January 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Date of Visit : April 2013
Mila I Fontanalas 14-26 2n 2g
Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain)
Mezquita Great Cathedral and Mosque
calle Cardenal Herrero 1, 14003 Cordoba, Spain
The Unique Arts Heritage in Spain
Each region of Spain has its own unique cultural and political viewpoint, however, almost all share the common influence of 800 years of rule by Muslims from North Africa (800-1492). The Moors, who referred to their holdings on the Iberian peninsula as Al-Andalus, infused their architecture and crafts with decoration as prescribed by Islamic culture: complex patterns derived from geometry or vegetation as well as elaborate interlocking calligraphy.
The distinctive style of Al-Andalusian art and architecture evolved through the confluence of two factors — geography and religion. Massive mountain ranges separated the country from the rest of Europe but it lay distant from the major Islamic centers as well. This position allowed for a community that intermingled diverse cultures along with their respective artistic traditions.
Islamic motifs were retained as part of the vernacular even after the Christian reconquest of Spain in the 15th century. The Islamic-influenced style is known as Mudejar, a derivation of the Arabic world “mudayyan”, translated as “he who is permitted to remain”.
Is there any evidence of Mudajer in Spanish typography? We will address that a bit later on, but first what is “Spanish style” typography? The term appears frequently in typographic literature but it is hard to find a solid explanation. (And there are those who strongly contest the notion of national styles.)
Printing and punchcutting arrived in Spain long after it commenced in the other parts of Europe, almost twenty-five years after Gutenberg’s bible. The first book printed in Spain was executed with imported typefaces. The printer was German, Lambert Palmert who set up his press in Valencia and quickly collaborated with a local goldsmith, Alfonso Fernández de Córdoba (presumably to fabricate type for the press). In the hands of Fernández and other Spanish metalworkers the imported type design soon acquired, as type historian Daniel B. Updike wrote, “something characteristically Spanish.”
Updike seems at a loss to explain clearly how Spanish style crept into the existing designs – only that it must have been “something about the air, the sky and the landscape that bewitched the immigrant German printers.” The Spanish style proved stealthy and pervasive, “Even the Spanish copies of Baskerville and Caslon acquired a Spanish flavor.” Updike’s vague explanations finally concede with “Like the flavor of olives, “Spanish” cannot be described.”
Andreu Balius: The TypeRepublic
Along the northeastern coast of Spain lies the autonomous community of Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, home of the TypeRepublic. Although the actual territory of the TypeRepublic is confined to a computer on the desk of type designer Andreu Balius (and virtual space of the internet) we were still able to enjoy a very pleasant visit there in April 2013.
We traveled by subway, surfacing near some of the city’s fantastical Art Moderne architecture, however Mr. Balius’s building on Mila i Fontanals felt straight out of New York’s Chelsea district — a clean modern building housing studio spaces for model agencies, photographers and artists. On the third floor we found Balius’s studio, part of a cooperative space shared with other designers and illustrators. After greetings and introductions we left Balius’s studio mates lunching at the communal table in the front of the studio and moved to his section.
Balius: Education and Training
Balius is the kind of person we like to meet – a combination of very accomplished yet casually approachable. An outdoor enthusiast and avid traveler, he is also a serious student. He first studied sociology at the University of Barcelona before developing an interest in visual communication. A degree in Graphic Design at IDEP (Barcelona) was followed by another in Fine Arts (Graphic Design) at Southampton University in the United Kingdom and finally a PhD in Design from the University of Southampton UK in 2013. Balius extensively studies type history both as a personal interest and as part of his design process. To better grasp letter formation he trained with master calligrapher Keith Adams. (And another Adams link) All of these studies contributed to a personal design process, including his sociologist commitment to make all of his type design work within an appropriate social context.
We started our discussion with a quick overview of Spanish type history touching on the work of several major figures from The Golden Era of Spanish punchcutters; Eudald Pradell (1721–1788), Antonio Espinosa de los Monteros (1732-1812), Geronimo Gil. Also acknowledged were the more recent Richard Gans Foundry (active 1888-1975) and printer and typographer Ricard Giralt Miracle (1911-1994). Each is an interesting topic unto itself, but the one Balius knows most intimately is Eudald Paradell (or Edward Pradell) after creating a historical interpretation of Pradell’s work for digital use.
Pradell, an illiterate but a highly skillful engraver of armor, is recognized as Spain’s first punchcutter. Under the royal patronage of Carlos III, Pradell opened a foundry in Madrid to produce fonts for Spain’s Imprenta Royal. Balius’s work on Pradell earned awards from ATypI 2001 and the Type Directors Club in 2002. The descriptive blurb for the digital version on myfonts.com states “Although it is a very contemporary product, Pradell has a very distinctive Spanish flavor.” (There is no elaboration on what Spanish flavor means, not even a reference to olives or the Spanish sky.) Balius later created a customized version of Pradell, (Pradell Chillan) for La discussion, a newspaper in Chile.
Starting out in the 1990′s, when learning digital type design was not an academic option, Balius taught himself the complexities of digital media. His first type face, Temble, (a rather distorted design) was released through ITC in 1996 and is still available today.
In 1993 Balius initiated a co-operative type design community “open to anyone that wanted to take part”. The over 60 fonts offered were created in the spirit of experimentation. (Today the community goes under the name Garcia Fonts.)
From 1996 to 2001 he co-created Typerware with Joan Calres Pérez Casasin based in the village Santa Maria de Martorelles (near Barcelona). Balius and Casasin jointly designed the whimsical Font Soup in 1997, later reworked into a German version for FontFont.
Balius: Type Offerings
Today Balius’s personal selling vehicle is the TypeRepublic, an independent foundry featuring commercially available fonts as well as a showcase for his custom work. We only had time to discuss a few of our favorites.
This face, originally designed by Elizabeth Friedlander for Bauersche Giesserei foundry in 1938, is one of the few type designs by a woman before the digital age. Normally a font is identified by a designer’s last name (think Gill, Caslon, Didot, etc) but this design was created in Germany during the late 1930’s when a Jewish name was considered a liability. Friedlander was rejected for the more Arian friendly Elizabeth.
Commissioned by Fundicion Tipographica Neufville, Balius based his interpretation of Elizabeth upon specimens in an old Bauer type catalog (although the final digital version required extensive optical scaling).
Another of Balius’s fonts carries a female’s first name however the design, entirely by Balius, reflects the passion and intrigue of the infamous Spanish gypsy. A 2008 commission for Prosper Merimée’s Carmen (1845) the design is firmly rooted in Didot, the major type influence of the 19th century.
In 2011, the sexy retailer, Victoria’s Secret, commissioned a promotion display version of Carmen. It was awarded one of the year’s best typefaces in 2008 from Typographica.org and named a Top Type of 2009 by FontShop.
A Latin-Arabic Typeface: Al-Andalus (2009-2013)
A one-week course in non-Latin typography at The University of Reading inspired Balius to create a typeface design that would address communication between the Latin and Arabic languages used in his home country. To better understand the form and function of an unfamiliar language he studied Arabic calligraphy from a Syrian calligrapher based in Barcelona. Balius based his design on the calligraphic style, Naskh, the form most commonly used for printing Arabic.
Balius designed the Arabic font to combine perfectly with his existing roman face Pradell. Al Andalus includes a complete set of characters in Arabic, including all glyphs for Farsi & Urdu, as well as a complete set of ligatures and basic punctuation.
There are so many more of Balius’s original and custom designs that we did not have time to discuss (check out his website). It is also possible to read his thoughts on type application in his book, Type at Work, The Use of Type in Editorial Design, published in English by BIS (Amsterdam, 2003).
Leaving the Type Republic
Outside of type design Balius is an outdoor enthusiast – hiking and mountain biking are his favorite activities. He also travels extensively throughout the world giving workshops and lecturing at prestigious conferences. Whether on the road for fun or work he takes along sketchbooks to record his unending flow of ideas.
We left with a better understanding of his typography and a list of places for hiking and visiting in Southern Spain. He recommended some great hikes in the White Villages of Andalusia.
During the remainder of the trip we kept our eyes open for type designs that we felt displayed some of the decorative influence of Mudejar.
We were also intrigued by lettering that was hand drawn on the walls of a university building in the town of Baeza. Only later did we realize that Balius had created a custom typeface, Universitas, from that same academic lettering tradition.
For more of Spain and Spanish typography see our guest post on Imprenta Municipal-Artes del Libro in Madrid on Printeresting.org.
Carmen image from design boom
Paucker, Pauline: “New Borders: The Working Life of Elizabeth Friedlander.”
(Oldham): Incline Press, (1998)
October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Featuring Type Designer Carl Crossgrove
Date of Visit : November 2012
I. Carl Crossgrove
1875 South Grant Street, Suite 720
San Mateo, CA 94402
II. M&H Type Foundry
1802 Hays Street, The Presidio
San Francisco, CA
NOTICE: This entry suggested only for serious typographic enthusiasts!
