By Dan Reynolds
Large or small, letters seem to inhabit their own universe. Re-arrangeable in any combination, they can spell out all conceivable messages, be they poetic, bureaucratic, or anything in between. But sometimes a text is just about its letters themselves, not an object to be read, but one to be looked at. Type specimens have taken various forms over the centuries, from posters to postcards and from primers to pamphlets. In fact, this web ‘page’ that you are reading now is also a type specimen, at least of some sort. In our digital age, creating type specimens has become easier than ever before. But what did our predecessors do 100 years ago, or even 500 years ago?
This is the doorway to The Claremount, an apartment building in Manhattan. I think that it was built in the 1890s. Those letters over the door just reached out and grabbed me from across the street and I had a typeface coming on.
Artist Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 work One and Three Chairs presented a static composition that represents an idea three ways. It was heady stuff, addressing what conceptual artists saw as a crisis of reconciling the realization of concepts with the concepts. One of the three material representations in One and Three Chairs was an enlarged photostat of the dictionary definition of the word chair, making text both a literal and metaphorical focus in a work of art. It was not the first time text had been used in art, but it was a key moment in the conceptual art movement of the time, followed by decades of conceptual artists using text to convey their ideas.
But will it fly?
Perhaps the most difficult part in compiling this list is not what to include, but what to leave out. There are, then, many other typefaces that should be in this list, but aren’t. Perhaps some of your favorites from 2009 coincide with mine; perhaps they don’t — I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Without further ado: