I’ve been a student twice: once at the usual time, in my late teens and early 20s, and again in my mid-40s. In between, many things changed, including being able to Google teachers to see who was worthy of attention. Huddled around a laptop at Oxford, we read about the life and work of the mean little poet who taught us and hooted with delight and laughter—until I remembered I was paying to listen to this jerk, 10 years my junior. Had I been able, 30 years earlier, to Google the typographer, designer and writer Anthony Froshaug (1920-1984), who taught me in the late 1970s at London’s Central School of Art & Design, I might have paid more attention; perhaps even become one of the “devoted group,” a term the writer and editor Robin Kinross uses to describe Froshaug’s admirers. Looking at Kinross’s handsome two volumes—Anthony Froshaug: Typography & texts/Documents of a life, published in 2000—I’m ashamed to realize how little I understood what I could have learned back then; if only. I know someone who skipped Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Oxford lectures in the 60s thinking, I can just read his books. More youth wasted on the young.
In his element
One of Central’s great boasts was a composing room filled with wooden drawers of type and an old hand printing press, all under the watch of three full-time staffers. Unlike the rest of the school, this wasn’t a place you visited to experiment and muck around. It had the intimidating air of a working shop, open well before any students got out of bed and locked shut at 5 p.m. sharp. Indeed, it was more like a rarefied printing facility dropped into the middle of the design department, with technicians in brown-bag-colored buttoned work coats busy at something not quite to do with us (they seemed forever engaged in setting the school’s prospectus).
In this environment Froshaug was in his element and held court. Dressed in jackets part Mao, part Parisian street sweeper, he cut an impressive figure: lean, so you thought him tall; standing like a heron on one foot, perched impressively high on a composing table; the long, ink-stained fingers of one hand held a pipe, the other a box of Swan Vestas with match at the ready; but the two hands rarely engaged, the end of the pipe used more to point and jab at proofs than smoke. Froshaug was a mass of contradictions: an intellectual who worked with his hands; a thinker obsessed with clarity who always took the long way around any problem; the possessor of a voice like an announcer on early BBC recordings yet perpetually broke; a man of “persuasive aristocratic languor” with oppressively tight, tiny, even handwriting; a keeper of minute and exact records in his Filofax with a chaotic personal life (the son of one of his oldest friends had to send me a diagram to explain the interconnectivity of the two families).
In that room we learned about picas and ems, thicks and thins, composing our own letterheads as children might be allowed to lick the bowl while Mother was baking. The qualifications necessary to feel at home there were via apprenticeship—and we were too middle-class and expensively educated for that—or via some dry, mathematical love of type or craft where the art seemed tied to process rather than anything immediate or modern. This was, after all, an industry more than 500 years old (Gutenberg built his first press around 1440), and many of us felt the lure of the then new photosetting, which, though still done by technicians, was delivered to your door by messengers on motorbikes. It was another 10 years before designer and typesetting technician came together as one in the new electronic age.
On the move
Noting the concomitance of 1984 as the year of the Apple computer’s birth and Froshaug’s death, Kinross asks the question “What would Froshaug have made of the Apple Computer?” but dismisses such speculation as useless, only to note the “exact grain of the historical process.” As a biographer, Kinross does well by his subject, though the book is an unconventional biography in that it follows the work more than the man.
Of all his skills, perhaps Froshaug’s most memorable were those of a teacher: he starting teaching in 1948 when Central was still the Central School of Arts & Crafts, and returned there throughout his career, the longest period being 1970 to 1983. At different times he taught at various art schools around the country, some as regular spots and others as a visiting lecturer, but his most significant work was at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm; the Royal College of Art; and Watford School of Art. Froshaug studied book production and wood engraving at Central in the 1930s; physics, chemistry and biology at University College, London, in 1940; medicine at St Mary’s Hospital in London in 1941, and, later in life, architecture at the AA School of Architecture in London when he was 47 and mathematics at the Open University in 1972, at the age of 52. His apparent inability to stick with things applied not only to academic disciplies but to locations (town or country), wives, girlfriends, commissions and jobs. He could have had half a dozen careers if he’d wanted.
Typographer as intruder
The typographer Alan Kitching was working as a printing technician at Watford School of Art in 1964 when he first saw Froshaug’s Typographic Norms, a commissioned visual-verbal presentation defining materials and concepts of typography (Kynoch Press had invited different designers to produce work on anything they liked, but it had to be based on A4-sized pages). “I was bowled over—I still am. The way it was thought out and presented was so dynamic,” says Kitching. The spacing pages from Norms are explained both numerically and visually, and, as Kinross explains it, “there is pleasure evident in letting the information reach to find its own dimensions.”
Froshaug told Kinross that he believed “a typographer must be an ‘intruder’—a very vigorous one—and then retreat leaving no obvious marks of this intrusion.” Froshaug was certainly a vigorous intruder—his work was all about making the text understood—but it’s hard to see how he thought he left no marks of intrusion; at least his are welcome ones, however. About the process of design Froshaug wrote that he believed first in “sorting; second, in observing…; third in decisions; fourth, in translating all the problem, set of problems, into another language, another sign system, with love.”