The Monotype Type Casting System
From its start in the mid-15th century, type composition (arranging cast metal letters for printing a page of text) was a labor-intensive process requiring scores of employees (including strike-prone trade union members). During the 19th century the demand for an automated system spurred a number of inventors to invest their careers and fortunes in that endeavor. One of the most successful entrants in the race to automate was the Monotype type casting system, patented by Tolbert Lanston in 1887.
Lanston’s complex invention was fraught with serious problems that threatened its viability. John Sellers Bancroft, a mechanical engineer in Philadelphia, came to the rescue in 1899 as he “took what came to him scarcely more than an ingenious mechanical toy, frail, unreliable and difficult to construct” and redesigned it. He “produced a thoroughly practicable substantial machine of much greater scope and capacity than the original. From a partial failure Bancroft evolved a great commercial and mechanical success.”
Monotype’s main competition was the Linotype, a device that cast entire lines of type. Each of the two systems had certain advantages: Linotype’s lines of type were easier to move around in large set-ups, making it practical for newspapers whereas the Monotype system produced single letters, easier to tweak when setting complex material or to correct in case of error, a better match for small fine press printers and mid-range production shops. Elbert Hubbard of the Arts and Crafts era Roycroft Press, purchased a Monotype caster for his shop in East Aurora, New York. Hubbard embraced the new mechanized type system with his typically populist enthusiasm. “Goodbye Expert. Farewell, Prima Donna. Any compositor can operate this new composing machine at sight.”
Lanston Monotype grew into one of the top three type suppliers in the world. In addition to manufacturing type casters, the company designed and supplied fonts adapted to work with their system. The type library expanded and grew prominent in the decades between 1920 – 1950 under the management of Sol Hess (designer of 85 typefaces) and the designs he commissioned from Frederic Goudy.
A separate type concern was born from Lanston’s Monotype, the British Lanston Monotype Corporation Ltd. In 1887, just after obtaining his patent, Lanston needed a cash infusion to complete the refinements on his invention. Financial relief came from the sale of the British and colonial patent rights for $1,000,000 to a group headed by Great Britain’s Lord Dunraven (who installed himself as chairman at the London office).
At first the British branch repaired and refitted the Monotype casters shipped from the United States and offered training classes for Monotype keyboard operators. All of the initial type offerings were limited to existing 19th century type designs (Albions, Clarendons, Grotesques, Old Faces and Moderns) that were adapted to work with the Monotype system. By 1911 the first original type offering, Veronese, was released.
Things changed after WWI when the company expanded in response to the peacetime demand for equipment and new typefaces. The UK branch started manufacturing equipment and embarked on an ambitious type development program. The chief architect of the British Monotype library was Stanley Morrison, a self-educated type expert and contributing author to prestigious typographic journals such as the Fleuron and Penrose Annual. While writing for UK Monotype’s house organ, Monotype Recorder, Morison’s proposal for developing a “programme of typographical design, rational, systematic, and corresponding effectively with the foreseeable needs of modern printing” earned him the position as British Monotype’s typographic advisor in 1922 —and a pulpit from which he would exert a serious influence over the future of modern type design. Morison commissioned and developed numerous important type designs but is broadly known for his involvement with Times New Roman (1932) a face he developed (drawn by Victor Lardent) as a challenge to improve legibility of The London Times.
By the 1940’s British Monotype broke into three divisions, each independent entities. Its name changed, as did ownership, through continual acquisitions of other type vendors and a merger with Agfa /Compugraphic in 1998. Today as Monotype Imaging, the company has acquired some of the best known type libraries in the world, including Bitstream, ITC and its old rival, Linotype. Currently based in Boston, there are offices across the US, throughout the UK, Europe and the Pacific rim.
Monotype in San Francisco
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries San Francisco was home to a large concentration of printers, making it an ideal location for type founding. On a recent stop in San Francisco we were able to see some of the West Coast descendants from both the British and American Monotype still actively at work. From Monotype Imaging we met with type designer Carl Crossgrove and later briefly toured one of the last stops of the Lanston Monotype Company, the M&H foundry.
One of ten staff designers for Monotype Imaging, Carl Crossgrove creates type for the digital market at the San Mateo location just outside San Francisco. He also releases faces through his personal foundry, Terrestial Design. Because he works from home two days a week we were able to meet him for a Mediterranean lunch in the Castro district. It was easy to spot his fierce signature mustache but behind that visage resides a refreshingly calm, self-effacing and thoughtful individual.
Crossgrove spent his formative years experimenting with lettering styles influenced by comic books and album covers, but towards the end of his high school years he turned to classical lettering and calligraphy. Although Crossgrove’s path to becoming a full-time type designer was circuitous, he never ceased designing letterforms. He did not rush immediately to college after high school but spent time exploring other directions (including painting and a lot of printmaking), not aware that type design could be a viable occupation. Then, during a visit to Boston in 1990, he learned otherwise when he met David Berlow, Mike Parker and Matthew Carter of Bitstream (the first digital type foundry). He came to the realization that “there was actually such a thing as the type industry and type design could be a real career.”
He rather spontaneously attended a late summer type conference, Type90 in Oxford, England, and returned to attend the printing program at Rochester Institute of Technology. His intention was to train as a professional printer with hopes of building his own independent type practice on the side. Although there were not a lot of classes offered for the “type concentration” part of his degree program, he augmented his training by applying for a summer position for “type enthusiasts” that he stumbled across in the back of Fine Print on Type. The position was a six-month internship at Adobe Systems in Mountain View, California. Adobe Type Manager David Lemon hired Crossgrove based upon a telephone interview and his portfolio, the contents which Crossgrove now wryly recalls as being “rather primitive.” Two separate Adobe internships exposed Crossgrove to talented Adobe type designers, including Carol Twombly and Robert Slimbach, who influenced and refined his sensibilities. At both Adobe and RIT Crossgrove worked with the Ikarus system, teaching himself details of typography such as spacing, kerning, etc.
A student of type history and type designers, Crossgrove traveled to printing museums in Europe to study the original drawings of lettering giants Rudolf Koch, Georg Trump and Hermann Zapf. One of his most respected type heroes is Czech type designer Oldřich Menhart (1897-1962) who trained as a calligrapher and printer before beginning a career in type design. Menhart, who “saw writing, calligraphy, lettering and type design as belonging to the same discipline”, designed one typeface for British Monotype, Menhart Roman and Italic, in 1934.
Crossgrove in San Francisco
After graduation from RIT in 1994 Crossgrove moved west to San Francisco where his highly technical printing education was more than adequate for his first position which he describes as “the curmudgeonly guy on the computer at the back of a quickie printer.” The shop was his necessary bread and butter as he continued to draw custom type designs on his own time.
Before long his side work received considerable attention. Curlz for Monotype (with Steve Matteson) was hugely popular (especially with my novelty-hungry students) in 1995. His Scripsit was given Serif Magazine’s Judge’s Choice Award in 1996. He also worked on heretofore unreleased proposals Tarantella Script, Ranunculus and Penmark. Following shortly after were Minska in 1997 for ITC and Reliq, with the look of ancient Greek graffiti, for Adobe in 1998.
Although his early novel faces were popular, this direction was not necessarily where Crossgrove’s predilections were leaning. Some of his formers classmate from RIT, on staff at Monotype Imaging, fed him projects, and finally his hard work turned into a full-time position in 2001.
Crossgrove’s work at Monotype started with translating several historical revivals for digital format. His Othello, in 2002 (with Steve Matteson), is the heavy, rustic face originally offered by Monotype in 1928 as an alternative to Rudolph Koch’s Neuland.
The delicate Fairbank allowed Crossgrove (in collaboration with Robin Nichols at Monotype in the UK) to work in a more calligraphic mode. The original design was by Alfred Fairbank (1895-1982), a disciple of Edward Johnston at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. It was Fairbanks’s only type face as he was more devoted to calligraphy and calligraphic activities and his role in the British Society of Scribes and Illuminators.
Crossgrove’s Advice for Fledgling Type Designers
Oldřich Menhart advocated for type designers to study old masters but then to develop a contemporary style. Similar advice comes from Crossgrove when he offers pearls of wisdom for aspiring type designers: “Get deeply into historical styles then create your own personal approach.” Additionally he suggests throwing away your first three type designs; he cites the Japanese practice of discarding the first 5 years of painting as an example. Another piece of advice is getting professional guidance. “You can train yourself but it is better to show your work to someone knowledgeable if you can.”
Crossgrove strongly believes in hand drawing: “I typically sketch letter shapes over and over, throughout the process of development, so that while the outlines are evolving in digital format, I’m testing shapes on paper at the same time.”
