November 9

On this day in 1964 is recorded the death of Thomas Maitland Cleland in his eighty-fourth year. One of the great graphic artists of our time, he was not at all widely known during the last twenty years of his life, at least to the younger group of typographers. His insistence upon fundamental training in design and his traditional outlook were never more in evidence than in his famous talk at the Fifty Books Show in New York in 1940, entitled “Harsh Words.” Having survived that polemic, he journeyed to Chicago in 1948 and addressed the Society of Typographic Arts in a similar vein.

“We are told by many writers and some designers,” he said, “that the world has changed. The making of books, it seems, is no longer an art, but a vast quantity production industry and there must be a new ‘aesthetic of the machine’ and clearer concepts of form and function to meet this unprecedented state of affairs. These are brave and windy words and I am swept along by the great gust of emotion they arouse and dazzled by the visions they present, and altogether too excited by them to ask exactly what they mean. Before I could understand them I would have to overlook the fact that the world has, for a considerable number of years, been undergoing a process of change, and that since the invention of printing, the making of books has always been an industry, and sometimes an art, and frequently both; and that the hand-press was also a machine. There must be some good reason which eludes my aging comprehension, why the great presses of today—infinitely more efficient machines than hand-presses—can only print carelessly designed books or operate at full capacity with ill-proportioned margins; or why their speed and quantity would be curtailed by a well-composed titlepage. As to function, I had always supposed that the function of books was to be read, and would suppose now that if there was any change at all, it would be in the direction of making them more easily read and not less so. There does not seem to be any great change in how they are read—people still stand or sit or lie right side up—that is they do not stand on their heads to read though some of the things they are given to read might make them feel that way. Some of the margins I see suggest that the books are intended to be held upside down, and murder mysteries may now be read in one of these new chairs made of bent pipe with no hind legs in which a more or less conscious sense of physical insecurity will contribute to the ‘spine chilling’ effect of the story. But just how even these innovations can account for bad presswork is still a spine chilling mystery to me.

“Modern:—that curious word which devours its own meaning with every tick of the clock, served as an explanatory label for any miscarriage of drawing or painting, until some of its users began to suspect the inherent absurdity of the word and came up with ‘Contemporary’ in its place. Another word which is on everybody’s tongue these days is ‘creative,’ and the interpretation now given it is that it consists in doing anything that has not been done before.”

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