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Blowing the crystal goblet : transparent book design 1350-1950



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In 1932 Beatrice Warde delivered to the British Society of Typographic Designers what has since become one of the most recognizable statements about the design of books: “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible.” In it, Warde defines good typography as a crystal goblet, “because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.” Her address argues that the true art of designers is the creation of transparent interfaces which allow readers to imbibe deeply of the intellect captured within the pages of the book without external distractions. Warde’s ‘Crystal Goblet’ is fundamentally contradictory. Typographers must strive to make themselves and their work invisible so that only the voice of the absent author speaks through the text; but there is no voice, only words on page produced through a great deal of human labour at a specific moment in history. But, Warde did not create her metaphor; she adopted existing imagery from the Western tradition. Nor was she the first typographer to do so. The writings and work of those involved with the creation of books has, since before the invention of the printing press, revolved around attempts to create ‘perfect’ communicative interfaces – books which allow the reader an unobscured view into the mind of the author. The resultant page is that with which we are most familiar: a block of black Roman-style text on a white or off-white page with blank margins. This study tracks the rise and influence of the ‘crystal goblet’ motif, the dream of perfect readability, in the discourse of those directly involved with the creation of books: scribes, printers, type-cutters and typographers. It postulates transparency, or perfect readability, to be the primary motive underlying the actions of those making books, but does not assume all printers in all times have been motivated by the same forces or to the same extent. Rather, it traces the thread of transparency through many incarnations and examines the social and political factors underlying each permutation and how new elements are introduced into the discourse without completely erasing all traces of the old. Chapter One studies the Italian Renaissance and how the writing style of a small group of humanist scholars comes to dominate the printed book of the sixteenth century. Chapter Two begins with an examination of the perceived decline in typographic practice in the seventeenth century and the subsequent emergence of both writings about typography and of a new style of Roman typeface: the Modern. Chapter Three deals with similar events in the nineteenth-century – first there is a perceived decline in and then a revival of printing standards. Chapter Four discusses the reconciliation of machine- production and traditional practices in the early to mid-twentieth century and the unsuccessful challenge to traditional typography posed by the Bauhaus and other Modernist schools of design.



typography; printing; literary theory; information



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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