Expansive Original Faces
By 2003 Crossgrove was a seasoned and mature designer who was building a library of his own expansive type families. His ten-year project, Mundo Sans, has 14 styles with weights ranging from hairline to extremely bold. Inspired by faces like Gill, Futura and Syntax, Crossgrove “didn’t intend Mundo Sans to be revolutionary”; rather, he sought to create “a design with subtle pen ductus, a wide range of weights, and a fluid, unobtrusive italic.”
Described by some as Crossgrove’s magnum opus, the super family of Beorcana took 14 years to develop. The first release from his Terrestrial Design, Beorcana’s name refers to a runic letter for the European white birch tree, a symbol for new growth and possibility. It was an appropriate choice for a face that branched out to 28 styles.
Beorcana is a roman face designed without serifs, not a sans serif but rather a member of the unusual category of ‘serif less roman’ (or more appropriately, a calligraphic sans). The strokes appear to have grown from a pen, as does the very human diamond shaped dot over the i. Although it is customary for text faces to have serifs, this calligraphically inspired face is expressly designed for text.
The amount of work behind this design is staggering. Crossgrove created each of the styles using optical sizing, ie. designing each variation based on his visual judgment, not just increasing or decreasing the strokes by mathematical increments. His attention to scaling means that even the micro-style—as small as 3-points—harmonizes with all of the other sizes and weights. The Type Directors Club cited the design for excellence in 2007.
Biome (2009), another TDC winner, is what Crossgrove terms a “superelliptical sans, more fluid and organic than the typical sans serif”. Crossgrove points out that the soft elliptical forms are not symmetrical; if you print them out and flip them upside-down this will become apparent. It has a “retro-futuristic” feel, the sort of vibe that the Modernists were trying to accomplish (in a non-retro way) in the 1950’s.
Crossgrove is especially happy that he has been able to experience a wide variety of styles. Recently he worked on a revival of an Arabic type family, Noori Nastaliq, a connecting style of calligraphy characterized by sloping word alignments. Working with linguist Kamal Mansour, manager of non-Latin type at Monotype, the pair devised forms to fulfill the need to slowly descend along a base line. Using Open Type technology Crossgrove analyzed the original calligraphy to find a common joining scheme that would work technically while providing fluid, realistic written joins.
Crossgrove has plans for future designs, I’ve never released a serif text face of my own design. Origami is really meant for display. I think the prospect is a little intimidating when there are centuries of excellent serif book types in a huge range of styles. If I can come up with a design that serves modern purposes, I would like to complete a small serif family. I’d also like to finish a rough calligraphic design that’s been on hold for a long time: Tarantella Script. I think there is potential in the sort of eccentric, dark style of it.
Now in his 40’s, Crossgrove is well positioned between the old guard and the new. With his range of experience, his historical perspective and intense dedication his complete oeuvre will likely be substantial.
II. M&H Typecasting
While the digitally adapted Monotype Imaging is still active, the American Lanston Monotype did not fare as well. During the decades after Goudy, labor disputes and manufacturing issues plagued the company. It was resold a number of times before American Type Founders purchased it in 1969, then sold to Mackenzie and Harris (M&H) in San Francisco and finally in 1983 by Gerald Giampa (1950 – 2009). Giampa set up shop on Prince Edward Island where he manufactured the type casters until 1987 when, in 2000, the last remnants of the Lanston Monotype machine works and institutional records were lost in a tidal wave. Today all that remains are the rights to the Lanston Monotype name and font library, now owned by the digital font foundry, P22, in Buffalo, New York.
While in San Francisco we had a very quick peak at the type foundry, M&H Typecasting, one of the last stops along the Lanston Monotype trail. The foundry is located in the historic Presidio complex as part of the Arion Press. Because we arrived on a Sunday, the machines were not working; however the shelves were lined with packages of recently cast type and the row of machines attested to a busy operation. One can find a catalog of their fonts at their website.
How can you differentiate Lanston from British Monotype if you are a letterpress printer or student with access to metal type? Monotype is a general term covering a number of iterations of the original caster: composition, sorts, giant, supercaster and Thompson are all casters from Monotype and each machine casts a very different type. However, I have been taught that the shape of the nick is a reliable indicator.
Shown above left is a piece of Lanston Type from M&H, identifiable by the round knick. On the right is a piece of English Monotype from the Bixler Foundry in Skaneateles, New York, sporting a square nick. But of course the explanation of Monotype is never simple, and since we are not a type casting expert we turned to Rob LoMascolo, printer and trained type caster, for a better understanding of how to differentiate the two. (Rob is the proud owner of a 1968 English Composition Caster and plans to refurbish it in the near future.)
“The English/ American Monotype division is somewhat confusing. For example, the Bixlers use all English mats, but that does not mean that they are using all English Monotype equipment. English Monotype mats can be cast on an American caster, and American mats can be used on an English caster. The biggest difference between the American and the English mats is the depth of drive. The depth of drive is how deeply the letters are recessed into the mat, and thereby how high the face of the type will be on its body once cast. American mats are .030” and the English are .050”. The deeper depth of drive of the English mats makes type that will wear better, especially with characters that kern.”
Ok, have you got that? There is still a smattering of commercial Monotype casters across the US: in addition to M&H and Bixler are Skyline Type Foundry in Prescott, Arizona, and Sterling Foundries in Indianapolis, Indiana. Monotype casters also survive in the hands of dedicated private individuals who still cast their own type and sometimes work with serious printers, Hill & Dale (West Virginia), Firefly (Boston) and Ed Rayher’s Swamp Press in Northfield, Massachusetts.
Here’s hoping that a different sort of tidal wave (not the destructive sort but one of burgeoning interest in letterpress printing) helps to sustain the remaining Monotype casters for the foreseeable future.
In addition to our Interview : Some Sources Used for this Article.
Journal of the Franklin Institute, Volume 187 by Persifor Frazer, Apr 1919, pages 518-519.
Fine Print on Type, “Oldrich Menhart”, by Paul Duensing, San Francisco, 1989.
Catalogue of Printed Material issued by The Monotype Corporation.
The Monotype Story, by Fred Williams, Editor-Publisher, Type & Press, Spring 1984.
Stanley Morison: Significant Historian, 21 October 2011, HYPERLINK: “http://www.lawsonarchive.com/category/typographically-speaking/” Typographically Speaking, The Alexander S. Lawson Archive.
Barker, Nicolas, Stanley Morison, Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (June 1972).
Surviving Radical Technological Change through Dynamic Capability: Evidence from the Typesetter Industry, HYPERLINK : http://ideas.repec.org/s/oup/indcch.html”Industrial & Corporate Change. Oxford University Press, Volume 6 (1997), No: 2 (March), Pages: 341-77.
Burian, Veronika and Shaw, Paul. Type with Spirit: The Work of Oldřich Menhart. Codex: The Journal of Letterforms, Fall 2012.
Smitshuijzen, Edo, Interview with Kamal Mansour, Manager of non-Latin products at Monotype. Hyperlink http://www.khtt.net/person/250/en
Coming In November 2013 -Andreu Balius and his Type Republic in Barcelona.
July 25, 2013 § 4 Comments
Dates of Visits
October 1971 / July 22, 2013
1/ Bertoia Studios
3/ Harry Bertoia: Structure and Sound
James A Michener Art Museum
138 S. Pine Street, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
July 20 – October 13, 2013
Background / Born in Italy in 1915, a teenage Harry Bertoia first traveled to Canada but spent his high school years in Detroit, living with his brother Oreste, an employee at General Motors. There Bertoia attended the Cass Technical High School and the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts before earning a scholarship to nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art. In 1937 Cranbrook was an institution that allowed students to pursue multiple disciplines—a perfect fit for the multi-talented and inquisitive young artist. He initially worked in the metal department creating jewelry of such high caliber that his work was included in exhibitions at the Nierendorf Gallery in New York City alongside well-known artists such as Alexander Calder.
Among Bertoia’s associates in the art school community were Charles and Ray Eames (for whom he created wedding rings), Florence Schust (later Knoll) and Eero Saarinen. All of those relationships would generate professional opportunities for Bertoia after graduation—however, the most important personal liaison was with Brigitta Valentiner, a Cranbrook textile artist, daughter of the director of the Detroit Institute of Art and his future wife.
At the invitation of the Eames Studio in California, Bertoia moved west in 1943 to help his former classmates investigate the commercial potential of molded wood furniture. Although history books would later credit Bertoia for his contributions in the studio, at that time the lack of recognition lead him to find work elsewhere.
After seven years on the west coast, a visit followed by an invitation from Hans and Florence Knoll enticed Bertoia to move his wife and children east to Pennsylvania. The Knoll furniture company sponsored the artist for two years while he freely experimented in his own studio. The atmosphere was much like Cranbrook; working without formal deadlines and taking time to develop the potentials of material and form.
