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The VCFA MFA in Graphic Design Program Blog

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Huh? #30: An interview with Paul Gehl

October 26, 2016

Paul F. Gehl retired from his position as the Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing at The Newberry Library in Chicago—a post he maintained for 29 years. As Custodian, Paul was responsible for one of the largest collections on printing history, calligraphy, and design in North America. He is also a historian of education. He has published extensively on manuscript and printed textbooks of the Renaissance, on the book trade, and on modern fine printing and artist’s books. His interactive online monograph, entitled Humanism For Sale: Making and Marketing Schoolbooks in Renaissance Italy, has been hosted by the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies since 2008.

VCFA Co-Chair Ian Lynam initially met Paul on a research trip to Chicago to view the original drawings, papers and design ephemera of Oswald Bruce Cooper, the designer of the typeface Cooper Black. He and Paul immediately struck up a fast friendship. After a spate of recent lectures in Chicago, Ian suggested that perhaps he interview Paul for Perpetual Beta in order to share some of his insights on The Newberry, one of America’s greatest research libraries and a veritable goldmine of opportunities for design research.

What items in the Newberry’s collections do you think are absolutely unmissable for the intrepid graphic designer?

That’s an impossible question, Ian, since the answer depends entirely on the interests of the designer. It’s also too easy –you are asking me to do the work the visitor should do. I could put together a list of high points or ‘treasures’ easily enough, but if you or any other designer came in with the query, what to see first, I would inevitably answer with another question, what interests you (in general), or what really excites you in your work now, or what do you want to learn. Even there, the same designer might give three different answers. If the designer looked like you and his general-interest answer was music, I’d send him first to Carlos Segura’s 1996 music-industry directory, The Alternative Pick. It looks really dated by now, but it was a brilliant solution at the time for a promo piece with directory. If the designer were a tweedier type, I’d send him to one of the great music printers of the 16th century, maybe the Dorico brothers. Either of those designers might be interested in problem-solving in music printing, so a good place to start would be the very early work with moveable music types by Ottaviano Petrucci. Pretty rough and ready, but instructive.

This variety, not by the way, is the best thing about the collections at the Newberry. I don’t have to offer people only what is in our Wing Collection on the History of Printing, I can suggest things in our Renaissance lit collection, or Chicago dance history, or American Indians, or railroads. So, unless someone comes in with a very specific interest in one of the greats, I typically try to steer newcomers to things they’ve never seen or maybe even never heard about. A similar kind of stretch can be to offer a visitor a chance to see some of the lesser known work of a major figure. The same half-dozen posters by Will Bradley are in every design textbook. Look at some of his magazine work instead. Or look at a lesser-known contemporary, maybe Frank Hazenplug.

To some degree these strategies are good for any library or museum collection. The Newberry is just richer than most for design history. Practicing designers are often pressed for time, or feel they are not working when they are just looking at stuff, so I honestly think the best question –the one that makes you feel like you are using time efficiently– is, what can I find here that I cannot see elsewhere? Or nowadays, what have I seen online that might be different or richer if I saw the original? I do think that even a beat up copy of Gyorgy Kepes’ Language of Vision is better than an online version. (I can almost feel the paper in memory as we discuss it.)

Then too, thinking about design monuments is fine, but it really is limiting. I remember years ago a design teacher just arrived from out of town came to me with a list of the slides of historical pieces he was going to be showing his students, wondering if there was something among them he could show them at the Newberry. To the first item, I said, “Yes, we have that” and then “We have that,” and “Yes, that too.” After ten repeats or so, his eyes getting wider and wider, I said, “Let’s go look at a few things that are not on your list.” Together we assembled a menu for his students that was half-monuments and half more obscure stuff, but pertinent. He used it for most of a decade with his intro and intermediate students.


Here, Paul Gehl discusses one of the Newberry’s earliest examples of a “graphic novel”—the Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis from 1470 This book uses sequentual images and text to tell the story of St. John’s apocalyptic visions from the Book of Revelations in the Bible–400 years before modern comics and graphic novels.


What about for the intrepid type designer?

