Nottingham, UK

Counterpunch

Written by Fred Smeijers and published by the Hyphen Press, the second edition of Counterpunch is one of the most mesmerising books ever written about the early stages of typography and printing. Originally the author sets out to describe how type was manufactured in the 16th century; how small pieces of steel were filed down, shaped individually by goldsmiths, then used as printing material for well over a century (a process commonly referred to as punchcutting). But I found a thread in this book that went a little deeper than a discussion about old typographic practices, as wondrous as they might be.

You could say that Smeijers knows a thing or two about type, being the designer behind FF Quadraat and its companion sans serif, as well as the proprietor of the OurType font foundry. Some of his less popular, but no less brilliant type design work includes Renard, Arnhem and Fresco. But if you’re not familiar with his work it matters very little because Smeijers appears to show his talents through ever porous region of this book. From his elegant and yet to-the-point rhetoric on the topic, to Haultin, his custom typeface in use for this edition only, Smeijers draws a vivid picture of the constraints and technological innovations of the time.

The only thing that might reflect poorly on the design and work behind the book is the topic itself, as few activities can be compared to those of the sixteenth century punch cutter. Smeijers describes how these men hid in the cold and the dark, chiseling away at characters (sometimes as small as 6pt) for months on end. This book asks you to consider the determination of these characters and the sheer strength of will involved under such conditions.

Smeijers doesn’t want to elevate these craftsman however, he wants to understand them. He hopes to clear the fog between the present and the past so that we might better learn from their achievements or failures. However, due to the lack of technical material as well as enough trustworthy primary sources on the art of punchcutting, Smeijers was forced to take a more practical, hands-on approach with his research:

The only thing I could do to find answers was to cut punches myself, to make the experience my own, and then work backwards to what lies behind the practice.

Although the book sets out to describe the act of punchcutting (and the dark art of the counterpunch) it vastly over delivers on this premise. Surely enough, it details those interesting and complex technical specifications and combines enough historical research of the now extinct punchcutter. But I think that the most important element of this book is the way in which it describes humanity’s entanglement with technology. Take these letters for example:

Aa

Around the time of Gutenburg’s invention in the fifteenth century, no calligrapher or scribe could make these sorts of letters, as the shapes were simply too complicated and inefficient to write quickly. In many ways, the letters that we see today are products of the machine. Soon enough, punchcutters stopped referencing the work of calligraphers and began discussing, copying and practicing the examples of other punchcutters. And the most fascinating insight, one that Smeijers returns to constantly throughout his book, is how design is a response to the limitations of people, not technology:

The limits of type are not determined by levels of technique, but depend on the limits of our nervous system: which are the same today as four hundred years ago.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing then I highly recommend James Mosley’s article about type held in the hand. It’s a fantastic introduction to metal type and the period that follows where Counterpunch leaves off.