This commercial and artistic partnership gave birth to what would become a classic in the Knoll collection. Bertoia’s sculptural furniture, comprised of criss-crossed steel rods formed in specially created jigs, was named the Diamond Series. First released in 1952, the design expressed much of the spirit of the Mid-Century Modern: a single unbroken main component and a clean aerodynamic shape. The lightness and space captured between the metal rods was a fresh and whimsical take on the “vessel and valley” chair form that Bertoia had developed with Charles Eames.
Each of the Diamond seating series, although manufactured from essentially industrial materials, was a comfortable fit for the human body. Most significantly, the success of Bertoia’s design enabled him to purchase a studio in the small town of Bally, a home for his family in nearby Barto, and the financial freedom to work independently for the remainder of his career.
The First Bertoia Studio Visit, 1971
Twenty years after the release of the Diamond Series I was a sophomore in college and tentatively declaring sculpture as my major of choice. Because I was completely baffled about the future implications of such a profession, my professor James J. Kelly (The Sculptural Idea) suggested I visit a local sculptor. I followed Kelly’s advice and arranged to visit the Bertoia Studios, naively unaware of the artist’s history or importance in the international art world.
My old jeep carried me along the rural roads of Berks County to the tiny burg of Bally, Pennsylvania. Bertoia greeted me outside his large studio and invited me inside to observe his work in fabrication. There I found a few young men wrestling with a large suspended piece of metal, attempting to correctly position it onto a sculpture on the giant platform below. (Most likely it was Bertoia’s son, Val, and another studio worker.) A number of Bertoia’s metal rod sculptures-in-progress were scattered around the space. The long vertical rod clusters, finished in a brownish-red patina, were a familiar site. We had one in the lobby of the art department at school, and we occasionally dared each other to brush up against it to make the bell-like sounds flow out.
Bertoia asked me about my future. I am sure I had a very weak response, clueless as I was of the world beyond my college environment. Perhaps it was my lack of direction that motivated Bertoia to make two suggestions: 1. Go to Italy and study art and sculpture and 2. Attend Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (his alma mater) after graduation. Fortunately, as things turned out, I was later able to follow both pieces of advice.
The Second Bertoia Studio Visit, 2013
Forty years after meeting Harry Bertoia I learned that an exhibition dedicated to his work would open in July at the James A Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a few miles from my home. Discovering that the Bertoia studio was still active, I contacted Val Bertoia to arrange a visit.
We traveled about an hour to the address Val had provided and waited to meet up with a group tour in progress (private tours can be arranged). Apart from the Bertoia sculptures at that location I realized that nothing looked familiar. My memory told me that there was a large gravel courtyard yet today there was only a grass-covered lawn. While recalling a number of large industrial buildings, instead we found a home and a stone barn. It was strangely disorienting but Val was a welcoming soul and I shrugged the feeling away, chalking it up to my age.
We were invited into the stone barn where we found perhaps 50 or more of Bertoia’s Sonambient sculptures— kinetic works that produce sounds when activated. The forms were mostly clusters of vertical metal rods of copper and bronze welded to bases. Other pieces included pairs of short rods suspended from the ceiling and immense round and rectangular gongs. Bertoia did not create his sculptures with a specific sound in mind but rather delighted in the surprise tones of each piece. Val treated us a live performance spontaneously named “Summer Heat on a Full Moon with Harry Sounds.” (It WAS rather warm in the unventilated barn at noon in late July.)
Four large microphones suspended overhead remained from when Bertoia recorded 360 individual magnetic tape recordings of his Sonambient music. Sounds resonated across the space as Val plucked, stroked, squeezed or rubbed the sculptures: other worldly, ethereal, with hints of nature, rain, thunder, wind-in-trees, rushing water after a storm. (Watching the following Youtube video helps you get the idea .)
Afterwards we took a short walk in the nearby woods. (Poison ivy alert—wear shoes and socks.) The grounds were full of works by Bertoia as well as those of Val, an artist in his own right. At walk’s end we passed a massive round gong, reportedly weighing a ton, that serves as the reverent place keeper over the graves of Bertoia and his wife.
After the home tour we had a fast glimpse inside the studio in Bally. There we saw the diamond chair prototypes and but again, I felt no tinge of recollection of the space. Another disappointment.
Fortunately all became clearer the next day when I came across a photo on the Knoll web site. It showed Bertoia sitting on the platform that I remembered so clearly. A quick check with Val confirmed that it was the same studio I had visited the day before. “The asbestos platform was initially used for welding up large sculptures. Here’s the story that Jim Flanagan told me much later. Harry wanted the whole platform (which may have been nailed to the floor) moved further away from the windows. When he asked Jim and Ed Flanaganto move it by hand with ropes, they could not do it with all their strength. Harry yelled for them to move aside, and he moved the whole platform by himself. I always believed he was superman, and he even told me one time, when I was a boy asking what is under that trapdoor at the entrance ramp; ‘Superman lives there.’ Well, certainly, Superman worked there.”
Bertoia at the Michener Museum
The exhibit at the Michener Museum fills two small rooms with monoprints, sculpture and jewelry. The Diamond chair, along with the form used for its fabrication, and a few variations from the diamond series are clustered together on one platform.
The monoprints, mostly ink on rice paper, were often Bertoia’s plans for future sculptures but the works stood up as art prints on their own. The subtlety of repetitive fine lines, the restrained black and white tonal range and the compositional strength is impressive.
It is entirely appropriate that the exhibit space is adjacent to the museum’s George Nakashima room. Val spoke of the many visits the Bertoias made to the Nakashima home and studio near New Hope, Pennsylvania and the warm friendships between the families. There was a relationship between the sculpture and the furniture too—Nakashima wood pieces made the perfect sounding board for Bertoia’s Sonambient sculpture.
The sad bit is that you cannot touch any of the sculptures. The room is silent although one pair of headphones allows the visitor to hear Bertoia’s Sonambient recordings—it is not the same as hearing and feeling the sounds in the flesh. What would happen if the museum allowed guests to play with the sculpture? It would be mesmerizing for the visitor but disruptive to the rest of the museum I suppose. I confess that I could not resist playing my own concert while I waited for Val to arrive at the homestead.
May 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Date of Visit: April 2013
The German Pavilion for the Barcelona World Exposition, 1929
Web Link: www.miesbcn.com
In sharp contrast to Barcelona’s curvaceous and ornamental buildings of the Modernisma movement (1888-1910) is a minimalist icon of the International Style, Mies Van der Rohe’s German Pavilion. The building is actually a 1986 recreation of the original that was built in 1929 but the famous Barcelona Chair found inside is authentic. The chair, frequently attributed to the well-known Mies, was designed in collaboration with another German designer, Lilly Reich, who teamed with the architect on furniture and interior projects between 1925 and 1938. This time span is the only period in which Mies designed furniture, later noting, “ A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” It was certainly easier with Riech, who was trained in industrial textiles, at his side. The chair, named after the city in which it premiered, was their greatest joint project, made when the duo served as the artistic directors for the German Pavilion in Barcelona’s World Exposition in 1929.
We started our day nearby, taking in the mural paintings in the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya on the little mountain of Montjuic high above the city. The neo-Baroque style which building served as the Spanish pavilion was more in line with what people considered as architecture in that day. We descended many levels of stairs alongside the cascading Magic Fountain to street level and starting searching for the Mies building. It was tucked away, not immediately visible, off to the left. It must have been a shocking site in 1929 because it is still a novel edifice in Barcelona today.
My traveling companion chose not to join in the visit. He has read the TripAdvisor comments including one that advised “just look at it from the outside, There is nothing to the inside … Literally, one of the worst cost/benefit ratios in my entire traveling career. We scooted through in under a minute…” It’s hard to imagine why someone would visit this out-of-the-way building with such a lack of understanding but travel compels some people to blindly trudge through any and all attractions.
The 4 euro charge did seem a bit steep but there were plenty of takers streaming in and out at the entrance steps. The guard, a grouchy young woman, barked at us as I was handed the camera across the stair threshold, “This is the entrance, don’t cross if you haven’t paid!” Indeed it would be fairly easy to click off a few decent pictures and a quick peek if you weren’t up for the entrance fee.
We, like you, have seen this chair (authentic and knock-offs) ad infinitum in fancy corporate lobbies, spas and private homes. We admired it in Johnson’s Glass House a few years before, but this is where it truly belonged, echoing the building’s cantilevered structure and commanding center stage against the marble and onyx background.
The chair was originally designed as a throne for the King of Spain (with matching stools for royal attendants) during the pavilion’s opening ceremonies. Made from white pigskin, they were barely showing their 84 years. (Imagine your own white furniture after only 10!) There are conflicting counts on the number of pieces needed to produce the leather upholstery, but let’s go with the version that claims that 148 individual panels of leather were cut, hand welted and hand tufted. Although only these few were produced for the pavilion, many tens of thousands were mass produced after Mies sold the design rights to Knoll International (several years after Reich died).
