16 books from the library of the pioneering graphic design historian
(Author’s note: The following article was originally published on the Designers & Books website five years ago, on May 30, 2017, on the occasion of my father Philip B. Meggs’ 75th birthday. I am sharing it now here on May 30, 2022, on what would have been his 80th birthday. I have left the below text in its originally published format, from 2017. In rereading it, I felt unsettled as I read the text for book №13, The Isms of Art 1924–1914, edited by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp, because I wrote about pondering the unknown and unwritten uncertainties of the future, writing, “We might also ask the same question today: “2017 — — — ?”
As we all know, the world has since been shrouded by a deadly global pandemic along with other major uncertainties and challenges. It is reassuring to me today to revisit these books, just as it is to revisit my father through his writing. Unfortunately, the issues such as racism and voter suppression addressed in book №10, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, text by Lorraine Hansberry, remain as relevant as ever. The combustive effects of a world saturated by electronic mass communication technology, book-burning censorship, and low literacy levels, addressed in book №12, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, are chillingly prescient regarding their contemporary prevalence and a world that sees renewed book bannings and burnings.
However, I remain optimistic, for the voices and thoughts in all of these books remain alive and at work today. We continue to learn. Our world’s smartest, most curious minds are thinking and working at every second toward solving problems plus expanding every aspect of human life, from literature and art to medicine and space travel. I’ve often wondered what my father would have had to say about the vast changes in our world since his death in 2002, from the invention of smart phones and the global explosion of social media (along with a vital and pressing demand for more inclusivity in all fields), to the pandemic and climate change. I believe he would have had much to say, and would have continued to uphold his faith in thinking, writing, designing, and ultimately his faith in humanity. I believe that in spite of the darkness we now face, he would have remained optimistic, and continued working on research, writing, and art with his incomparable enthusiasm. There’s no question he would be thrilled about the pioneering graphic design history research taking place all over the globe.
The revised seventh edition of Meggs’ History of Graphic Design is currently in the works, which will doubtless address the many changes in our world along with graphic designers’ ability to adapt to and vitalize the zeitgeist.
Something fun happened since the original article was published, too. My mother, Libby Phillips Meggs, took book №4, Concerning America and Alfred Steiglitz, and Myself, by Emmet Gowin to the beloved PBS show Antiques Roadshow, and her appraisal aired recently, on the third episode at Colonial Williamsburg. I love the story she tells behind the book. Our stories sustain us, keeping those we have lost, all that we remember, and our own dreams for the future alive.
So, on today, Philip B. Meggs’ 80th birthday, it is my sincere wish that we can all find inspiration in books, and hope for the future. It still means a lot to me to remember my father through his personal collection of books, plus his own writing. We miss him very much, and always will. — Elizabeth Meggs)
The first written and illustrated manuscripts ever produced were the Egyptian Books of the Dead, written in hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls, beginning around 1580 BCE, which detailed stories of what would happen to a deceased person in the afterlife. The impulse to invent an afterlife has often been the catalyst for the creation of many of history’s most revered written and illustrated works. Books represent a tangible and knowable true afterlife — the afterlife that remains for future generations to understand the thoughts, records, and very souls of past generations of humans.
It is with this thought in mind that I felt I paid my late father, pioneering graphic design historian Philip B. Meggs, a sort of visit when I perused the library he shared with my mother, art director and author/illustrator Libby Phillips Meggs. Their library remains her current working library, and its volumes were jointly collected, discussed, and treasured from the time they met at ages 17 and 19. My mother graciously allowed me full access to her library, and for that I am grateful. I took a look at books that helped my parents evolve their values and attitudes, paving the way for their own writing and creative work.
The task of curating a small selection of books was daunting, and I in no way want to indicate any sort of bias or historical bias belonging to my parents through my selection, as my parents’ bookshelves contain broad interests. If any bias is perceived, it should be noted that it is mine alone, and occurred at the point of my curation.
I selected books to share with the Designers and Books audience that might be of interest, including: limited editions; books that embrace typography and printing as an art form; books that bring to life the voices and visions of notable individuals from history; books that had strong personal meaning to my parents; and books that remain relevant today. I found a few personal touches and surprises: a rubber stamp my father had stamped in a treasured book, signatures from beloved artists and authors who are no longer with us, and a quote my mother had slipped into one of my father’s books. I hope that bibliophiles reading this might feel they know my parents Libby Phillips Meggs and Philip B. Meggs in some small way, and discover some remarkable books to explore further, after sharing this brief peek with me at the following selections from the library of Philip B. Meggs and Libby Phillips Meggs.
