The optimism of modernity: recovering modern reasoning in typography

Introductory note

For designers who see it now for the first time, and also those whose memory will be refreshed by this small exhibition, Edward Wright’s work resists familiar categorizations. Unlike the new typography of his younger contemporary Anthony Froshaug, it drew on Latin American and Francophone poetry, on surrealism, on figurative image-making, and on Parisian painting. And while slipping unseen past even these benign border-guards, Wright’s work can still cause difficulties for designers who – many, probably most of us – are under the influence of graphic design’s stylistic battles over the past four decades. Designers for whom objectivity and neutrality are priorities will have to look hard at this work.

Such distinctive sources, shaped and reshaped through his own voice and vision, may explain the separation of Edward Wright’s work from mainstream graphic design as it developed during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite this separateness, he had shared with fellow artists and designers common threads of optimism for the modern world: together they had faced the world after war, and worked through the years of reconstruction, and seen the possibilities of artistic and design practices embedded into a notion of common good.

We think that the materials displayed here reasonably represent the work that Edward Wright did, as a freelance designer, in his maturity. We have little from his early years, when he did ‘commercial art’ for advertising art directors such as Arpad Elfer at Colman Prentis & Varley. And our display cannot project the full range of his work – which would indeed sag under the weight of words like ‘multidisciplinary’. It was wide-ranging and generous, moved by curiosity about the willow-edged boundaries between visual and verbal productions, the fluid acts of human discourse.

One particular challenge of Wright’s work wants mention. The problems of making letters for modern architecture are still poorly resolved: there are few compelling exemplars.

Edward Wright offers some. Architects, comfortable with their metaphor of ‘the legible building’, seem quite unaware of these problems. Most of Wright’s letters on buildings are unsettlingly outside the canonical tradition of western lettering, and are riskily unweighted by the twentieth-century tradition of British public lettering.

We show what we can within the available space and from this resource – a collection of Wright’s design work which first came to this Department around the late 1970s. The collection has been augmented, for the period of this showing, by some materials loaned to us by Edward Wright’s friends. We are very grateful for their help.

The difficulties usually present in exhibiting design work are evident here. For example, we cannot easily show those social communications within the design and production process – asking, instructing, agreeing, arguing, thanking – which must have intrigued a man so sensitive to nuances of voice and the positions of speakers. One could guess that this sensitivity was part of an outsider’s lightly-packed baggage. Wright’s own graphic voice is maybe best seen in his notebook sketches: rough provisionality alongside acute observations, speculative reports, images of dreams, pictures of hope. Here especially you sense his agile eye for the graphic traces of human activity, for trail marks, for signs of transient speech.

Paul Stiff
Department of Typography & Graphic Communication
University of Reading