The only other free standing object was a sculpture that animated the space with a slow dance. Several water features were calming, flat and quiet, matching the mood of the building.
We had seen the “Chair of the Century” and it was time to join the endless lines at Gaudi’s Familia Sagrada—a building that promised to hold the attention of any traveler, whether they knew what they were looking at or not.
March 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
I. Benjamin Franklin Court
Gentlewomen of the Press
317 Chestnut Street
II. Monotype Factory Building
Women typecasters during war-time
24th and Locust Street
III. Philadelphia Museum of Art/Pearlman Building
Double Portrait: Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, Graphic Designers
What do we know about the history of women in the graphic arts? According to all of the major academic texts on the subject virtually no women worked in the field before the mid-twentieth century. However, despite the impression left by those authors there have been women printers, typesetters, type casters, punch cutters, type drafters and type designers since the 16th century. Women have worked alongside their fathers, husbands and brothers as valuable partners, regularly taking over while men traveled, left to fight in wars, were incarcerated or inebriated. If the absent man was able to return to his press the women were frequently demoted or dismissed.
Just as their own families have marginalized the roles of these women so have modern design historians. In 1920, the eminent type historian Daniel Berkeley Updike, (himself a grandson and great-grandson of the colonial Goddard women printers) wrote of the female worker matter-of-factly and dismissively, “women in the type foundry, like child labor, is nothing new.” In essence, women were there but of they were of no consequence. Fortunately things are changing and women from the present, as well as the past, are getting their due recognition.
Benjamin Franklin Court
Colonial Ladies of Letterpress
Part of the Independence National Historical Park includes a colonial print shop on the former site of Benjamin Franklin’s home. The press now houses a few type cases, a bindery and a large antique printing press used for live demonstrations. On each Saturday of March a short lecture, Gentlewomen of the Press (Women Printers of the 18th Century), highlights some of the women in colonial print shops. My son discovered the free event and he and his girlfriend gamely accompanied me to the presentation.
Finding the press took a bit of persistence. The Franklin Court complex is located inside of a city block with minimal signage to announce its whereabouts. The entrance begins next to the colonial post office and snakes past the construction site that currently covers most of the Franklin museum complex (slated for completion by Fall 2103).
We entered just in time to hear the ranger’s enthusiastic explanation as to why colonial Philadelphia had a high rate of female literacy. The colonial Quakers encouraged women to read for participation in Bible study, a necessity in a religion that required self-learning rather than instruction by church officials. Literacy was certainly an advantage for women in the press shop (although we’ve read of one illiterate woman printer, Dinah Nuthead, who became the tenth woman licensed to print in the colonies in 1696.)
Our presenter surveyed numerous Franklin women and female associates who were active in the printing field, most of whom fit the pattern of marginalization we noted earlier. Benjamin’s wife, Deborah Read (1708-1774), was the manager of the family press during Franklin’s long absences overseas— holding down the fort and helping to expand the business throughout the colonies. Franklin only credited his wife for her financial prowess, “Frugality is…a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.”
It was the female in-laws of Franklin that actually “got inky” at the press. Ann (Smith) Franklin (1696 -1763) the sister-in-law of Benjamin and widow of his brother, became the first woman printer in Newport, Rhode Island at age 39 when she inherited her husband’s press in 1735. She ran the press while raising five children alone, later joined by son James when he completed his apprenticeship with Uncle Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1748. When James died Anne (then age 65) fed the family by continuing the print shop assisted by her son-in-law and her two daughters, who were “correct and quick compositors.”
Franklin was also in a business partnership with Elizabeth Timothy (?–1757), a widow in South Carolina, whose newspaper printing skills were praised by Franklin over those of her late husband. Mrs. Timothy, as a woman, could not be legally recognized in her position and therefore placed the name of her 13-year-old son, Peter, on the paper’s masthead as the official publisher. Using a male child’s name was a common tactic for printing widows and one of the reasons that many women printers names are unrecorded.
The most historically notable woman of the group was Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816), daughter of another female printer, Sarah Updike Goddard, and ancestor of the aforementioned Daniel Berkeley Updike. Mary Katherine took over her brother William’s newspaper during his frequent incarcerations for “public outbursts and rabble-rousing articles in the paper” and while he fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1777, Congress authorized her to print the first official copy of the Declaration of Independence to include the names of the original signers, but she made her livelihood and reputation at the newspaper. One of her contemporaries, newspaper publisher Isaiah Thomas, considered her,“ an expert and correct compositor, doing good printing besides fine work with copperplates.” Nevertheless, not all was peaceful after the Revolution as brother William returned to the press and summarily dismissed Mary Katherine. She lost her printing business to her brother despite a slew of influential names attached to her letters of petition to the government and five attempted lawsuits. She persevered by selling books, stationery and dry goods.
We saw the press in operation by two different women park guards who competently made their way through the printing as they explained the process. Several woman-centric printed items were on sale. Satisfied in mind but not in stomach, we lunched a few doors away at Fork restaurant.
The Monotype Factory
Women in War Time Prove “We can do it!”
The next stop was 24th and Locust Street, location of the former Monotype Factory. This time Philadelphia-based graphic designer and Hofstra Design professor, Bez Ocko, accompanied us. Although the name Monotype is now associated with digital fonts the term was first used to describe a metal type-casting machine sold in the United States and Great Britain. In 1887 Tolbert Lanston designed the Monotype prototype which required two pieces of equipment, a keyboard and a metal typecaster. The process began with an operator typing the text using a keyboard of 276 keys, the amount required to cover all of a font variants such as italic, bold, etc. Each key strike triggered a number of holes punched along the length of a 4-inch wide paper ribbon. The typecasting machine used the perforated ribbon to dictate the specific order in which individual metal letters were cast from a brass a matrix. (We will include much more about the Monotype in our next posting in late March.)By 1905 the American Lanston Monotype Company moved its manufacturing to Philadelphia, first on Callowhill Street and later to 24th and Locust. The new five-story brick structure housed 200,000 square-feet of matrix making, letter drafting, tooling, assembling, milling, casting, inspection, engineering and training facilities.
Today the only remainders of the Philadelphia Monotype factory are the stone letters over the door and past volumes of the house organ, Monotype: A Journal of Composing Room Efficiency. In those publications one can read how women at Monotype and across the country, normally confined to keyboard input, filled in for men during wartime. The articles praise the women for their important contribution in war time but make it clear that it is only a temporary situation.
From an 1918 edition, “The present shortage of male Monotype operators and runners has opened a new field for the girls and they are making good at it.” From Omaha, Nebraska came the story of how a woman became a Monotype type caster during the man shortage of World War I. “As the weeks rolled by and no suitable candidate for the job appeared it began to look as if our foreman would be compelled to operate the casters himself. About this time a copy of Monotype containing the picture of a young lady operator in New York fell into the hands of a Miss Wells who was working in the bindery. She applied and after considering the matter for some time we decided to give her a chance to show what she could do. She began by watching how the work was done. This she did for several days after which she was taught to take off the galleys, keep the metal pots full, and the temperature of the metal right, to put on the spools of copy and the other incidentals of caster running. She has not attempted to change the molds but hopes to be able to do so in the future. As matters now stand Miss Wells is learning as rapidly as the average young man and is more dependable.”…“In this connection it might be well to consider that all trades are breaking down traditions and find that woman can perform many operations for which they were supposed to be in some way unfitted.”
Despite the women’s suitability for their work the male run trade unions squashed any future prospects. “At the last meeting of the American Publishers Association there rose a request to the International Typographic Union to train women operators for the newspaper, but the proposition did not meet the approval of that body, who considered the newspaper end of the business as too strenuous for the women.” In this case it was the union, not family members or the actual workshop managers that kept women out of the foundry.
4:00 PM The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Pearlman Building
Double Portrait: Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, Graphic Designers
December 2, 2012 – April 14, 2013
Our last stop of the day was a joint showing of the work of graphic designer Paula Scher (b. 1948) and her illustrator husband Seymour Chwast (b. 1931). The exhibition was the perfect demonstration, not only of Ms. Scher’s talent, but also of how far women have come in terms of professional and marital equality. The couple was given equal billing and space in the large gallery. Both spouses showed high quality work, but at a distance Sher’s exudes a more powerful energy, a deliberate approach she cultivated in response to the environment where her work is often seen, New York City.
Scher, educated at Tyler School of Art just outside Philadelphia, began her career designing album covers for CBS and Atlantic Records. In 1984, she co-founded Koppel & Scher with fellow Tyler graduate Terry Koppel and it was during that partnership that she designed her intensely controversial Swatch poster. The poster was a near perfect replication of the travel poster designed by Herbert Matter in 1934. Although she obtained the rights from the Matter estate, and it appears that she was clearly referring to Swiss culture, Matter and the dying era of Swiss design, the subsequent critical uproar included accusations of plagiarism or a least a lack of professional integrity. Perhaps part of the controversy was that Scher was a woman appropriating the work of a male icon, (recently deceased) and the perceived lack of reverence was just too provocative.
The exhibition display was big and bright. The space, divided equally in half, featured walls filled to the rafters with their work plus separate but equal media presentations. The east wall, displaying a single A from Scher’s logo for the Type Director’s Club is directly countered by the west wall sporting the organic A Chwast drew for Artone India Ink. Each spouse was given their proper due, a sweet end to a day tinged with female inequality and anonymity.
One can never know if her predecessors had the luxury (or burden) of reflecting on their professional relationships but perhaps they might have had some of the same thoughts as Scher, “If I had not been with him, would I have lived my life exactly this way, or am I with him because I always wanted to do it this way? I don’t know. I ask myself this question all the time.’’ * To see more of her work and hear Ms. Scher in her own words you can view her interview, Paula Scher : The Geography of Design by Nicholas Heller.
Barlow, Marjorie Dana. Notes on Women Printers in Colonial America and The Untied States, 1639-1975, The Hroswitha Club, University Press of Virginia, 1976.
Photo Mary Katherine Goddard: Courtesy of Enoch Pratt Free Library
Monotype Doing Her Bit, While Her Soldier is Serving His Country. Monotype A Journal of Composing Room Efficiency, Published by the Lanston Monotype Company of Philadelphia.
•Volume 5, No 6, March April 1918, p 133.
• Volume 6, No 1, May June 1918.
Tiger, Caroline. Together – never; except in an exhibit of their graphic designs at the Art Museum. The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 1, 2012.
Paula Scher: The Geography of Design (Part 2) Nicholas Heller, August 2009. Youtube.
Written by Nancy Stock-Allen
February 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
Date of Visit: January 2013
I. The Gandhi Museum
Madurai, Tamil Nadu
II. The Sarasvati Mahal Library
Thanjuvar, Tamil Nadu
Link: Library catalog
III. Thiruparankundram Temple Priest School
Near Maduri, Tamil Nadu
The state of Tamil Nadu (Tamil country), once called Madras, is located on the southeastern coast of India. Inhabited by the Tamil people since 500 BC, it still holds fast to its regional language, Tamil, used along with Hindi (the national language) and English on official signs. The state is home to a rich history of architectural and literary works achieved during the powerful dynasties of the Chera, Chola and Pandya. That heritage, threatened with extinction during a period of European colonization, has thankfully been saved by strong social reformists and conservationists for us to enjoy in the 21st century.
I. The Gandhi Museum / Preserving the Legacy
We retreated from the cacophony of Madurai’s streets for a few hours to tour the Mahatma Gandhi Museum. By coincidence it was January 26th, Republic Day, the annual holiday commemorating the adoption of the Indian Constitution and when we arrived the front garden was full of students making speeches and carrying flags. Once inside the building we were quickly swept up into the story of India’s struggle for independence starting in 1598 when the British East India Trading Company commenced their campaign of colonization. The Englishmen pitted regional Indian rulers against each other, bribed others and bludgeoned the rest to gain control over of a major portion of the country. (Similarly the Portuguese, French, Danes and Dutch injected their own spice trading groups.) Once established the British traders sucked the country’s resources dry by denying Indians the right to manufacture their own goods and forcing them to buy imports from England. Native landowners and peasants alike were highly taxed and that revenue bought Indian commodities to ship back to England. As John Sullivan wrote, “The Englishman flourishes like a sponge, drawing up the riches from the banks of the Ganges and squeezing them on the banks of the Thames.”
The British Parliament was advised to obliterate Indian culture and religion in an infamous report by Lord Macaulay, who suggested the following to his superiors back in England, “… I do not think we would ever conquer this country unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.” Missionaries were dispatched to introduce Christianity to India as part of that scheme.
When Queen Victoria assumed the role of Empress of India in 1858 Westernization accelerated. Railroads and the telegraph reduced travel and communication time across the vast continent and English was instituted as the official language (facilitating more contact between India and the Western world). Indians, however, were not convinced that British ways were “good and greater than their own.” To the contrary, Indian scholars began to rediscover their indigenous history and literature spawning an Indian Renaissance, a resurgence of national pride and an urgency to expel the colonists. Many dedicated Indian patriots and martyrs would perish in the pursuit of independence over the next century.
We now know that it was the transcendent personality of Mahatma Gandhi that successfully inspired India’s masses by his new method of action, “satyagraha” (a word Gandhi combined from the Sanskrit for “ truth” and “holding firm”). The title of Mahatma, or “Great Soul” was bestowed by Gandhi’s contemporary, Rabindranath Tagore, the author of India’s national anthem. (If you are a regular reader of this blog you may remember that Aina Cederblom, from our last post, taught weaving at an experimental school run by Tagore near Kolkata.)
About half of the museum space presents the arc of Gandhi’s personal and public life. We learned that it was in Madurai that Gandhi chose to adopt the dhoti, a simple Indian peasant garment, as a symbol of his solidarity with all classes of his countrymen. He spun the thread for his personal clothing on a spinning wheel, setting an example to urge Indians to resume making their own goods. The exhibit concludes with a small room containing a single profoundly moving artifact—the blood stained dhoti that Gandhi wore on the day of his assassination. The whole experience gave us a deep respect for the combined efforts of Gandhi and his predecessors who helped India regain self-rule in 1947 and preserved the rich cultural heritage of India.
II. The Maharaja Serfoji Sarasvati Mahal Library / Preserving Literature
Thanjavur, South India
About 200 kilometers north of Madurai is Thanjavur, a cultural mecca that evolved under the patronage of kings who supported religion and the cultural arts of music, dance, art and literature. The city is most known for its stunningly beautiful Brihadisvara Temple built during the Chola dynasty by Raja Raja the Great (985-1016). We visited the enormous temple complex at dusk while the setting sun best emphasized the sculptural facades.
Thanjavur priests and scholars were active writers of religious and scholarly manuscripts, many composed in Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism. The nearby royal palace stored much of their work in a library named Sarasvati Mahal during the Nayak period of the 16th century. A later ruler, Raja Serfoji II (1798-1832), enlarged the collection by dispatching pandits (experts in Sanskrit) to buy or copy Sanskrit manuscripts from Northern India and other important Sanskrit centers.
Serfoji, an ardent bibliophile, studied English, French, Italian and Latin under Danish missionary, Reverend C. F. Schwartz. In 1805 he set up a printing press in 1805 in the palace and equipped it with “cast Devanagari type imported from Madras”.  (Devanagari is one of several writing systems used for recording Sanskrit.) Other sources describe the type as stone type. “The Types and Blocks were prepared using soft stone and hard wood.”  The press, known as Navavidyakalanichi, was inaugurated with an edition of Maratha Pachanga (The Almanac) produced on European paper. Serfoji also ordered translations of English story books for educating village children.The royal library eventually passed into public hands upon the death of the last Maratha queen in 1983.
The library is still situated within the royal palace complex in the heart of Thanjavur. We arrived on a Tuesday before the 10 am opening (There are a number of conflicting sources on the opening days and times. Tuesday seems the most reliable). We first viewed the palace art gallery next door which was undergoing extensive renovation—a work in progress that will be far superior after completion. The library however was well worth the visit.
The brightly painted exterior book store hints at what will be for the entire palace complex in the future. Once inside a hallway leads you to junction between a museum on the right and the library archives on the left. The museum very strictly prohibits any photography and the four or so grim-faced guards in charge of the small museum loudly slap the showcases with dust rags, glaring at all visitors to show that they mean business. (The library officials suggested that we scan images to illustrate this piece from The Painted Treasures of the Sarasvati Mahal Library .)
All sorts of books are on view: palm leaf books, manuscripts and printed bound books of diverse subject matter: Vedas (Hindu scriptures), epic poems, purana, (histories of the universe from creation to destruction) philosophy, modi (business registers), jyothisa (astrology), medicine, literature and scientific illustrations. Well-known works including the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata and several versions of the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey) including one known as Valmiki Ramayanam which features all 24,000 verses written in Grantha script so miniature that the letters are impossible to read with naked eye. (A magnifying glass is suspended above for viewing.) Some of the palm books are entirely script while others are illuminated with a single color or elaborate multiple color decorations. Also on display are maps, early Western books and curios such as the smallest and largest palm leaf books.
It is a bit confusing to sort out some of the facts about the collection. According to a library-produced pamphlet for tourists the oldest dated palm leaf manuscript, the Andhrabhagavatam, by Telugu poet Bammera Pothana, is dated 1432 (although Pothana’s lifespan was 1450-1510). Yet a book the library published in 2011 the oldest palm leaf manuscript is the Gadyachintamani written in 1550.
