The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Misha Beletsky, Art Director Abbeville Press, Part One


Misha Beletsky is the art director of New York’s Abbeville Press, an independent publisher of fine art and illustrated books.

Towards the end of last year, Misha was kind enough to send me a copy of his recent book, The Book Jackets of Ismar David, published by RIT Press.

A German-born graphic artist, David worked in Germany and then Jerusalem before moving permanently to the United States to become part of a group of accomplished calligraphers who also worked as book jacket designers in New York in the 1950s. David’s bold and expressive style was informed by a mastery of the typographic tradition (he designed a calligraphic Hebrew typeface called David Hebrew), and he worked for many of leading publishers of the day including Alfred A. Knopf, Harper and Row, Houghton Mifflin, Random House and others.

In this post, the first of a two-part interview, Misha discusses the book and his interest in the work of Ismar David.

When did you first come across the work of Ismar David?

Anyone who reads Hebrew is familiar with David’s work, whether they are aware of it or not: David Hebrew, a font he designed happens to be one of the most ubiquitous Hebrew typefaces for text setting. I was first exposed to his work outside of type design as I researched my article on the history of Hebrew typography around twelve years ago.

What interested you about him?

David’s work is powerful and beautiful, yet little known. He had a rare ability of using traditional skills and historical knowledge to arrive at strikingly contemporary results.

Did David’s work change when he moved to the US?

His work matured and became more diverse, as he grew in his craftsmanship and absorbed many exciting influences of 1950s’ New York design scene. He was working alongside other accomplished calligrapher jacket designers like George Salter, Warren Chappell, Arnold Bank, Phil Grushkin, Charles Skaggs, Oscar Ogg, Jeanyee Wong, and Lili Wronker, among others. They all knew each other and learned from each other’s work.

Do you consider David to be primarily a book designer or a calligrapher?

He was a graphic artist who used calligraphy as a primary means of expression. He was equally comfortable designing book jackets, architectural interiors, logos, advertisements, and monumental inscriptions, depending on the project at hand.

What was special about his Hebrew typeface ‘David’?

It was the first 20th c. Hebrew text type, whose letterforms were not based on an existing typographic model, but found inspiration in historic calligraphic hands. David distilled the idea of the Hebrew letter to its purest form.

How did David’s work differ from his contemporaries Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig?

His work could not be called clever or conceptual. He relied on the sheer power of the letter, shape, and color to create stunning jackets that told the book’s story through a primary visual vocabulary.

Is David’s work still relevant today?

I believe it is. Twenty years into the “conceptual revolution” in our book cover design, the Modernist idiom is getting a bit tired. We are ready for something different. There is a renewed interest in traditional typography and design craftsmanship, and it is here that we could learn a thing or two from David.

Do you think we’re seeing a revival of calligraphy, lettering and hand-drawn type?

Somewhat: if Pinterest stats are any indication, lettering compositions are trending along with pictures of fashionable outfits, cute puppies, and expensive home interiors. It’s not a complete comeback, though. On one hand, a few talented designers like Marian Bantjes and Jessica Hische are enjoying a tremendous degree of success with their decorative lettering work. On the other hand, the work of traditionally trained calligraphers is still in relatively low demand. What seems encouraging, though, is a renewed interest in, and appreciation of, calligraphy as a craft. I would attribute the interest in this and other handicrafts to the backlash against the proliferation of the computer that has left the hand out of the creative process. At the same token, the plethora of visual resources now available on the Internet provides unprecedented access to the rare historical calligraphic books and manuscripts. In this case the same computer is actually helping to make the handicraft popular again.

Thanks Misha.

You can find more images from The Book Jackets of Ismar David on Facebook. Part two of my converation with Misha will be available tomorrow.

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