This is a slightly more focused question, since if someone self-identifies as a type designer or even a typographer, I already have a path to an answer. But I will always try to start with what is not obvious, or with something that enriches what we know from the textbooks. For example, the textbooks tell you that the famous Venetian printer Nicolas Jensen is important for his Roman type (the model for Centaur — and the Newberry has the copy that actually belonged to Bruce Rogers). But by far the majority of Jenson’s printing was done in gothic types that are worth looking at too. Equally good, look at the work of the Milanese or Tuscan contemporaries of Jenson. By modern standards, these types are a little off –they do not have the particular curves and proportions and do not letterspace the way Jenson has conditioned us to expect. But if you forget your preconceptions for a moment, they are fresh and lively and fun. In a third moment they are really very beautiful, but on their own terms, not ours. And then, when you go back to look at the Jenson Roman, it looks a little quirkier too. The things that seemed like personal mannerisms (the off-center i-dot, say) now look like design decisions with meaning and value.

Similarly, for sure look at Oz Cooper’s type drawings.That’s how you and I met — and they are super exciting. So many microscopic decisions. But look at his hand-lettered advertising work too –which is often much more confident and less regulated. In the lettering he was working with a craftsman’s eye to the spacing, not to the specs of typesetting in metal. The hand work says more about his ideals and goals than the highly finished metal type, even when the type is used for advertising the same products.

Another typographic treasure of the Newberry is our Bodoni collection. Not just the great Manuale Tipografico of 1818, but also a lot of other type specimens, many books great and small, and best of all a collection of 150 or so ephemeral pieces from his press. His title pages are famously elegant, but the real treasure is seeing him create letterheads, invitations, birth and death announcements, passport forms, and the like. My personal favorite is a ruled form onto which the head of the palace guard would write the soldiers’ orders of the day. Bureaucratic but beautiful.


Paul Gehl’s talk, “Hey, it’s 2012 Already. Why Bother with BOOK History?” at Wabash College about the book as an object.

How did your practice of collecting and curating shift over the course of your career?

Well, we are talking about a looong time here, almost 30 years! So, I probably don’t have a clear narrative, just a lot of hindsight. But I know that when I started I had some good advice from my predecessor, Jim Wells. He pointed me to the original memos drawn up in 1919 for the collection, and to some reports made by Stanley Morison and Konrad Bauer in 1949. I was reading these for the first time in 1987, so I basically had three generations of strong opinions. They outlined goals for collecting; and I could see, just reading the shelves, that they had accomplished a lot. I started with their themes and goals and added what I could find that would strengthen the basic areas even more. Not very ambitious of me, but given how little I knew at the start, it was smart. I had to learn what was and wasn’t there and make decisions accordingly. Their most important lesson was that the history of printing was about everyday printing as much or more than about high-end, artistic, or fine printing. Bauer articulated that very clearly, and it got me thinking about ephemera.

At the same time, I was meeting the people who actually use the collection and finding out what questions they asked. I discovered that the calligraphy and design community In Chicago was intensely interested in me! They had heard I was trained as a medieval historian and I think they were suspicious that I was too nerdy or too ivory-tower to get interested in contemporary design. The end of the 80s was also a period when some classical modernist designers were trying to hold the line against the Émigré crowd, and I was caught in the middle. It took me a while to catch on to all that. I did figure out that it would be fatal to take sides –that would condemn the collection to irrelevance in the space of a few years. So, I tried to keep an open mind and gather in as much as I could. I got on a ton of mailing lists and began to get interested in the social as well as commercial role of printed ephemera, so much so that my colleagues started calling me “the curator of junk mail.” They didn’t notice at first that I was also collecting zines and artist’s books in a small way. Those things – direct-mail and other print advertising, artist’s books, mail art, street art—seemed to me at the time (we’re talking the mid 1990s here) much more significant than fine press work for the future of print. In the event, of course, fine printing has had a major resurgence in the new millennium, so I have had to adjust to that. But more and more libraries are collecting press books and artist’s books too, and I don’t like to duplicate what they are buying at the Art Institute or DePaul or the University of Chicago. Or the Museum of Contemporary Art, for that matter. Ideally, we all collect for the Chicago public at large and we all open our collections to all comers.

How do you perceive your own goals, methods and means of curating as being different from your predecessor?

I think I have already started to answer this one. I don’t think it was possible for any of my predecessors to get entirely out from under the ideals of fine printing. Jim Wells made a start. He trained as a Victorian lit guy so he was always interested in the crazy ephemera of that era and the early 20th century. And he bought all that Bodoni ephemera, at a time when most people were only interested in Bodoni’s great books. But Jim also worked for years on a dissertation about the most recherché of the English fine presses, Eragny, so he had that interest too. I know that when book artists would come to visit him, he would make decisions almost entirely on the quality of the press work, or, in the case of artists who were frankly rebelling against fine press ideals, on their wit (in a literary sense). I had a freer hand in the 1990s, since I started out pretty much without preconceptions about fine press work. In fact a lot of that stuff initially impressed me as unpleasantly elitist and pretentious. Child of the 1960s that I am, I wanted more grit and more edginess, I guess.

