It felt like a highly anticipated movie finally coming out, after a long period of teasers and trailers released to get its geeky fandom excited. As many people who live in London and work with typography, I had been waiting for years to visit the type archive. It was a daily tease, too, as as every morning on my way the Dalton Maag office in Brixton, the bus drives past a white sign, typeset in Albertus, with the words “The Type Archive”.
I almost managed to visit it once, while studying type design in Reading, but we couldn’t get the permission. Later, at Dalton Maag, we also tried and failed to arrange a visit. Needless to say, as soon as word got out that there would be an open night there, within minutes most of the designers in the London office had already bought tickets.
The event was to celebrate the 500-year anniversary of Aldus Manutius’ death this February, and a book launch about the history of Monotype. When the night finally arrived, 18 of us left the office at 6 and walked down the road together. The Archive is in a cobblestoned yard, with a cluster of very charming old industrial buildings. It is quite spacious, and although it was full of people, we were all left to walk around and explore. It was not a guided tour, but a chance to wander around open doors, while volunteers showed us the way, and in some occasions there were practical demonstrations of the machinery, or typecasting, and so on.
We started to explore freely, as the space was really big, with lots of rooms and different nooks and crannies filled with hidden gems. It was really a fantastic place, quite different from a museum: there was much more practical machinery than I had ever seen before, specifically designed to solve printing problems that had never occurred to me as having existed. While my working day is spent adjusting bezier curves on a computer screen, the Type Archive shows equipment from a time when type was a physical thing, and needed to be drawn and manufactured, enlarged and reduced, modified and reproduced, measured and transported, stored and catalogued, and so on, as a collection of solid objects. While I may have read about and studied the general process of designing or typesetting metal type, the variety of machines on display at the Archive prove that there were many more practical challenges (and sophisticated solutions) than what we usually study, especially after the industrial revolution.
It soon became evident that it was impossible to see everything in one night, so my approach was to relax and just wander around to whatever caught my attention, and exchange experiences whenever I ran into one of my friends along the way: “Do you know what this thing does?”; “Did you see the models for cutting Sinhala wood type with the pantograph?”; “Did you see the architectural drawings of buildings that look like letters?”; “Did you see that ligature?”
When we later gathered in a hall with food and drinks to wait for a short talk about Aldus Manutius, the atmosphere of curiosity and excitement was palpable. Nicolas Barker gave a great talk about Manutius and his contribution to typography and book design (that would be a subject for another post!), and Sue Shaw talked about the Type Archive and the history of the building. The cherry on the cake was learning the fact that that very building has once provided accommodation to circus animals, including two baby elephants and a baby zebra! Just when I thought this place couldn’t get any cooler…
This visit was definitely worth the wait. The problem is, one evening is not enough. I do hope they manage to do more of these events in the future.