want to express themselves via analog processes. Collins writes for them, and for those who aspire to be them, persuading readers to engage with a tradition that is not dead, but merely in slumber.
Collins reminds us that engraving is an integral part of the bigger picture of printing and design history. She makes this case by weaving an elaborate history from threads about paper, department stores, and postal mail. These connections are critical to bringing engraving into the canon of design history rather than treating it as an aside.
Of course Collins explores the intersection of type design and engraving. Around the turn of the twentieth century type designers blatantly lifted designs from the work of engravers. Engravers later used popular typefaces in modern business stationery. We see stark evidence of this mutual expropriation in a specimen of engraved lettering styles that includes Franklin Gothic Extended, Helvetica, and Eurostile’s predecessor, Microgramma.
What makes engraving an especially compelling aspect of design history is the personal significance of engraved stationery. Stationery was inextricably linked to Gilded Age high-society, with young people demanding impeccable calling cards that spoke to their status. Personal monograms were common among the upper classes. Mourning required special stationery that changed to express the stages of grief.
Collins does not limit herself to engraving’s past. The Complete Engraver introduces engraving and printing techniques. Logo designers will find her examination of monograms and ciphers relevant. And Collins makes a case for reviving the calling card as a sort of business card without static contact details. The practice of serious letter writing is explained and advocated, although it may be a lost cause in this age of poor penmanship.
Designers Paul Wagner and Elena Schlenker created an appropriate vehicle for this content and subject. Formal script juxtaposed with all-caps sans type has never looked so good in a book. Similar to Marian Bantjes’ digestibly small I Wonder, Collins’s The Complete Engraver is an octavo that one can sit down and read comfortably. Books this size are welcome in design, a field overrun with bloated, oversized tomes best suited to winning awards and collecting dust.
Two companion fonts, both revivals of engraving alphabets, were created by Steve Matteson and Terrance Weinzierl of Monotype. A short study of their process is presented as an appendix. Both fonts can be downloaded for free from fonts.com.
Covering so much in 216 richly illustrated pages makes The Complete Engraver more of a complete introduction than a comprehensive encyclopedia. But The Complete Engraver is a grand introduction that should ignite further explorations of engraving. Collins herself will no doubt follow with years more writing and speaking. And young designers with a passion for elegance will find plenty of historical inspiration and justification for their work. The Complete Engraver succeeds as a welcome addition to the canon of design history.
The Complete Engraver: A Guide to Monograms, Crests, Ciphers, Seals, and the Etiquette and History of Social Stationery
Nancy Sharon Collins
Foreword by Ellen Lupton
James studied graphic design at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC. He developed a love of typography at the Corcoran and wrote a thesis about the development of versatile typefaces as branding devices. After graduating with honors James decided to pursue type design full-time. In 2009 he started Dunwich Type Founders in New York City.