Most of my predecessors were also reluctant to accept archival materials, largely because of space and staffing considerations. When I took over we had just built a new bookstack building with lots of space. Some of the most interesting things we already had were archival (the Oz Cooper and William Kittredge papers, for example, or those of R. Hunter Middleton). I also did not understand at the time how labor intensive it is to process archival materials. So, pretty much unconsciously, I started pulling in as much archival material as I could find, especially for printing in Chicago. That has changed the overall complexion of the collection. We now have almost as many linear feet of archival materials as we do of books.

What hopes do you have for your successor(s)?

You know, I really don’t like to tell other people what to do. The new Wing curator will have been publically announced by the time you put out this interview, so I can say her name to you even though it hasn’t been revealed yet. She is Jill Gage, and has the advantage of having worked at the Newberry in the Reference Department for over ten years. She wrote a master’s thesis on John M. Wing, the journalist and printer who endowed the collection in the first place. Jill and I have worked closely on a variety of projects. I know she already has some clear ideas of her own; and I honestly hope she will break loose from my habits of mind as soon as possible. The only important thing, really, is for the new curator –any curator anywhere– to keep an open mind. At the Newberry that includes listening to (and listening for) what is going on in printing, design, and book arts today.

A bit off-topic—or perhaps not—I am curious if you might tell us a bit about your involvement with The Caxton Club?

Not irrelevant at all. The Caxton Club (founded in 1895) is Chicago’s version of a bibliophile or book-collectors club, analogous to the Grolier Club in New York or the Zamorano in L.A. Unlike most such clubs, however, the Caxton group has always been pretty democratic (small-d), not elitist. From the start it included wealthy businessmen collectors but also academics, librarians, and printers. As design became a prominent profession in the 1920s, the Caxton Club came to include many of the best and brightest of the Chicago school designers. I spoke to the club in the mid-1980s about book design in the fourteenth century! (How nerdy is that?) Right after I became a curator at the Newberry, I joined. The decision was at first a professional one, aimed at getting to know collectors and others who used or potentially could use the Wing collection. It was the very best forum for me to meet designers, since back then all the older modernist designers belonged. Those relationships led to many gifts of archival materials to the Newberry. But many Caxtonians have become good friends over my thirty years as a member too; so now, going into retirement, I will continue to be involved in a social way. I should add that there were years when I did a lot of programming at the Newberry in collaboration with the Caxton Club, including our joint symposia on the book. I coordinated the donation of the club’s historical archive to the Newberry in 1995; and I will continue to serve as its archivist.

Knowing you, I imagine that retirement isn’t going to slow you down one bit. What is next?

Actually, slowing down sounds like a good idea! Especially after the last few years when I have really not had any time for my own research and writing. But that’s the answer right there – more research and writing is next. I have a longstanding project on publishing in Renaissance Italy (with a website at: www.humanismforsale.org/text), and I am looking for ways to make it more useful for people interested in design history. That material will also lead to some additional scholarly talks and papers aimed at professional historians. I’ll probably be doing a lot more book reviews too, since I will be freer to choose what to read and when. I want to read some media theory stuff, more experimental fiction, more medieval history (that’s the field in which I started). I have an idea for a longer-term project too, which will involve writing about the professionalization of rare book collecting in American libraries. I have no idea where that is going, but I can imagine starting with some articles about collecting at the Newberry in the early twentieth century.

You know, one of the luxuries of retiring right now — of being alive right now! — is that I no longer have to think exclusively in terms of scholarly journals or university-press book publishing. It may be heresy for a book historian like me to say so, but it is possible, even desirable to write history seriously for the internet without going through traditional publication channels. Then too, my friends in the fine press and artists-book world have already offered me the chance to write for them – for small edition books that I hope will end up on the shelves of libraries like the Newberry for future readers to discover.

As for the Wing Collection, I’ve already mentioned my confidence in its future under Jill Gage. Let me add a little exhortation to you, Ian, and to your readers, to come use it. Lots of good projects hiding there.

Thank you so much, Paul!

That’s it for this installment of “Huh?”. Stay tuned for new interviews soon!