Libraries & Culture 36.3 (2001) 485-486
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Design in British Publishing since 1940.
Making Books: Design in British Publishing since 1940. By Alan Bartram. London: The British Library and New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1999. 160 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-7123-4633-3 (The British Library) and 1-884718-93-0 (Oak Knoll Press).
By the author's own admission, Making Books is a highly subjective discussion of book design in Britain since 1940. In discussing the examples that he has chosen, Alan Bartram explains that "[p]ersonal preference has inevitably governed my choice of books, and in fact almost all are off my own bookshelves." (10). Perhaps because of Bartram's admitted subjectivity, his book is an extremely enlightening discussion of book design, British and otherwise.
Appropriately, the physical volume is clearly and strikingly laid out, and is itself an example of Bartram's design philosophy. The majority of its oversized pages contain reproductions of pages from books that Bartram uses to illustrate various developments and book genres. These genres include artist illustrated books from the 1940's and 1950's, guide books, cookbooks, guides to architecture, urban planning, and exhibition catalogs. In each case, Bartram discusses various points of design, as well as the text itself and how they fit into the overall context of British book publishing. For instance, in discussing 50 Years Barhaus, produced by the Royal Academy of Art in 1968, Barstow notes how its design illustrates "differences between the German and Swiss schools" (114). He explains that the designer, working within the German school, avoids capital letters, "[s]paces on these pages are just holes where the elements stop." In contrast, the Swiss school uses empty space as a design element (114).
One potential difficulty for the reader is that Bartram often does not clearly state why a given book's type font is better than another's or why one cover page is better designed than another, presumably because he expects to be addressing a reader who already has some knowledge of book and font design and can tell the difference between "offset" versus "letterpress" printing. Another possible reason for reader confusion is the fact that by intention, Bartram's book is not a systematic history of British book design since 1940, but is instead an impressionistic montage of various examples and his own reactions to them. Although the examples are given in a roughly chronological order, later examples may illuminate previous ones. Moreover, there is no index. Since an index would aid the reader in tracking down Bartram's discussion of various issues, its absence is unfortunate.
Throughout the book and in the context of the various examples, Bartram does discuss larger movements and issues within British book design, such as the impact of the Swiss and German schools of design on British book designers after World War II. He also discusses technological advances such as offset printing. Perhaps the single largest change that he notes is the growing commercial nature of publishing and the consolidation of smaller firms into larger ones. Comparing a guide to Corsica published in 1948 and a title from the popular "Eye Witness Guides" series, Bartram notes, "They are almost a paradigm of the changes in publishing over the last fifty years: from a kind of artistry to a business operation. Books like the guides require teamwork worthy of film-making, and the credits almost resemble those endlessly rolling after a film. Only the Catering Crew and Best Boy seem missing"(134).
Whereas books were once produced by individuals or small groups of people working intermittently, the Eye Witness Guides demand large, continuous, and carefully planned operations. And although Bartram does admit some admiration for the Eye Witness Guide series (134), he is careful to state that while this type of book production, aided by computer technology, may have impressive results, good [End Page 485] book design is neither dependent upon nor superceded by it. In fact, Bartram concludes his work with almost a manifesto on design: "But however they [books] are...