Even if you’ve never stepped foot inside one, chances are when you think of a palace you imagine an opulent home fit for a king or queen. But what about imaginary palaces? So-called Memory Palaces have apparently been a thing as far back as the Greco-Roman empire: by associating facts with rooms and passages in a mental Memory Palace, it’s possible to memorize vast amounts of data. The arcane practice maintains a place in pop culture to this day, used by Sherlock Holmes (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) in the BBC’s TV series as a technique to piece together facts and solve a mystery, or by anyone looking to improve their memory skills. So what does the idea of an imaginary palace mean for typographers?
A decade ago, Dutch poster designer Richard Niessen first created an overview exhibition called TM-City for a graphic design festival in Chaumont, France. In it, each work is its own building; when shown together, the pieces create an entire city. Any designer who’s used the internet since then will no doubt be familiar with the images of his posters from A Hermetic Compendium of Typographic Masonry at Une Saison Graphique, a 2014 graphic design festival in Le Havre, France, but almost none of the designers we recently asked about the project knew anything about its origins. Not their (or your) fault! Such is the age of unattributed image sharing. But since the work only seems to get more popular all the time, we’d like to correct that.
The term “Typographic Masonry” itself derives from one of Niessen’s greatest inspirations, designer Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, known for his architectural approach to type in the 20th century. But what’s a palace of typographic masonry? Turns out it’s many, many things—a bit confusing, exhilarating in its richness of imagination, and also quite lovely conceptually. Let’s wander through.
If you saw the Typographic Masonry exhibit, you’ll recall the installation of 26 posters on brightly colored wooden sticks forming alphabetical shapes, which resulted in a font used on the back of the posters. The installation challenged the function of graphic design in a space that feels like a maze, where the posters would logically serve as wayfinding, yet don’t provide any specific directional information; they’re more like signposts or channel markers—that is, mainly structural despite being posters, that most classic form of graphic design. The show’s catalog consists of double-sided posters bound with a simple elastic band; the book can be reconfigured and reordered any way a viewer wishes, creating individualized narrative journeys.
The idea of the Memory Palace has evolved into an ongoing series of typographic discoveries for Niessen—in the (fictional) form of exhibitions, workshops, debates or reading sessions—through the corridors, rooms, courtyards, gates, and galleries of the building. “The Palace of Typographic Masonry reminds me of Arabic palaces,” Niessen says. “The distribution of the courses and apartments, gates and halls, is a true labyrinth, a never ending cabinet of curiosities. [The Palace is] a counter statement to the lack of diversity in the visual languages, since under pressure of ‘efficiency’ marketing and communication departments, most of the poetics and detours are squeezed out of graphic design in public space.
“I wanted to establish an institute completely dedicated to abundance, a place where the mystical part of graphic design is cherished.”
So is The Palace of Typographic Masonry a place, then? Yes and no. “I plan to create 3-D formations of spaces of the Palace, where all spaces, imagined or real, will be announced with posters which altogether will form their own new language,” says Niessen. Sometimes it’s real, sometimes it’s an idea, sometimes it’s an alphabet or exhibit or an evolving graphic language… basically, it’s complicated. Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that many of the world’s best locations are places of the mind.