We were most fascinated by the books made from palm leaves, a common book material in ancient India. The process of preparing a palm leaf for writing is labor intensive: the dried leaves are cut to equal lengths, drilled for the string binding, boiled in water, dried again and then buried in sand before a final polish with conch shells. A salaka (metal stylus) was used to inscribe the text into the leaf surface and then washed with a mixture of charcoal and vegetable juice to add contrast to the letters. The finished leaves were smoked over a fire and coated with juices to provide protection from insect damage.
In the 1700′s a plant-based paper was beginning to be manufactured as a substitute for palm leaf material. The paper manuscripts were written using wood, bamboo or quill pens with an ink that was a mixture of lamp soot and extracts of the needle bush (Vachellia farnesiana). The natural preservative for paper was a bath in a turmeric and water solution.
Behind the Scenes Preservation and Transcription
Today the library’s mission includes preservation of the collection, recording it on microfilm as well as transcribing the ancient texts into computers for publication. Anxious to know more we asked to see some of the work behind the scenes. We were grateful for the limited access granted by head librarian, Dr. S. Sudarshan, to see the transcription and preservation processes. We were introduced to one of the Telugu pandits, Mr. D. Ravi, who graciously conducted a short tour of the four manuscript divisions which are divided by language (Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi and Telugu).
One of the pandits was translating and hand transcribing content from an ancient palm leaf book. She was handwriting the entire text in ball point pen on paper, preparing it for electronic entry in the nearby computer center.
Large wooden cabinets hold the manuscripts along one side of the archives. Although there is no air-conditioning or climate control the storage is relatively stable deep within the thick stone-walled building. As a precaution if the temperature exceeds 90 degrees the palm leaf pages are not handled. (The library computers are pampered with air-conditioning inside a separate glass walled section.) Hopefully environmental control will come for the manuscripts in the future, but for now the collection is preserved using traditional natural methods. Each palm-leaf is routinely cleaned with Citronella, an extract of lemon grass which insures flexibility of the leaves and acts as an insecticide. If the cleaning process lightens the lettering it is refreshed by a wash of black ink and oil. Approximately 60 of the 25,000 palm leaf manuscripts are cleaned each day.
Mr. Ravi opened the first storage cabinet and out flowed the lush odor of the Citronella. Each manuscript is individually wrapped in white linen, tied with a string and identified on the outside. Our guide kindly untied one to demonstrate the flexibility of a preserved leaf that was several hundred years old.
In another section of the building paper books were in various stages of repair. Stabilization of holes and tears in delicate pages is achieved by layering a piece translucent “Japan paper” (we suspect it was rice paper) over the entire page and then trimmed.
A small group of men was binding newly printed books containing the text from an ancient palm leaf book manuscript. We saw similar reprints for sale in the library bookstore and in shops inside temples all over Tamil Nadu.
III. Thiruparankundram Temple Priest School
Preserving Sanskrit and the ancient Grantha Script
Although India has one national language, Hindi, it also recognizes 22 regional languages out of it hundreds of local tongues. Without any expertise in this area we are reluctant to wade into the topic of Indian languages but what we surmise is that there are two major branches of language development in Tamil Nadu. One is the Sanskrit family—a historical language related to modern Indian languages in much the same way that Greek and Latin connect with western languages. Separately there is the Dravidian family of languages, 85 in number including the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam systems that we observed in the Sarasvati Mahal library collection. What muddles the water is the fact that some of the Dravidian languages can be used to write Sanskrit while other can reproduce the full range of sounds in Sanskrit.
Although it is an ancient language, Sanskrit is still used in some instances in the modern world. For example when yoga teachers instruct their students, they frequently use the Sanskrit names for positions, ie: Adho-mukha svanasana is Sanskrit for downward dog. Om, ॐ, is also a Sanskrit word.
A more academic use of Sanskrit is in religious practices, including Hinduism. We were able to observe Sanskrit as a living language while visiting a traditional Vedic school dedicated to educating boys of Brahmin birth to become Hindu priests. While one does not expect boys between the ages of 10 and 18 to be interested in conversing with older adults these fellows were a respectful and inquisitive group. They were enthusiastic in sharing their Sanskrit lesson books using Grantha script, a once common form now replaced in the secular world with Devanagari script. They were a lively group but when it was time for their twice daily chanting and prayer ceremony they scrambled into their places, executed some nostril breathing exercises and then flipped open their books to chant in unison as a cohesive whole.
Be not like the frog in the well. The frog in the well knows nothing bigger or grander than its well. So are all (bigots) narrow-minded persons, they do not see anything bigger than their own wells. Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886).
Unless otherwise noted, all images 2013 © designhistory.org.
 The Indian Antiquary, page 194 June 7,1872.
 Srinivasanm G, Treasure Trove in Thanjavur, The Daily Hindu, November 7, 2011.
 Wujastyk, Dominik, Thanjavur Library – A Realm of Knowledge, The Sampradaya Sun-Independnet Vaisnava News, Oct 14, 2012.
December 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
During the 1930’s, Swedish textile artist Aina Cederblom (1896–1986) set out on extensive solo boat journeys, logging distances that leave even today’s jet-engine-enabled traveler in awe. Merely covering distance however was not her goal, as she explained in a 1936 interview: “I want you to understand that there is very little love of adventure in my motor-boat exploits. It is purely for educational purposes.”
Cederblom’s “educational purposes” were anchored in her training as a textile designer at The School of Industrial Arts in Sweden. During her travels she often paused to teach women to weave and, when possible, established weaving centers and schools. Left in her wake were many gainfully employed women with self-sustaining skills who subsequently preserved their own national textile traditions.
The Travel Adventures: 1931–1938
Normally we interview our subjects but in this case we could only speak to those who knew her or read about her in documents (mostly translated from Swedish). What we have gathered from all accounts is that Cederblom was a physically small but constitutionally mighty woman who combined weaving, teaching and humanitarian aid with an itch to travel. She made three major solo journeys across Europe, to the Black Sea to Greenland and the Far East before dedicating her life to humanitarian projects.
Trip 1: Europe 1931-1932
Her first trip in her open motorboat, Rospiggen, was sparsely equipped: “two thin blankets, a pillow stuffed with hay, a thick cloak to sleep in and a raincoat.” The few other items on board included a picnic basket, a gas can and a set of oars. The 34-year old Swede was a bit naïve about the demands of long-distance boating; on her first journey she had no compass or charts, just a road map. Fiercely determined to sail alone as much as possible, she would “hitch-hike” (or freight) her boat as cargo to reach difficult locations and then would then resume her journey aboard the Rospiggen.
Traveling down the Elbe and then the Danube, the first leg of the trip went as far as the Austrian city of Pöchlarn (near Vienna) where Rospiggen would be put up out of ice. Cederblom spent the winter teaching weaving to local women before setting out for the Black Sea. (See Epilogue below). Her course was outlined in a newspaper item (with some small errors) on July 5, 1932 in The Long Island Star: “Stockholm: Piloting a small boat with an outboard motor from Sweden to the Black Sea, Miss Aina Cederblom of this city has arrived in Constanta, Turkey.” (Note: It was likely Constanta, Romania). “She took her craft via the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean through the rivers of Central Europe. She intends to proceed to Istanbul and later to visit the large European and African ports around the Mediterranean.”
The long and arduous trip included some seriously close calls: running out of fuel, engine trouble, unfriendly Hungarian border guards and gunfire on the border between Romania and Bulgaria. (It was a time when passports had to be shown at all borders.) One encounter with severe weather was posted in The New York Times on August 3, 1932: “A remarkable feat of endurance by a Swedish girl of Viking strain, Aina Cederblom, in a tempest on the way from Nice to Calvi. Her small boat Rospiggen shipped water and the engine failed. She rowed 30 hours until the boat was taken in by a steamer thirty miles from Nice.” The rest of the trip was off of the open seas, via the Rhone past Avignon and then a train ride to Strasburg before heading downstream on the Rhine to the North Sea through the Kiel Canal, Gothenburg, Gota Canal and finally back to Stockholm.
Trip 2: Greenland and the American Continent
On her second trip Cederblom planned to “hitch-hike” her new 15-foot Rospiggen II through the islands of the north Atlantic. Starting in Norway she made her way to the Shetland Islands, along the way suffering in strong seas that required she stay awake for 30 hours. She shipped out from the port of Lerwick and again encountered rough seas. Once in the Faeroe Islands she learned of a Danish ban against passengers traveling from the Faeroe Islands to Greenland, so she arranged to sail far out into international waters and then board a Danish fishing boat. Ignoring predictions that she would never see the American continent, Cederblom and her boat were then dropped off near the coast of Greenland equipped with 100 gallons of fuel, water, 30 sea biscuits and a fur coat.