- Manuale Typographicum by Hermann Zapf
Hermann Zapf felt that typeface design is “one of the most visible visual expressions of an age.”
Manuale Typographicum presents “100 typographical arrangements with considerations about types, typography and the art of printing selected from past and present, printed in eighteen languages.”
This is volume 555 of an American edition of 975 copies from 1968, signed by Hermann Zapf, printed at the Officin Ludwig Oehms in Frankfurt am Main (Germany).
The exquisite type designs, including many designed by Zapf, coupled with the masterful craftsmanship exhibited in the design, letterspacing, hand typesetting, and letterpress printing of this edition are rarely paralleled. The typefaces here are Linotype Electra and Caslon Old Style.
The quotes selected are both powerful and profound, such as this quote on page 17 by Raymond Blattenberger from 1955:
“Printing is an international art — it belongs to the people of all nations & is an effective instrument for world peace. For, if peace is the product of mutual understanding, then there is no work of man which is better designed to promote that understanding than the printing press.”
The original text is in Palatino. The German translation is interspersed in small size Palatino Italic that is one point letterspaced and in red ink. It’s worth noting that the page numbers are printed without ink, but rather exist as impressions on the paper.
2. Before Rosebud was a Sled: Commercial Wood Engraving in America Seen Through the GramLee Collection by Clifford A. Harvey
This book is number 15 of 45 of a limited edition printed letterpress on a Vandercook SP20 flat proof press and bound at Permutation Press in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1999, signed by Clifford A. Harvey. This book, which brings vitality to historic woodblock engravings, was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Design Arts Grants.
An original proof from R.D. Johnson’s Bros. Milling Company, Cumberland, Maryland, from 1940 was used on the cover.
This is Clifford A. Harvey’s private press book about the GramLee Collection of Early American Commercial Wood Engravings. The GramLee Collection is owned by West Virginia University Division of Art, and is one of the largest collections of 19th century American wood engravings in the world today. Harvey’s book explores the evolution and art of woodblock engraving in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, including his fine letterpress printing of, and research on, a selection of the GramLee Collection’s wood engravings.
Type for all the historical documentation and research was cast in 10 point Stymie Light Monotype at the Hill and Dale Typefoundry in Terra Alta, West Virginia. Type for all the other information including type inserted into illustrations was produced in 10 point and 9 point Stymie light on the Macintosh computer, then translated into metal backed polymer plates exposed from lintotropic negatives. Some engravings are printed using the original wood blocks. Other illustrations are printed from metal backed polymer plates, exposed from negatives shot directly off proofs of the original engravings.
Paper was cast specifically for half the edition at Twin Rockers Paper Mill in Brookston, Indiana. The dark fibers which appear in these sheets are strands of rope hemp cast into the paper to symbolize the rope hemp paper originally used in the manufacture and printing of sacks at the S. George Company in Wellsburg, West Virginia. The remaining half of the edition was printed on Arches white. The tissue sheets were printed on UV Ultra.
3. The Family of Man created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, prologue by Carl Sandberg
This book, containing 503 photographs from 68 countries and based on the 1955 exhibit of the same name that was curated by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, was highly influential in the development of a teenaged Philip B. Meggs’ expanding world view and humanist philosophy. Meggs was 13 years old in 1955. The book and exhibit explored aspects of the human experience that might be considered universal, and expressed an attitude of global unity in the decade after World War II.
Leo Lionni was the art director for this book, and the collage on the cover is by him. This is notable because he went on, starting in 1960, to become one of the first children’s book author/illustrators to use collage as a medium for many of the more than 40 children’s books he produced. So, it’s nice to see his early impulse toward collage here, before he got into children’s books. The cover photograph is by Eugene Harris.
This spread is indicative of the content of the entire book, including a photo by Robert Carrington and a Sioux Indian quote, “With all beings and all things we shall be as relatives.”
4. Concerning America and Alfred Stieglitz, and Myself by Emmet Gowin
This is photographer Emmet Gowin’s undergraduate thesis book, prepared in a limited edition of 100 copies, May, 1965, Richmond, Virginia. The photographs are enlarged from the original negatives and are glued, or tipped in, to the book. The cover drawing is also by Gowin.
Since 1965, Gowin has gone on to become one of America’s most renowned photographers, with work represented by major museum collections, including a recent 2015 show at The Morgan Library & Museum, titled “Hidden Likenesses: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan”.
The title for this photo, listed both under the photo and in the index, is “Richmond, Virginia, 1963”.
