I sometimes forget that one of the most important and exciting parts of teaching is the part where the teacher gets excited about learning and walks in the students’ shoes for a while. The last few weeks have been such an excellent example of that. I have been working on a show for UMSL Gallery 210 called Cast and Recast: St. Louis Type Design Present and Past. The show has really been challenging, and ultimately very rewarding, to organize, collect for, orchestrate, and finally design.
But the reward has been remembering how much, how very much, I love to learn! Seems obvious, no? My grad advisor Lorraine Wild once said that graphic design is for the “intellectually curious.” Every time we do our job, we have to (or get to, depending on how you choose to frame it) become mini-experts on the topic we are designing for.
This type show was just such an experience. Truth be told, before this show, I really didn’t feel like I knew that much about type design. That’s why I wanted to have the show in the first place, I wanted to do a type design show so my students could learn about type design, but secretly, I also wanted to do the show so that I could learn about type design. I love learning through meeting people and having them share their stories, so I started with a concept that would bring lots and lots of type designers to campus to show their craft first hand. We brought Krista Radoeva to campus last year and she did a type design workshop and it was great, and we all started to learn about type design through her workshop. The year before that we had Ken Barber of House Industries to campus, and we were also lucky enough to have a lecture by Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz of Commercial Type in St. Louis. The whole city was getting warmed up to type design together! Thrilling!
One of the big thrills of this project was getting to know Ben Kiel better. Ben runs Typefounding, a digital type foundry in St. Louis. Ben went to Reading after attending Wash U and had all kinds of interesting insights and type foundry names that opened up type design for me. It was Ben who first pointed me to St. Louis’ history as a type founding city and Robert Mullen’s book….
For me, the most exciting moment was when I realized that I really LIKED these old typefaces. There is something unquantifiable about home, something magical about he familiar. Living in St. Louis is like living in a pleasant time warp. So much of this city harkens back to the turn of the last century, a time when our reputation was legion, a time we were a virile industrial giant. The libraries are full of books from the 1850’s through 1920’s, including many original designs by William Addison Dwiggens reclining sleepily on local shelves. We live in beautiful stone structures that were built during this period: we all drive absentmindedly by the Wainwright building, and many lovely edifices by O. Winston Link. These don’t feel special or old to us, they feel like home.
So for me, when I first saw Gustav Schroeder’s typefaces that he designed for Central Type Foundry, it queued some music in my head, I heard a turn-of-the-century violin waltz, and saw the sweeping dresses of ladies walking Tower Grove Park, waltzing in the band stands and enjoying the World’s Fair. There was something palpably familiar, right, home. I would almost say, I recognized them, like so many St. Louisans walking around our big-small-town.
I love these typefaces. I love their old, lofty, and decidedly out-of-fashion grandeur. It’s these pre-modern roots that have always made me such a fan of post-modernism, the reframe of the quaint, arcane pre-modern. I am decidedly a maximalist. I do not believe in essentializing, and throwing out the frills. I think that the frills, the little moments, are my favorite moments. Those are the grace notes I replay in my head when I close my eyes to go to sleep. Those small graces are the answer to the question about what is so great about this world? What makes you happy? What do you savor?
For more about this exhibit, visit the website at www.castandrecast.com.
You can also hear an interview about this exhibit on St. Louis public radio here.