The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Steven Heller, Shadow Type

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“Dimensional typefaces toy with human perception, challenging the limits of cognition. Whether framed by a subtle tint or a bold silhouette, in color or in black and white, a shadow adds bulk, enabling the words to rise voluminously from otherwise flat and unmonumental surfaces. Shadow faces are typographic trompes l’œil, fascimiles of real three-dimensional letters and inscriptions in sculpture and architecture… This sculptural essence of shadow type adds not only to the letters’ visibility, but also to their continuing allure.”

Just thinking about how much Steven Heller writes makes me a little giddy. The renowned art director, educator, design historian, and critic provides a steady stream of design commentary in newspaper, magazine and journal articles (not to mention his blog for Print magazine, The Daily Heller). He has authored, co-authored, or edited over 100 books on design, illustration and typography, including the recent Shadow Type: Classic Three-Dimensional Lettering, co-authored with his partner Louise Fili.

Shadow letters started to make an appearance on merchants’ signs in the 18th-century, and were introduced as metal typefaces as early as 1815, but they did not become common in printed text until later in the 19th-century. After a surge in popularity among printers and their clients, type foundries began to provide a wide selection of styles and sizes, and by the late 19th-century shadow wood type was also in demand, coming in extra-large sizes so it could be used outdoors. “Whether custom drawn, or as metal or wood type, shadow letters animated newspaper and magazine mastheads, product labels, and, indeed, all kinds of signs and posters.”

Published in September last year by Princeton Architectural Press, and distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books, I had the opportunity to ask Steven about Shadow Type, his interest in design ephemera, and how he finds time to write.

Do you remember when you first became interested in design?

I was interested in pictures at an early age. I wanted to be like Jules Feiffer, a comics artist. Design came later. I was studying the work of some German satirists, who were also designers.

Did you grow up in a creative household?
Not especially.

Where did you begin your design career?
At 14 I worked for an ad agency doing RussssTogs. Didn’t go well. It took another 3 years before I was hired by an underground paper to do layouts.

When did you first start writing about design history?

When I was at the NY Times as OpEd art director, I did a little bit of writing on those Germans I mentioned. Then it accelerated to writing about publications and other historical themes.

How do you find the time write?

There’s always time.

Do you still get excited when you hold one of your own books in your hands for the first time?
Yes, the thrill is still there. But the high lasts shorter. An addict gets used to the fix and needs another and another. These days, I don’t rip the envelope right open. I let it sit for hours, so I have something to look forward to. Weird, I guess.

Why did you and Louise decide to write a book on classic three-dimensional lettering?

We did the first one on Scripts. We’ve done series before, they didn’t start out that way, but evolved. This evolved into Shadow Type. I have long loved the dimensional, colourful, sculptural letters.

When was the heyday of ‘shadow type’?
19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Its never gone out of style. But the golden age was late 1880s to 1940s.

Why did it become popular?
Dimensionality on flat surface. Our eyes love to be fooled.

Why do you think there is a renewed interest in ornate typography and lettering?
It comes and goes. I see a shift away again. But it has to do with the joy we get from ornament and I think it parallels what goes on in clothing.

Has Louise’s work contributed the revival of decorative type?
Possibly. But she’s not decorative per se. Her type choices are elegant. She’s about precision and aesthetic pleasure.


Do all the examples in the book come from your own collection?

For Scripts and Shadow yes. And for the next one too, that’s Stencil Type.


Why does design ephemera hold such a fascination for you?
I’ve come up with all sorts of reasons, but the all seem bogus. I feel the stuff somehow represents who I am. But I also love being a repository of history. More than that, I cannot say.

Your son, Nicolas Heller, recently made a film about your den called “The Cave.” What was that experience like?
He’s a great talent. I just set him loose. And he made his film. The stuff in that place should be interpreted by others. The juxtapositions of objects and books are at times wonderful.

What’s Nicolas working on now? 
He’s doing a series of documentaries on eccentric New Yorkers called NO YOUR CITY, he’s also filming designers for documentaries produced by Brian Collins.

Do you have a favourite book?
Of my own? I’ve done over 165, but I love Iron Fists. Of other people? There are too many to say.

What books are in your ‘to read’ pile?
I just finished Deborah Solomon’s biography of Norman Rockwell – smartly done. And I finished Year Zero by Ian Buruma about the year 1945, makes the blood chill and boil. On the pile is a thick book about the Beatles. Not sure I’ll get to that.

Is there one book you think all designers should read?

I love Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content. I also love The Hare with Amber Eyes, but for me, nothing is so essential that I’d stand on the mount and scream that they should read the tablets.

Thank you, Steven!

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