It’s fascinating to observe Gowin’s precocious early work in this book. It’s worth noting that Gowin and Philip B. Meggs were college roommates, along with Kuhn Caldwell and Alston Purvis, as undergraduate students at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). Also, Gowin and his wife Edith, who is the subject of many of his photographs, were married using Philip B. and Libby Phillips Meggs’ wedding ring, just two weeks after Phil and Libby were married.
Gowin has cited the The Family of Man catalog (see previous book) as being influential on his own work.
5. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, designed by Karen M. Elder
This is a limited edition, privately published by Westvaco Corporation, for Christmas in 1995. The passages were selected and designed by Karen M. Elder. The type is Sabon set by The Stinehour Press of Lunenburg, Vermont. The paper is Westvaco’s American Eagle Offset Vellum made at Westvaco’s Tyrone, Pennsylvania fine papers mill.
The Federalist Papers promoted the ratification of the United States Constitution. Philip B. Meggs highly valued the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, especially the protections of individual liberties that Meggs held dear, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition. He often wore a bright yellow t-shirt that enumerated the Bill of Rights.
“The necessity of a Constitution, at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the preservation of the Union, is the point, at the examination of which we are now arrived.” — Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist №23: Hamilton, New York Packet, December 18, 1787
6. French Fries, written by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer, designed by Warren Lehrer
This book is from a signed and numbered limited edition of 700 copies, printed at the Visual Studies Workshop in 1984. The paper is Mohawk Superfine eighty pound text, an acid-free archival paper. The book is smythe sewn and encased in a die-cut hardbound wrap around cover. All photo-typesetting was set by Warren Lehrer on a Berthold ACS 3200, Compugraphic 7500, and an Itek Quadritek 1200. More than twenty typefaces are used in French Fries.
This book was made possible in part by a generous grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and individual subscribers to Ear/Say.
French Fries is a play, presenting a day in the life of the original Dream Queen restaurant, with the various characters in the play being set in their own distinctive typefaces and colors.
In his book Type & Image, Philip B. Meggs wrote, “French Fries achieves an expressionistic resonance and throbbing graphic vitality rarely seen on the printed page. Its space is acoustical (having visual qualities that denote the properties of speech, sound, and music), plastic (possessing the spatial properties of twentieth century painting), and typographic.”
7. The American Chap-Book, written and designed by Will Bradley
American graphic designer Will Bradley produced a meticulous series of twelve 4 1/4" wide by 7" high books, launching a new distinctively American tradition in book publishing known as chapbook style, during the art nouveau era. During an 1895 visit to the Boston Public Library, Bradley studied early American books, specifically small rough books from colonial New England that were called chapbooks after the traveling chapmen who sold them. Bradley was charmed and inspired by their Caslon types; small size; chunky woodcuts; mix of italic, roman, and all-capital type; and simple decorative elements such as plain ruled bars.
Bradley was working as a consultant for the American Type Founders Company when they published his series. These contain articles written by Bradley on topics such as “Directness and Simplicity”, “The Use of Borders and Ornaments”, and “Appropriateness”. The articles promote type and ornaments offered for sale by The American Type Founders Company, with the back of each book including prices for those design elements.
Here are some of Will Bradley’s endpaper designs for The American Chap-Book.
Here’s the cover of the February 1905 edition of The American Chap-Book by Will Bradley.
Here’s the title page of the February 1905 edition of The American Chap-Book by Will Bradley. This February edition includes an article titled “The Value of Little Things” that emphasizes the importance of attention to detail to a type compositor. This is set in Wayside and Cloister Black.
This is a demo ad from the February 1905 edition of The American Chap-Book designed by Will Bradley, encouraging readers to prepare for the upcoming season for golf. The included ads were meant to demonstrate the design elements and promote designers creating leaflets to be inserted in mailings, rather than actually sell what is mentioned in the ad. According to Bradley, “Copy from the text in the majority of cases was chosen from the daily newspaper advertisements.”
This is set in Engravers Old English type, with a 6 Point Mercantile Border №257 and 12 Point Cloister Border №1244.
8. Why Go Modern, An Address by Frederic W. Goudy
This tiny 2 7/8" wide by 4 1/2" high book includes the transcript of an address delivered by typeface designer Frederic Goudy at an annual meeting of the Advertising Typographers Association of America at the Cavalier Hotel, Virginia Beach, Virginia, on October 4th, 1938. This book is from a limited edition of 450 copies printed by the Diamant Typographic Service, Inc. The book was set in Kennerley (a typeface designed by Goudy) and eight point Garamond, leaded one point.
Frederic Goudy was influenced by the high standards and ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement, which he brought to American typeface design through his more than a hundred typeface designs that were influenced by historic sources (many were inspired by Venetian and French Renaissance sources). As a young man, Goudy had a chance to see books from William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, which ignited his ideas about printing and typeface design.
