The Numberlys (2014) William Joyce and Christina Ellis Hardback, paper on board. H220 x W300 mm, 52 pages. Acquired from London Bridge Books, 15 April 2021. Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection.
Although bound in landscape, the book reads in portrait … to start and end.
Life was…fine. Orderly. Dull as gray paint. Very…numberly. But our five jaunty heroes weren’t willing to accept that this was all there could be. They knew there had to be more.
So they broke out hard hats and welders, hammers and glue guns, and they started knocking some numbers together. Removing a piece here. Adding a piece there. At first, it was awful. But the five kept at it, and soon it was…artful! One letter after another emerged, until there were twenty-six. Twenty-six letters—and they were beautiful. All colorful, shiny, and new. Exactly what our heroes didn’t even know they were missing.
And when the letters entered the world, something truly wondrous began to happen…
Based on the award-winning app, this is William Joyce and Moonbot’s Metropolis-inspired homage to everyone who knows there is more to life than shades of black and gray. — from the Moonbot Studios’ website. Accessed 28 April 2021.
Archaeologists and paleontologists hypothesize that the alphabet evolved from counting. Clay tokens as signs (8000–3500 BC) and then pictographic marks on clay tablets (3500–3000 BC) were used for counting units of things. Around 3000 BC, someone merged pictographic signs and phonetic sounds to begin the invention of the alphabet. Orly Goldwasser (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) has hypothesized that illiterate Canaanite miners may have been the inventors of the alphabet around 1840 B.C.E.
Likewise in The Numberlys, our inventor-heroes (numbers 1-5 or, in their vocalizations, possibly the five vowel sounds?) lead a similarly manual existence, albeit in a more modern industrial setting. They can be viewed at work here in this clip from the award-winning app, no longer available but perilously stored on an early iPad in the Books On Books Collection. As in the app, the book proceeds in gray until the letter Z, when “THINGZ” begin to happen — “Pizza! Jelly beans! Color! Books!”.
The Palace of Typographic Masonry (2018) Richard Niessen Paperback, perfect bound. H300 x W215 mm, 348 pages. Acquired from Wordery, 29 March 2021. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Richard Niessen.
Website, perforated poster, exhibition and paperback, The Palace of Typographic Masonry occupies its place in the Books On Books Collection unlike any other work. The book itself is a shape shifter. Its size competes with those of museum catalogues. In fact, the Palace of Typographic Masonry is like a museum, so much so that it requires a tour guide, which is one shape the book takes. With its nine departments (Sign, Symbol, Ornament, Construction, Poetics, Play, Order, Craft and Practice), it is like a working museum of graphic design, and Dirk van Weelden, our tour guide, often hands us off to departmental “staff” for a lecture or overheard interview.
Given the guided-tour premise, the page layouts strangely, or perhaps appropriately, disorient. On almost every page, at almost every turn, we are rubbernecking and twisting to follow text that appears in a typewriter font on sheets and cards that seemingly have been stuck to a black surface with masking tape, photographed and then printed. Some of the text-bearing cards wrap from the recto page to the verso, leading the reader to think that perhaps the pages are on Chinese fold sheets. A card or sheet may be displayed complete on a page, but the next page may show its edge as if an overlapping photo had been taken. On some pages, the items overlap like a collage. At times, the effect is one of moving down a corridor of blackboards that are covered with notices and captioned photos on white, green and fluorescent orange paper. At other times, the page contains multiple cards as if lying on a flat surface — much the same as objects might be arranged in gallery glass cases — and in different orientations so that the book has to be turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to read each item — much the same as having to walk around a glass case to look at each object in it.
Interspersed glossy sections showcase projects illustrating or responding to the text or the department. For example, Slovenian graphic designer Nejc Prah delivers variations on Masonic tools for Symbols; Paris-based Fanette Mellier, on grid-based design for Poetics; and the Amsterdam-based studio Moniker, “board game cut-ups” for Play. While these sections fit their context in the book, their content and “slippery floor” substrate ratchet up the sense of disorientation. Museum visitors easily tire, and they can be bored in some departments.
Nejc Prah‘s variations on Masonic tools and symbols. Photo: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with artist’s permission.
For example, the palace’s labyrinth of scripts — also reproduced separately on the perforated poster — is followed by a discussion of the revival of Tifinagh, the nearly extinct written language of the Tuareg in the Maghreb. The labyrinth presents thirty-six scripts in those varying orientations mentioned above and is wonderful in its breadth but also tiring — especially from the effort required by the font size and orientations. The story of Tifinagh’s revival and integration through typeface design is inspiring, usefully makes the point about the cultural conventionality of alphabets and more, but also makes for a long trek before our guide moves us along into the next department.
With the website for The Palace of Typographic Masonry, Richard Niessen aims for both a collective (imagined) building and an encyclopedic (digital) space, organized into those nine departments or frames. Contributors can add to the source collections or, within the departments and their subdivisions, create new rooms based on the source collections. One contribution particularly appropriate for the Books On Books Collection comes from Tony Côme: “The Typotectural Suites“. Here in one location, the visitor can find those “language towers, typographic islands, cities to decipher, plans in the shape of letters, encrypted walls, speaking bricks, habitable capitals” created by Johann David Steingruber, Antonio Basoli, Antonio and Giovanni Battista de Pian, Paul Noble and others.
The Departments of Sign, Symbol or Order could give more prominence to the role of numbers in the world of typographic masonry. Numerals do appear in the tables for Morse Code and International Maritime Signal Flags, but the visitor would not know that counting and numbers preceded writing and letters. Perhaps the curator could persuade the art historian and archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat to contribute images of those clay tokens to which
The Mesopotamian cuneiform script can be traced furthest back into prehistory to an eighth millennium BC counting system using clay tokens of multiple shapes. The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting. (Schmandt-Besserat, 2015)
Or perhaps the curator could persuade William Joyce to donate some clips from The Numberlys (2012) to the Palace source collection, even preferably some snippets of interactive code with which the visitor can help the five animated characters transform numbers into letters.
Universal languages are highlighted in an Annex, which has been compiled by Edgar Walthert. An update soon to come includes excerpts from Book from the Ground by Xu Bing. A link to Xu’s film The Character of Characters would make a useful addition. It will be interesting to see whether the Annex’s accompanying lecture covers the stir over a “post-text future” and whether typographic masons are returning full circle to pictographic language.
“Architecture“, Books on Books Collection, 12 November 2018.