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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE and The Crystal Goblet by Beatrice Warde

This is the first in what will become a semi-regular series on the contributions that women have made in the history of visual communication design and typography.

The following excerpt was originally published by Mrs. Warde in The Monotype Recorder in London in 1955 under the title The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible. You could and should read the entire essay at the following URL:


Beatrice Warde wrote and published this as part of an anthology of 16 essays that addressed her feelings regarding how type should and should not be structured. What you’ll read here synopsizes and encapsulates an argument that she made against what she refers to as “the introspective nature of avant-garde typography:” she believed that the ideas of any author should be rendered in typography in a manner that failed to obfuscate their essential, inherent meaning in any way. She opines that just as an ornate wineglass might serve to distract a wine drinker’s attention from appreciating the essential flavors inherent in a fine glass of wine, so might overly embellished type distract a reader’s attention from deeply considering the meaning inherent in an array of written words. 

Here’s a classic quote from Beatrice in this piece: “Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline.”

Beatrice Warde published much of her early work in the 1920s under the persona “Paul Beaujon,” whom she described as “a man of long, grey beard, four grandchildren, a great interest in antique furniture and a rather vague address in Montparesse.” When the executives at the Lanston Monotype Corporation in London (publishers of the Monotype Recorder) offered Mr. Beaujon the post of part-time editor by mail in 1927, they were flabbergasted when Beatrice arrived in their offices to accept the position. She was promoted to publicity manager in 1929, which was virtually unheard of in the publishing and typesetting arena in Europe and the U.S. at that time, and held this post until she retired in 1960.

The Crystal Goblet
by Beatrice Warde

Excerpt from a Lecture to the British Typographers’ Guild 

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favorite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in color. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

Bear with me in this long-winded and fragrant metaphor; for you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wine-glass have a parallel in typography. There is the long, thin stem that obviates fingerprints on the bowl. Why? Because no cloud must come between your eyes and the fiery hearth of the liquid. Are not the margins on book pages similarly meant to obviate the necessity of fingering the type-pages? Again: The glass is colorless or at the most only faintly tinged in the bowl, because the connoisseur judges wine partly by its color and is impatient of anything that alters it. There are a thousand mannerisms in typography that are as impudent and arbitrary as putting port in tumblers of red or green glass! When a goblet has a base that looks too small for security, it does not matter how cleverly it is weighted; you feel nervous lest it should tip over. There are ways of setting lines of type which may work well enough, and yet keep the reader subconsciously worried by the fear of "doubling" lines, reading three words as one, and so forth.

Printing demands a humility of mind, for the lack of which many of the fine arts are even now floundering in self-conscious and maudlin experiments. There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page. Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline. When you realise that ugly typography never effaces itself, you will be able to capture beauty as the wise men capture happiness by aiming at something else. The “stunt typographer” learns the fickleness of rich men who hate to read. Not for them are long breaths held over serif and kern, they will not appreciate your splitting of hair-spaces. Nobody (save the other craftsmen) will appreciate half your skill. But you may spend endless years of happy experiment in devising that crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind.