Style Revival

How backlash against industrialization took typography into an older future

Pick up any novel printed in the last hundred years and open it to a page of text. You’ll almost certainly see a Roman font, and it won’t feature the high line contrast or hairline serifs of Moderns—what you’ll see is much closer to an Old Style Roman.

Where did that come from? Industrialization was supposed to have made printing and paper better—where are the elegant, detailed fonts we’re capable of producing? Did we lose a step along the way? No, we didn’t; printing is as good as it's ever been. Rather, we gained something profound: an appreciation for things we’d set aside along the path to industrialization.

A few decades in, workers were already familiar with the downsides of industrialization: poor working conditions, cramped and polluted living conditions, instability. Think of the printers at The Times who lost their jobs overnight, or the founders and typesetters replaced by Linotype and Monotype machines. Their concerns were immediate and practical; keeping themselves healthy and housed took a clear precedence over frivolities like typography.

This was not the case when rich aesthetes noticed the ugly side of industrialization. Their concern was just that: industrialization was ugly. To live in a prettier world, the argument went, they’d have to roll back industrialization—even modernism in general. This movement launched an early counterculture; it challenged great swathes of contemporary art, from poetry, to prose, painting to architecture, and, finally, to printing. William Morris, a giant in this Arts and Crafts movement, put Old Style fonts back on the page.

William Morris grew up in an approximation of feudal aristocracy. His father, also named William Morris, was a fantastically wealthy capitalist. He could afford to provide an idyllic life on a rural estate, to cloister his son in the medieval halls of Oxford, and even after his death to provide his son with shares in a company that would ensure that he never had to work. William Morris the younger didn’t have anything to do with the smoking chimneys and polluted canals of London. Still, he fell in love with work.

At Oxford, William Morris had read the work of the art critic John Ruskin. Morris’s upbringing had already inclined him towards medievalism; Ruskin’s critiques of modernity, therefore, made intuitive sense. One idea stood out. Ruskin rejected the bisection of society into workers and thinkers. The reality, he said, was different: workers often thought, thinkers ought to be able to work; a society that revered the so-called thinker and exploited the worker made a false and counterproductive distinction.

Experience soon provided proof of principle. Morris had befriended a group of Ruskin-championed medievalist painters—the Pre-Raphaelites. As a group, they planned to decorate the ceiling of an Oxford hall with a King Arthur fresco. The project was a disaster. Their idea was good and they were talented painters, but they ran up against a simple reality: they didn’t know how to work. Building scaffolding to access the ceiling, painting a large area, these were tasks they knew nothing about—the workers who normally did this kind of work, supposedly brainlessly, actually thought a lot. There was definite art to their craft. Ruskin, Morris knew, was right: the artist and craftsman weren't distinct.

So he started building furniture.

William Morris enjoyed a great career. From furniture, he moved on to stained-glass windows and textile wall coverings. His designs were so iconic they remain synonymous with his name. Whatever he made, he began by gaining a deep, hands-on understanding of how to do the necessary work. His craft-first approach gave his designs an authenticity missing among the mass-produced industrial goods of the day. Morris’s business became a great success, selling not only to wealthy customers, but to the growing middle class created by the industrialization he hated. All of this success allowed Morris to step back from doing much actual work—to become more of a pure thinker. He even employed managers to oversee his workers. 

On one level this looks like a betrayal of Ruskin’s ideals. But on another level, Morris's free time allowed him to get involved in politics. He became an early environmentalist and champion of historical preservation. He also became a staunch socialist—in line with his stated ideals if not his business practices or membership in the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels had since broadened Ruskin’s ideas about workers and thinkers, introducing the idea of worker alienation. Industrialization, they said, had made work and its products hostile to the worker; the machines that were supposed to be sources of wealth, had become “sources of want”. At least in the workshop Morris stayed true: he limited mechanization and employed skilled craftsmen.

In the final years of his life, Morris started making books. His favourite books were from the early Renaissance; Gutenberg’s bible and Nicolas Jenson’s Old Style Roman fonts represented ideals of their kind. Meanwhile, he hated the cheap paper, crowded pages, runny ink, and ugly type in modern books. His life’s pattern long since set, Morris did what he’d always done: he learned how to make something well.

Morris's Kelmscott Press produced limited runs of classic books, including a reproduction of the first printed in English, William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. Kelmscott books were lavish—pieces of decor as much as practical vehicles of information. Morris selected their materials personally, preferring linen paper, hand made with a slight texture left by the screen, and vellum covers (he kept the darkest, most character-rich pieces for himself). Fine artists hand carved woodblocks to print illumination and ornamentation. Each page was pressed by hand.

Morris designed his own types for Kelmscott. He called the first Golden—an Old Style Roman based on Jenson’s. He considered it somewhat more Gothic than Jenson’s original. His second was a Blackletter that he called Troy, based on the Caxton Blackletter. He considered it somewhat more Roman than the original—he’d taken the liberty of improving its readability (in English anyway) by removing the abbreviations characteristic of Blackletter.

William Morris survived long enough to see Kelmscott produce its finest book, a version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—a recreation of the first book printed in England, it used a resized version of Troy. But the real legacy of Kelmscott Press was Golden, Morris’s Old Style Roman revival. There’s a sweet irony in a champion of the old-fashioned setting the course of the future, and in the process making something modern look old-fashioned. That we now see 19th century text—the so-called Modern fonts—as fusty and impractical is a testament to William Morris's sound design sense.

For all his commitment to craft, Morris never did master the craft of actually making a font. He drew them by hand, but he left the actual cutting to Edward Prince, who later worked in the burgeoning post-Morris world of boutique printers. Prince cut another Old Style for one of these printers, Doves Press, famous for its beauty. Today the press is infamous for its book binder’s valediction. Rather than see the font fall into industrial use, he dumped it into the Thames. His plan worked: Prince's Old Style never did appear in an ugly book; it remains a grail. But, like William Morris’s career, a romantic commitment to beauty and craftsmanship never could reverse industrialization. For letters, it didn’t have to. The font was cast; the letters were plain to see. Old Style was the future.