Philip B. Meggs admired that Goudy was interested in typography and design on “a higher plane than mere commercialism.”
Meggs often urged his own readers and students to avoid “becoming buried in a mindless morass of commercialism whose molelike vision ignores human values and needs as it burrows forward into darkness.”
Goudy was known for his lively personality and wit. This brief final page gives us a glimpse of his sense of humor. It’s easy to imagine the laughter and applause he surely received when concluding his talk in this manner.
9. Gothic Architecture: A Lecture for the Arts and Crafts Society, by William Morris
This book is from a print run of 1,500 at Kelmscott Press in 1893. The text is a transcript of a lecture that William Morris himself gave at the New Gallery, for the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society in 1889.
The type is Golden, a face designed by William Morris and inspired by Venetian Renaissance type designs, specifically type designed by Nicholas Jenson. Realizing the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, this 4 1/8" by 5 3/4" edition was produced using hand cast hand set metal type, hand-carved woodcut decorative capital initials, and printed on a letterpress by hand on handmade paper by Kelmscott Press during the Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1893.
At Kelmscott Press, the book became a fine art object, because every aspect of book production was taken to a level of artistry through refined and masterful handicraft. This detail demonstrates the remarkable tactile properties of this Kelmscott edition.
It’s easy to imagine William Morris, who grew up in Victorian England, speaking these words as he delivered his talk.
It’s hard to specifically estimate the profound influence William Morris and his ideals have on our contemporary life, but it’s safe to say that his work and philosophy launched a dialogue that resulted in higher standards for commercial production of books and goods, and a revitalization of great typefaces from history. So, when you turn on your computer and use a beautiful French Renaissance typeface like Garamond, or buy a decently designed mass-produced item for your home at your local store, it’s good to be aware that those things might not be part of your life today without William Morris’ lifetime of hard work.
10. The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, Text by Lorraine Hansberry
This is one of the first published books of American civil rights photography. It was commissioned by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964. Most of the images are by photographer Danny Lyon. This is a first printing, first edition. The cover photo is by Danny Lyon.
The frontispiece “Justice” photo is by Declan Haun.
My parents grew up in segregated South Carolina in the 1940s and 50s, and they were both appalled by the atrocities of racial discrimination that they witnessed firsthand. This book, with its harrowing images and potent text, cemented their determination to lead lives opposed to racism, and embracing of the Civil Rights Movement.
The top photo is by Danny Lyon. The bottom photo is by Matt Herron.
So many of the images in this book from 1964 could have easily been shot in America in 2017, as our country still grapples with the specific issues of racism included in this book, such as the voter suppression expressed in the images on this page. This book is relevant today.
11. 27 voeux pour 1991 (27 wishes for 1991), by Pierre Bernard, Dirk Behage et Fokke Draaijer
This book includes 27 numbered images, that are intended as 27 wishes for 1991, many of which are montages of photographs and graphic forms and symbols. Some of the images span beyond one spread, while some pages include multiple numbered images.
This 5 5/8" by 7 7/8" edition is the fruit of a friendly collaboration between the Atelier de Création Graphique-Grapus and the Gerfau printing press in Paris, November-December, 1990.
Translation of the above text: “Pierre Bernard, founding member of Grapus, Dirk Behage and Fokke Draaijer, who have been collaborating for two and three years, are happy to announce the birth of the Atelier de Création Graphique. With Julie de La Celle, Anne Drucy, Dominique Soubranne, Sylvain Enguehard and Richard Ferrand, they deliver their best for 1991. Amicably, Pierre Bernard”
Conceptual and poetic juxtapositions made from universal symbols and forms render this book both communicative to a multilingual audience and relatively stylistically timeless.
It is poignant to view the energy and spirit of this new design collaboration in 1991, just as the digital revolution was moving into full swing, especially knowing Pierre Bernard died in 2015.
Grapus was an influential French design collective known for doing work toward social, cultural, and political rather than commercial incentives. This small volume announcing a new collaboration indicates the possibility of those incentives continuing in a visually engaging and challenging way.
12. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
This classic novel by Ray Bradbury delves into the combustive effects of a world saturated by electronic mass communication technology, book-burning censorship, and low literacy levels. One of the book’s considerations is how government uses mass media to influence society.
This edition is a paperback reproduction issued in 1996, including the original 1953 Ballantine hardcover illustration by Joseph Mugnaini.
