In his extended essay on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, Eric Zboya celebrates Ji Lee’s 3D typeface by rendering the entire poem in that face. The discovery of that essay led to the acquisition of Zboya’s artist book, which led to the acquisition of Ji Lee’s scarce volume Univers Revolved: A Three-Dimensional Alphabet (2004). Lee’s book resonates with several other works in the Books On Books Collection. Compare it, for example, with Johann David Steingruber’s alphabet book Architectonisches Alphabeth (1773/1973), Paul Noble’s alphabet book Nobson Newtown (1998) and Sammy Engramer’s three-dimensional rendition of Mallarmé’s poem.
This double-page spread displays the manipulation of the alphabet’s first four letters around their axes at two different angles to render their 3D shapes.
These two double-page spreads show the complete alphabet and punctuation marks at two different angles, which provide a key with which to begin reading text spelled out in the book.
Lee teases his reader by composing sentences with different sized letters. “Reading is Fun!” is one of the easier to decipher.
The Palace of Typographic Masonry (2018) Richard Nissan 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.
Nobson Newtown (1998) Paul Noble Paperback, H17 x W120 mm, 32 pages with foldout map. Acquired from Marcus Campbell Art Books, 13 March 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
With Nobson Newtown, Paul Noble extends the tradition of alphabetical architecture to full-scale city planning and landscape architecture. Some of Antonio Basoli’s 19th-century designs — for example, the letter A — display a letter-shaped built environment, as does Steven Holl’s The Alphabetical City (1980), but in seaside Nobson Newtown, the buildings spell out words, and the mapped habitation (although without any depiction of inhabitants) rests on a founding myth as bizarre and misanthropic as its current civic arrangements.
In addition to a map of the town and the environs, Nobson Newtown includes a key to its alphabetical and typographic building blocks, which are, of course, rendered in Nobfont. Easy legibility is not a characteristic.
The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen commissioned a film from Noble exploring Nobson Newtown, insightfully characterized as “an ever-incomplete inner landscape of the person building the town”.