To understand Froshaug’s style, it’s important to begin with the work of the German typographer Jan Tschichold and his book Typografische Entwurfstechnik (“Typographical Design Technology”), which Froshaug encountered in 1944 and was greatly influenced by. (He later corresponded with Tschichold about publishing an English language edition, though it never came off.) Tschichold’s early work advocated the use of sans-serif letterforms and the asymmetrical arrangement of type (non-centered), so that, for instance, headlines would align with the left edge of type whether it was justified or unjustified. Tschichold also helped standardize paper sizes and published practical manuals with clear explanations of the effective use of different sizes and weights of type for the purposes of quickly and easily conveying information, all of which were very influential.
Sadly, Froshaug never published his own manual of typography, but Kinross suggests that the manual is there in the work, and that of the two typographers it’s Froshaug who goes further than his early master on three fronts: his skill in simulating printed matter with pen and ink (see Froshaug’s invitation layout for the artist Cesar Domela, which is all hand-drawn), which enabled him to present the printer and client with a good facsimile of the proposed piece; his careful placement of blocks of type on a page (the grid) to create a clear, harmonious balance; and his willingness to explore unjustified typesetting (just as the print appears here on wwword, where the right edge of the printing is ragged, not butted out so that all the lines align), so that every paragraph has equal, normal spacing between words. Along with type asymmetry, Froshaug was also interested in internal vertical justification; this is where text is aligned running from or to the same vertical axis—often to make sense of text in multiple columns. This meant that a column of unjustified type with, to the left of it, another column of type with a ragged right edge, could hold together because of the vertical between the two. Beyond rejecting classical centering, this new movable alignment allowed designers more flexibility: for example, on a card for a show at Watford that Froshaug designed in 1965, his name aligns with the times and the address, whereas the words “Retrospective Exhibition” are emphasized from their position outside that alignment.
Make it simple
Early in his career Froshaug had his own press and collection of type—trading off the flexibility of being able to experiment with his printed work against the limitation of type choice—and the restrictions seemed to suit him. The conspectus he printed in 1951 demonstrates unjustified setting, along with careful arrangement of the blocks of type on the page, set in two different sizes, so that they achieve a perfect sense of balance despite their disparity in size and color. The layout is determined in part by Froshaug’s Cucurrian letterhead, which is set in a font named Monotype Gill Sans that is then “dropped out”—reversed—from within a thick black rule, so that the letters read as if they are printed in white; a look that is a quintessential Froshaug hallmark. The rule bleeds off on the left to make it look dynamic, and the text can either align under where the white letters start or where the rule ends.
The card Froshaug made in 1951 for his friend the cabinetmaker, designer, poet and teacher Norman Potter shows the simplicity of Froshaug’s work. It is set in Monotype Bodoni; the diagrams are made from brass rules, the thin strips of highly polished metal usually cut to the required length and used to print rules or to help type slide easily in a composing stick or tray. Froshaug’s 1952 change-of-address postcard shows his use of the by now standard 8-point Monotype Gill Sans and Cucurrian letterhead, now printed in red with the new address similarly set, but this time printed in black—the simplicity of the idea of cancellation is inherent in the color and design.
In the 70s the Central School prospectus became one of Froshaug’s main design jobs. The school had played a big part in his life, and for students and teachers alike the building itself, built by the architect and first principal William Lethaby (1857-1931) in 1896, was a romantic and important place in which to work; it came with a rich history. This edition of the prospectus shows an unlikely whimsical element, with an image of the Tower of Babel (why?) shown with a photograph of a woman’s breast in place of the cupola, added to Froshaug’s isometric drawing showing the building’s insides. Today this kind of thing might be no big deal to produce; back in 1977 it was genuinely difficult.
Froshaug’s work is strikingly quiet. There are no screaming headlines, no splashy use of color or junked-up space. Emphasis is made through position, not size or weight of letterform, and yet it’s never boring. I’m not sure why that is. If I could go back 40 years I’d like to ask him why and how.
Looking through Froshaug’s work now, I’m struck by how much more imagination a designer needed back then, when a job looked finished only after it was printed. Clients had to trust designers; they didn’t get to see exact replicas before they could decide if they liked something this way or that, as they do now. In Froshaug’s hands, clients knew their jobs would be be subjected to rigorous scrutiny and worked through thoroughly, with difficulties dealt with head-on. The finished work may not have been on time (Froshaug was famous for ignoring deadlines), but the outcome would work and be beautiful; the beauty was the product of his solution.
I found the restrictions in the composing room too oppressive to be a follower, or part of any devoted group, but years later, when the designer Derek Birdsall had a retrospective exhibition in the main gallery of Central School, I sloped off, climbed the beautiful staircase and found myself on the design floor peering into the composing room. Where once had been rows of wooden cases of type was now a line of monitors.—LUCY SISMAN