Self-Portrait at age 28, 1500

The great thing about the AIGA Design Archives is not only do they feature superlative design from its own almost one hundred year history but through its content the entire history of graphic design. Case in point: Albrecht Dürer.

In the Archives from 1924 is The Construction of Roman Letters by Dürer, part of the collection of Fifty Best Books of the year. A limited edition of only 350, this hand-bound, 40 page tome reproduced examples from Dürer’s typographic guide Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt, published at Nuremberg, Germany in 1525. The book utilized Fabriano hand-made paper, from the mill in the Italian town of Fabriano, which is still in operation today.

Dürer, born in Nuremberg in 1471, is perhaps best known as an influential illustrator, who introduced chiaroscuro to wood cuts and engraving during the early days of printing. In addition he was a painter, book designer, mathematician, theorist and as we see here, type designer. His Roman style typeface, which is covered in the book, is based on geometry, the Golden Mean and the proportions of the human form. According to Dürer,

… since architects, painters and others … are wont to set an inscription on lofty walls, it will make for the merit of the work that they form the letters correctly.”

Dürer was the first Northern European late Renaissance artist to apply Euclidean mathematical principles to matters of visual representation in a scientific way. His typeface is based on the letterforms found on Trajan’s Column, completed in Rome in 113 AD. These capitol serif letters carved into the marble base are the basis for all Roman typefaces to follow, notably “Times New Roman,” designed by Victor Lardent in 1931 and “Trajan,” designed by Carol Twombly in 1989 for Adobe.

Centuries before the modernist began to utilize the grid system, Dürer was applying it to typography. His typographic grid proportions were 8 squares high, based on the human proportion of 8 heads high. Indeed, when rendering the human form Dürer peered through a glass that had a grid traced on the surface. In addition to his “Roman” or “Latin” face featured in the aforementioned book, he created a blackletter lowercase in 1525.

The son of a goldsmith, Dürer’s godfather was Anton Koberger, printer and publisher of the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493. At the age of fifteen Dürer apprenticed with German painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut. Perhaps he is best known for his woodcut “Four Horsemen” part of his fifteen engravings for his “Apocalypse” series, and his numerous self-portraits. He also virtually invented the poster with his woodcut of a Rhinoceros, a one sided oversized print, one of the first of its kind.  Dürer never saw an actual rhinoceros and based his artwork on the accounts of others. This broadside became a popular item throughout Europe and was copied many times in the following three centuries.

Dürer died in April 1528 at the age of 56. To this day the monogram he designed based on his initials has served double duty as the basis for the logo for the Art Directors Club of New York.