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Ultimate Inspo: A Compendium of Lesser-known Historic Alphabets, Compiled Entirely Instinctually

There’s a beautifully scattergun approach to A2Z+ Alphabets and Signs, a gorgeous compendium of loosely curated typographic ephemera and graphics. Its co-editor Julian Rothenstein claims that he’s “a completely non-academic kind of person, I just go on the hunt and find things I like that seem to fit.”

Sounds like a dream project—scouring book fairs, libraries, second hand book shops, and for the most part, designer friends’ bookshelves, for beautiful, unusual, inspiring type. Rothenstein describes a process that involves picking out images that took his fancy, with no constraints around era, genre, purpose, or indeed, anything else. “It’s completely instinct,” he says. “The book is so eclectic and random, but the whole idea is that designers can use it.” As such, the imagery is (almost) entirely copyright free.

In a sense, it’s a book built from designers’ collections for designers’ collections—according to Rothenstein, some of the richest pickings came from the shelves of his chums Richard Hollis and Brian Webb. Libraries, Rothenstein finds, can often be “too bureaucratic.”

There’s such a wealth of material in the book: alphabets, emblems, letters, and signs drawn from advertisements, shop signage, opticians’ eye charts, technical manuals, posters, and more. “As functional visual systems designed for communicative purposes, printed alphabets speak of their time and place, and assume recognizable styles,” art historian and writer Mel Gooding writes in the book’s introduction. “They invite contemplation as freestanding artifacts of their cultures, variously perfect, flawed, or simply queer. In every case, they are aesthetically expressive and culturally shaped.”

What’s so charming about the book is its subtle reconfiguring of the idea of what an alphabet can be. Lettering and symbolism is so much more than conventual typographic characters, and it proves the beauty in communicating through creative solutions and symbols. As Gooding puts it, “All letters begin as signs, writes Victor Hugo, and all signs begin as images.”

In that spirit of contemplation, we spoke to Rothenstein to run through some of our favorite images in the book.

1
Cinema poster, India, 1970s, Courtesy NM Kabir/Hyphen Films Ltd. Collection

“This comes from a wonderful woman called Nasreen Kabir, who runs Hyphen Films and has a huge collection of Indian cinema posters. They’re a very particular kind of graphic sensibility. This one is incredibly appealing to me—who wouldn’t fall for that image?—it seems to have been done entirely by hand.”

2
Erika Rothenberg, America’s Joyous Future, USA, 1990. c. Erika Rothenberg

“I’ve been making the Redstone Diary for 30 years or more, and I used this image in the Redstone Diary of the Absurd. In in the same way as the Indian poster, it appealed to my instinct and taste; it’s such a fun image. In the diary, I used it in a section about America, and that ironic reference to ‘America’s joyous future’ could really be made today. It was made with an actual sign board, I think, then this is the scanned image from that. Artists have always been interested in using words and type, and I think always will be. Look at people like Ed Ruscha, it’s a constant.”

3
Jazz Age Alphabet by Karel Tiege with Vítēzslav Nevzal, choreographed by the dancer Milcā Mayerová, Czechoslovakia, 1926

“This is a wonderful collaboration between a dancer and one of my all time favorite designers, Karel Teige. It’s such a gorgeous synthesis; it’s poetic and beautiful in every kind of way. Mel Gooding described this alphabet as ‘erotic and chastely gymnastic.’ For me, from that time and place there’s never been more amazing graphics. The work of designers coming out of Czechoslovakia and Russia then was just incredible.”

4
Page from Lettres, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, special edition, France, 1948

“This is from a magazine called Arts et Métiers Graphiques. This is by French type foundry Deberny and Peignot, who had brilliant designers working with them at that time and produced this magazine to show how their fonts were used in context, with all kinds of papers and tip-ins and foldouts. I found this in an antiquarian bookseller, and this page is showing off a series of beautiful logotypes designed for specific businesses at the time.”

5
A surrealist provocation: page from the Da Costa Encyclopaedia, anonymously and collectively edited, France, 1947

“This comes from a book I published years ago called Surrealist Games, which was a collection of the games they played. How could I resist these hand signals? It’s a different kind of alphabet, it’s a way of communicating, but really it’s just a but of fun. I wanted to go mad a bit, as I violently rail against those stupefyingly boring books about typography which can be so dull. I wanted to do the opposite of that.”

6
Back cover, Gebrauchsgraphik, Germany, 1926. Courtesy Gutenberg Museum, Mainz

“This is from another amazing magazine that I found when I went to Germany for the Frankfurt book fair. This is the back cover of a magazine about printing. I used part of that image, the man playing the drum, for a a box called Play Box.”

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