Ray Bradbury was a favorite of my parents, and our whole family got to hear him speak when he came to the Science Museum of Virginia in 1992 to promote his book Green Shadows, White Whale. His enthusiasm and energy were contagious. I was thrilled to be able to get Ray Bradbury to sign this copy of Fahrenheit 451 for my parents in 2002 when I was living in Los Angeles. Bradbury was 82 years old and reliant on a wheelchair at that book event, but his enthusiasm and energy were not diminished in any capacity. It meant a lot to me to share this signed favorite book with my parents, especially since my father died of leukemia a few months later.
“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house . . .”
13. The Isms of Art 1924–1914, edited by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp
This letterpress printed book from 1924 is a 48 page pictorially illustrated portfolio of works exampling the various “isms” of art, such as cubism or expressionism.
El Lissitzky’s design in this landmark book established a typographic standard for the modern movement. Lissitzky designed a three-column horizontal grid structure for the table of contents page and a three-column vertical grid structure for the text that became an organizing structural framework for the portfolio of images. Lissitzky had trained as an architect, and this background informed his work as a graphic designer and artist. The sans-serif typography and bold ruled lines express an early modernist aesthetic, and proved influential in the 1920s.
This page is early in the book, indicating the obvious fact that the future beyond 1925 was at that time unknown and unwritten. The events of history since 1925 bear contemplation when pondering this page.
We might also ask the same question of now: “2017 — — — ?”
14. Typographie: A Manual of Design, by Emil Ruder
This 1967 book had global influence in spreading the International Typographic Style, or Swiss design. It expresses Ruder’s methodology and beliefs regarding typographic design and education. Ruder advocated that his students strike a balance between form and function, with legibility and readability being primary concerns.
While this is an internationally influential book worthy of inclusion in this list for its historical significance, I have to admit that my main impulse to include it here occurred when I opened the book to find that my dad had stamped his seal of approval in the book. I laughed out loud when I saw this. Philip B. Meggs had a great sense of humor.
This spread includes a discussion of form and counter-form by Ruder.
This rubber stamp had been a gift to Philip B. Meggs from one of his most vibrant and outstanding students at Virginia Commonwealth University, Sylvia Harris. As an undergrad, she called my dad “Uncle Phil” and sometimes wore roller skates in the halls of school. She went on to achieve great things as a graphic designer who valued using design to improve the civic experience, receiving her master’s from Yale and launching several design studios, including her own Sylvia Harris LLC. She valued working as a design educator at Yale, School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, and Purchase College. She and my dad shared that they both served on the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee and were also both AIGA Medalists (http://www.aiga.org/medalist-sylvia-harris) (http://www.aiga.org/medalist-philipbmeggs). Sylvia died in 2011. I like to imagine her roller skating past my dad and giving him a high five. They are both greatly missed.
15. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Sixth Edition, by Philip B. Meggs and Alston Purvis
Now in its sixth edition, A History of Graphic Design is the book for which Philip B. Meggs is best known, as it was the first full history of the field and launched further inquiry into graphic design history. The book introduces many young practitioners of graphic design to the rich legacy of which they are a part. Philip B. Meggs loved to share with his students this quote from author Michael Crichton, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
After his death, the book was renamed Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. The book has been expertly and beautifully revised by Alston Purvis, who is chairman of his department at Boston University and an author of many books on graphic design. He’s known internationally as an expert on Dutch graphic design. Purvis and Meggs both grew up in Florence, South Carolina, and were roommates at R.P.I. (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with Emmet Gowin and Kuhn Caldwell. Purvis and Meggs kept a regular dialogue going about graphic design and its history up until Meggs’ death, so it is wonderful that Purvis agreed to revise this book because he holds a unique understanding of Meggs’ vision.
In addition to his many works on graphic design, Alston Purvis wrote a book on another topic, titled The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’s War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him, about his father Melvin Purvis.
The first edition of Meggs’ History of Graphic Design was written on a typewriter and was released in 1983. Here’s a spread from the latest edition that includes a Grapus poster (see book no.11 in this list).
16. Meggs: Making Graphic Design History, edited by Rob Carter, Sandra Wheeler, and Libby Phillips Meggs
In 2007, a compilation of many of Philip B. Meggs’ articles on graphic design was published in the book Meggs: Making Graphic Design History, edited by Rob Carter, Sandra Wheeler, and Libby Phillips Meggs.
When I opened my mother Libby Phillips Meggs’ copy of Meggs: Making Graphic Design History, I found that she’d slipped this quote from Joanne Woodward into a spread with my dad’s photo.
Philip B. Meggs framed this quote himself, and kept it on a shelf beside his desk where he worked. Undoubtedly, he found inspiration in thinking of the many generations of people before him who’d labored long hours at study and book-making.
All photos by Elizabeth Meggs unless otherwise noted.