Unfortunately, before she reached the shore her boat became locked inside of an ice floe where the whirlpools from shifting icebergs required her, at one stretch, to row for 24 hours straight to escape being sucked into ice caves. Accompanied by penguins, walrus and seals for 19 days she rationed herself to one biscuit every other day and limited her water intake until she was finally able to break free. “My knees were shaking, I thought of what they told me, that I should ‘never see America’ but I learned that you cannot be afraid and at the same time hear the direction that God gives. I prayed to be shown how to get out of this ice room, finally started my engine and ran it among the small ice, parting it, time and time again until there was finally an opening visible through which to go out.”
She was picked up 2 miles from Greenland’s shore, where upon arrival she “wanted to lay my face against the land, loving even the smallest flower.” The authorities immediately returned the law-breaking sailor to Denmark. After a short stay back at home in Sweden she returned to the Faeroe islands and set up her first weaving school, staying for one year to instruct the island women— providing them a means of income and preserving the local textile tradition.
Trip 3: The Far East (Sri Lanka, India, Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Bali, Borneo and the Phillipines
By the time she traveled to the Far East, Cederblom was much better prepared. Her Rospiggen III measured 18 feet in length, had steel reinforcements, an Albion motor and large amounts of fuel in copper tanks. On October 17, 1935 the Singapore Free Press reported on Cederblom’s progress: “having rested in Ceylon for 5 weeks Ms. Cederblom is now ready to begin her position as weaving mistress at Dr. Rabindranath Tagore‘s school ”at Santiniketan (near Calcutta) India. (Dr. Tagore had created an “authentic” curriculum that emphasized skills and crafts critical for the lives of students growing up in rural India, including how to weave scarves, belts and rugs, duree making as well as building looms out of bamboo. Tagore’s educational philosophy dovetailed with Cederblom’s background in Educational Sloyd—crafts as an essential element of education.)
The reporter asked her why she spent her nights on the boat. “I wanted to see what a tropical night was like,” she replied, “Besides don’t you think it is thrilling? I was amazed at the spectacle greeting me upon rising this morning. The many fishing smacks, setting out, provided a gorgeous site…”
Having first sailed by steamer to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she traveled up the coast of India until, running short on time, went ashore in Vizagapatam to finish the trip to Calcutta by train.
After a year of teaching Cederblom traveled to the Himalayas and Madras. A record of her attempts to reach the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa is included in Peter Hopkirk’s book, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet. Hoping to fool the border guards she dressed as a Tibetan and slept in servant’s quarters. She was exposed and escorted out of Tibet to Darjeeling by a doctor whom she tried to persuade to take her to Lhasa as his “cook/companion.” He declined although he described Aina as “perfectly charming.”
There were perils on this trip as well. She was hit by a fishing boat, a river tidal wave, wood-eating beetles and blistering under the tropical sun. It is on this trip (we have heard) that Cederblom had a serious tooth infection that was not properly cured and later corrective surgery left her face permanently disfigured. This does not seem to have deterred her from continuing her rigorous life.
Back in Sweden Cederblom was becoming known from her books, With Outboard Motor Through Europe and A Sea Vagabond on the Atlantic. Her travel exploits were featured in major magazines, international newspapers and newsreel interviews, but her greatest achievements were to come as a humanitarian.
1941-1986 / Humanitarian Projects in Finland and South America
In 1940’s she came to the aid of people in the West Uusimaa archipelago of Finland who were fleeing the Russian occupation after the 1939 Winter War. She helped evacuate the Finns to Tammisaari (Ekenäs), providing the dislocated families with pre-fab homes and supplies that she hauled from Sweden on an old trawler named Brill. She personally sailed the twelve-hour trip from Stockholm to the outer Finnish islands through waters that were partly mined, enduring several engine breaks and oblivious to the two reports that were issued that she was missing. Hailed as a hero in Finland, Aina made five trips during the summer and autumn of 1940 and organized a feeding station for over 500 children in Helsinki during Second World War from 1941-1944.
In the post-war peacetime her focus turned to the needs of the elderly Finns. With a goal of building a retirement home in Porvoo (near Helsinki) she established a weaving center to train women in the hand production of rugs and upholstery fabric. Cederblom then devised a rather unorthodox trade deal in which she packed the woven goods from her Finnish students and hopped a freighter to Argentina. Once there she sold all of the rugs and woven goods, immediately purchased 25 tons of rice from Paraguay (to assure the value of her Argentine pesos in an economically volatile time). The rice was shipped back to sell in Finland to low income families at cheap prices. This successful venture was repeated three times before the Paraguayans demanded American dollars instead of Argentine pesos: and for that purpose she began traveling to the US in 1952 to sell to the American market.
Near the end of her life Cederblom settled in Brazil and established the Escola Artesanal Sueca Brasi, a weaving school and mission in Olinda, in the northeastern part of the country. This time the funds came from her Swedish social security and a $6,000 compensation that she received after being hit by a car during a visit to the US. Using her meager funds and salvaged building parts from buildings demolished in Sweden was still not enough to finish her project, so she turned to the Swedish Lions club for financial aid. The weaving center and school, Escola Artesanal Sueca Brasi Liera, was completed in 1970.
In 1980 her life story was featured on the Swedish Television series Here is Your Life and if you speak Swedish, you will find more about her here. Cederblom died in 1986, known mostly inside her own country where she is remembered in songs, theatrical plays and on streets that carry her name. Someone has also put up a Facebook page about her.
**Epilogue: Lisl’s Remembrance of Aina (This section especially for Liesl’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews)
We first learned of Cederblom during the fall of 2012 from 88-year old Aunt Lisl who wove professionally for 60 years after getting her start with the Swedish weaver. This is how Lisle tells her story:
In 1932 Aina Cederblom arrived in Shiebbs, Austria (outside Vienna) at the home of her friend, Martha Thonet, and spent the winter teaching her hostess how to weave. Others who benefited from Cederbloom’s instruction were Martha’s sister, Hermine, and niece Liesl (Aunt Lisl) who lived on the grounds of the Thonet’s Villa Lehenhof.
For Lisl and her family (name, Roessler) weaving would become more than a pastime, it was a skill that would sustain them before and after the coming war. During the hard economic times of the 1930’s Liesl, her mother and younger sister Friedl, wove fine shirt fabric to sell to tailors in Vienna. In 1945 the Roessler’s fled the invading Russians to the Austrian mountain village of Kitzbühel to regroup and wait for the end of the war. During that period Lisl developed a unique design style, Bauern Baroque (Farmhouse Baroque), integrating traditional Austrian motifs. The women wove enough rugs, placemats and pillowcases to sell door-to-door until a permanent weaving business could be established back in Salzburg when the war ended. Friedl married an American soldier and moved to the US. Lisl, Hermine and youngest sister, Johanna continued on as full-time weavers.
Eventually Lisl also married and moved away, weaving alone in her new location until her daughter, Christl, was old enough to join her. Mother and daughter sold their weaving from a storefront in their village, Golling an der Salzach, and later from their large weaving studio and home built into a nearby hillside. Local women were hired and trained to produce large carpets and smaller woven accessories in one of the few traditional weaving studios that remained in Austria.
Christl traveled to Vienna for rigorous commercial training under the weaving master Heinrich Hetzer. She had her own family of three children who grew up around the looms of the family business but the tradition of weaving will not continue. (The fourth generation have chosen web design, graphic design and management as their paths.) Christl remains the sole active weaver in the family, proprietress of Handweberei Christl Seiwald-Buxbaum in Golling an der Salzach.
The Roessler women saw Aina a few times later in their lives. During the 1950’s Aina visited Freidl in the US, most likely during her selling-rugs-for-rice scheme. Lisl and Christl recall seeing her in Austria but the details of the dates are sketchy. They note that she traveled with a very large steamer-type trunk that contained her clothing and doubled as her place to sleep. (It was probably a necessity since by then she often traveled by slow commercial freighters). There was always plenty of laughing and lively conversation when Cederblom visited. What remains is a warm gratitude to Cederblom for passing along a skill that sustained the family through the decades of hard and happy times.
Swedish Girl’s Lone Voyage, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 17 October, 1935, page 12.
Jesse Ash Arndt, Fearless Enterprise Aids Quiet Swedish Woman’s Program of Helpfulness, The Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1952.
This Is Your Life on Swedish Television. Lasse Holmqvist, host. Aired Saturday, 25 January, 1980.
Tapti Das-Gupta, Social Thought of Rabindranath Tagore : A Historical Analysis, Abhinav Publications, Jan 1, 1993
Aina Cederblom, Världshavens äventyrerska, Enslinjen, Ekenas Navigationsklubb, r.f, Nr 21, 2010.
This entry written by Nancy Stock-Allen in memory of Deborah Warner (1948-2012), textile artist, beloved professor, colleague and friend.