Monday, 6 April 2020

The Word: with clarity and simple elegance

For a book that millions of people claim to have influenced their lives I'm amazed at the poor quality of most editions that have been published and how perfect this Washburn Bible is. The story starts in 1969 with Field Enterprises, in Chicago, asking designer Bradbury Thompson to think about a complete visual overhaul of the existing standard Bible. Unfortunately the project was abandoned in 1972 because of economic circumstances so Thompson approached Washburn College who provided backing and a Limited Edition three volume set came out in 1977. The success of that title convinced Oxford Uni Press to print this one volume edition.

Thompson's brilliant typographic idea for this King James text Bible was to discard the traditional oblong squared-up two columns setting per page for a much simpler two columns with a varying line length so the text was ragged on the right. This avoided excessive hyphenations at the end of a line and allowed even spacing between the words. Because the text is now in phrase-length lines the columns vary in depth, though only by five lines or less, so that the top of each one starts with a new verse. The chapter and verse numbers are set in the margin to the left of each column which avoids having these dropped into the text and hindering the narrative flow. I found this annoyance so common in many Bibles I looked at to compare with this Washburn edition. The large page size means the type is a generous eleven point (called Sabon Antiqua) with a minimum of words in capitals and no italics. No quotation marks for speech either because 'He said' or 'Saying' are always on separate lines before the quotation.

To break up all the pages of text each book in the Old and New Testament starts with one of sixty-six religious paintings by fifty-five artists painted over seventeen centuries. These have short captions and the biblical text that provided the inspiration to the artists. European born  Josef Albers provides three simple but beautiful linear abstracts at the start of the three sections of this Bible. The front pages have an introduction explaining the thinking behind this new typographic interpretation.

Bradbury Thompson, who died in 1995, was a great print designer, probably best known for his work for Westvaco paper company and their magazine 'Inspiration for Printers' but he also designed stamps for the USPS, magazines (Mademoiselle for example) and books but I think it is his remarkable design of this Bible that he should be remembered for. He achieved something special here, a book where it is a joy to turn the pages and see an honesty of presentation that the words deserve. A design and typographic masterpiece.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Yesterday down south

The FSA photographers took about a thousand photos in Arkansas between 1935 and 1943 and two hundred are shown in these pages, mostly by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn (in other words the top FSA photographers).

Patsy Watkins writes an excellent twenty-nine page illustrated essay about the State and the economy heavily based on cotton which supported a huge sharecropper and tenant farmer population, many of which lived in dreadful poverty. The FSA photo division was created initially to record poor families living in their shacks and the agricultural work they did. The first of the book's eleven chapters deals with cotton (eleven photos). A product which relied on cheap manual labor, principally by African Americans. Washington suggested various price reforms and practical solutions to reduce the poverty but these were opposed by large Southern landowners and their friends in Congress. Change did happen, though slowly, chapter three (nineteen photos) covers rural resettlement for poor families, sixteen projects created fourteen hundred new farms with new houses and co-operatives for selling produce. It's interesting to compare the positive looking resettlement farm photos with chapter four (seventeen photos) which look at the lives of African Americans, the poorest citizens in Arkansas who had no chance of advancement because of racist laws.

Chapter five covers housing (or in some cases shacks) followed by chapters on food, children, small towns, portraits. Chapter eight reveals the devastation caused by the Mississippi River overflowing two million low-lying acres in the Arkansas Delta during 1937. The Red Cross said it affected 44,000 families. The sixteen flood photos were taken by Walker Evans and Edwin Locke. The author makes an interesting point about the tent cities erected for flood victims, incredibly basic living conditions but with food, clothing and medical care provided many landowners feared that the camps offered better conditions than the farms they had been flooded out of.

I thought the book was a first-class look at Arkansas decades ago by a particularly creative and sensitive group of photographers. The book is a nice production with a picture and caption on each page, generous margins and good quality paper. My only criticism is that the photos have a slight greyness about them and lack the blackness that would give the photos that contrast to make them shine out on the page.



Saturday, 28 March 2020

Fortunately they are still standing

An excellent introduction to the many Art Deco (or Moderne) buildings in the Britain. Architectural historian Harwood knows her stuff and writes about these buildings with authority, it also seems she took most of the photos, too. Oddly there isn't a contents page but the nine chapters are very comprehensive, it seem to covers it all: Houses; Churches and public buildings; Offices; Shops and cafes; Hotels and pubs; Cinemas and theatres; Sports buildings; Industrial; Transport.

Each building is on a spread with one large color photo and a brief background essay about the architects and a description of the structure. Nicely the address is included so you can use Street View to find the site and its surroundings. Virtually all the buildings are Listed Grade II and obviously conform to the Deco or Moderne style though I thought there were two anomalies: Ealing Village housing and the King and Queen pub in Brighton, both seemed to be from an age before Art Deco and an omission is Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex.

It's well worth getting for its coverage of the style though a bibliography would have been useful for those who want to know more. The book was published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Twentieth Century Society, the charity dedicated to preserving these wonderful buildings.