Font Literacy at the National Gallery of Art

Over the holidays I got to travel with my family to visit my parents in Washington DC. While there, as always, we took time out to visit the National Gallery of Art. We saw some great exhibits. The kids liked the exhibition of Spanish Armor, but I found the strange and melancholy art of The Darker Side of Light to be the most interesting.

Of course, while we were there we spent some time in the gallery’s fantastic gift shops which are loaded with art prints, cards, art-based knick knacks, reproductions and lots of books on art and artists. Inevitably some of those books and products featured our fonts, like Swords: An Artist’s Devotion which used our Kelmscott font for the cover title and a number of our fonts, including Windlassfor interior titles as well. It was also interesting to see our Carmilla font used as the title font for a colletion of art cards of Great Nudes.

What was most striking among the products on sale at the National Gallery stores was the lack of font literacy on the part of the publishers and designers. You would think that when publishing a book or other product based on the work of an artist like William Morris or Alphons Mucha the authors or the designers of the book or product would know enough about the artist whose work they are presenting to be aware that those artists were also notable for their font design or original hand lettering. Yet my eye was caught again and again by examples of products whose designers seemed fundamentally ignorant of the availability of appropriate fonts to compliment the art which they were presenting. A couple of examples stand out. One was a very nice wall calendar from the Brooklyn Museum of Art based on William Morris Arts & Crafts Designs which could have used a William Morris font like our Kelmscott or True Golden, but instead opted for a pretty but unrelated generic art nouveau font. Similarly, a collection of William Morris Giftwrap opted for a plain text font when a Morris font would have been much more appropriate.

Along the same lines, but perhaps somewhat less of a failing were the collections of postcards based on the work of various artists which use their signatures for a title. That’s reasonable in some cases, but it seems like a failing when the artist is Alphons Mucha who did so many lovely hand lettered posters and whose work has been made into some very popular fonts including the eight included in our extensive Mucha collection. That package would have looked much better with Slava or Moravian on the cover.

I may be hypersensitive to this issue, but it just seems logical to me to use the most appropriate fonts possible when presenting the work of an artist, and if that artist was a calligrapher or did remarkable and unique lettering or even designed type, then what excuse does an author or designer who is presenting his work have for not being aware of that and using appropriate fonts? It seems like a disservice to the artist’s legacy and to the public to overlook that aspect of his art. It’s probably too much to expect, but it also seems like a failing on the part of the museum store. Shouldn’t their buyer, who probably got a nice degree in Art History from a respectable college, also be aware of this issue, and when faced with a choice between products pick the one packaged with appropriate fonts rather than with some random alternative?

There seems to be a lack of basic font litreracy here. Are the art and design schools not teaching anything about the history of typography or the work of these artists beyond the most obvious? Morris was the biggest figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. He wrote and painted and designed furniture and fabric and books and typefaces. No one of those things presents a full picture of his talent, so if you’ve studied Morris at all  you ought to know about all of them and use that knowledge. I suppose the average consumer won’t know the difference, but they have the excuse of not having an education or working in the merchandising of art. And when the occasional knowledgeable person does see your work they may notice the flaw and then get grumpy and produce an article like this, for whatever that’s worth.

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