Editor's Pick

A Modernist Take On Frilly Fonts

Callie Neylan is a former NPR designer and currently teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In a design class I taught last semester, students asked me about designers whose work was based on something other than the International Typographic Style (the design philosophy upon which most undergraduate design programs are based). They were seniors and after four years of vigorous study of grids, white space, Helvetica, and left-justified text, some of them had grown weary.

I immediately thought of graphic designer and typographic illustrator Marian Bantjes.

The cover of I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010 i i

hide captionThe cover of I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

Callie Neylan for NPR
The cover of I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

The cover of I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

Callie Neylan for NPR
Spread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

hide captionSpread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

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When all around we hear the death toll of the physical book, it's wonderful to hold and leaf through a book like I Wonder — her new (as of last fall) and magnificently tactile, substantial, gold-dusted monograph.

While some schools incorporate elements of post-modern design philosophies, i.e., integrating expressive, derivative art forms into design education, some consider it blasphemous. I came from a school in the latter camp. But even before my formal design education, I'd always loved the clean, elegant, grid-based objectiveness the Modernists prescribed. And as one of my professors, herself a diehard Modernist, once said, "It's hard, if not impossible, to change design religions."

Spread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

hide captionSpread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

Marian Bantjes

So when a few students asserted that Modernism was boring and asked me for examples of other styles, I tried not to take it personally. I reached into the archives and told them what I knew about other design movements, with Marian Bantjes at the forefront, since she'd just published her first book, I Wonder.

Spread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

hide captionSpread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

Marian Bantjes

It's a collection of essays on visual culture and design, written and illustrated by Marian herself. In an interview with Debbie Millman on Design Observer, Marian admits that her style makes Modernists such as myself uncomfortable. But for that, she offers no apologies. Long known for her expressive, ornately ornamental approach to design, she maintains that while her choice of typefaces might cause some design purists visual distress, she is, in fact, a conservative type setter and hey, at least her work has some personality.

Spread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

hide captionSpread from I Wonder, Marian Bantjes, The Monacelli Press, 2010

Marian Bantjes

My favorite part of the book — not counting the rich, dense, sensuous cover and shimmering gold ink — is its historical multiplicity. Scattered throughout the book's essays (each one with its own look and feel) are tributes to various design periods. The rich simulated tapestries of her essay on "Wonder" conjure the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The lines and grid structure of Assembling Two IKEA Bookshelves remind me slightly of April Greiman's New Wave graphic style, and Memory1: Photography has enough white space, photography, and assymmetry to please the most avid modernist.

But even if you think you can't stand the mismatched typefaces, tight margins, ubiquitous curly q's and romantic swashes that Marian has made her graphic fingerprint, all you have to do is touch this book. Hold it. Run your fingers across its gilded cover. The tactile experience of the physical book will always be a thing of beauty.

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