GRAPHIC DESIGN BEFORE GRAPHIC DESIGNERS: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman

By Teresa de Andrés. October 4, 2012

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Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700-1914, David Jury, ed. Thames & Hudson, 2012.

History is always written by the victors. The powerful. Those who can write. Those who read. Throughout history books have been the guardians of culture, wisdom and knowledge. Bearers of history. But each battle, each period, each past century that floods the books is shaped by of a large number of days, hours, minutes and seconds. Interweaved with personal stories, infrastories; a blue movie ticket with black letters –almost grey–, an invitation to the greatest party of the year, a letter on a ruled and headed piece of paper. A memory.

This books focuses on the prehistory of graphic design –we all have our own–, for the period between 1700 and 1914. The history of design officially began in the 1920s, when the designer was able to earn a living without having to depend on the printer; because since the movable type press was invented towards 1445, design and printing had always taken place on one same workshop. Gutenberg's brilliant idea was created with the sole intention of printing books, although already since its invention it received many other uses. The art of printing was from the very beginning surrounded by mystery and awe –there’s a reason why it was known as “the black art”–.

Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman, edited by Thames & Hudson, tells a story, the story of print and jobbing printers for slightly more than two centuries. But not the history that is known, that of the noble gentlemen –notice the irony– in charge of printing and designing books, but the history of those printers –largely anonymous– who worked as graphic designers with no recognition nor glory creating and printing signage, brochures, labels or notes. In charge of finding quick solutions to new problems, these “print cowboys” had a bad reputation among their colleagues due to the bad working conditions of their workshops or because the machines used were old and obsolete. The posters and signs in which the letters became bigger and the words became an image –more to be viewed rather than read, as the critics would say– didn’t favour the recognition of their merit. The adaptation of this kind of work to the mass production in the United States was essential for the expansion of printing, which by the end of the 19th century had become one of the biggest industries in the country.

This hardcover title, with 312 pages and a three-quarter striped jacket, is filled with really interesting texts written by the British author David Jury after a thorough research that retrieves the forgotten history of print, together with 779 pictures –500 in colour– of handbills, signage, trade cards, timetables, games, advertisements, packaging, most of them immortalized from personal collections. Because “it is in the negligible that the considerable is found”.

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