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Kelmscott 2/2: The Beautiful Book at WRT: Writer Response Theory

Kelmscott 2/2: The Beautiful Book

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Kelmscott colophon

In a previous post I introduced you to William Morris. This post is the real reason for his introuduction: how he developed the ‘beautiful book’. To do this Morris founded the Kelmscott Press, probably the most famous in the world in terms of attention to detail and standards rarely seen since. The Kelmscott Press was founded in 1891, producing books of stories, poets and reprints of medieval texts over just a few years. These books were created with definate aims in mind, as Morris explains:

I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.
(William Morris, A Note on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press)

Morris was trying to achieve what is now known as ‘flow’. (Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper, New York.) Basically, ‘flow’ is the state in which one forgets the interface, forgets their own actions and sense of time because they are so involved in the ‘world’ they are reading, viewing, playing. Jane Yellowlees Douglass and Andrew Haragon write an interesting paper, claiming flow is when readers are both immersed and engaged. (Douglas, J.Y. and A. Hargadon (2001) ‘The pleasures of immersion and engagement: schemas, scripts and the fifth business‘ in Digital Creativity, Vol. 12, 3, pp:153???166 ) Ironically, Morris did not succeed in elevating the font or indeed the content above that of the “dazzle”. The initial letters, borders and pictures became the hallmark of the books. So, what exactly did Morris do to create beautiful books that are still revered?

Morris selected a hand-made linen rag paper that was laid (hand-couched) so it wouldn’t leave rib marks. The paper wasn’t to be too thick so that each page would ‘turn over easily’ and to ‘lie quite while you are reading it’. (Morris, The Ideal Book) A ‘quiet book’. This goal brings the us closer to the subject matter.

Another aspect of the paper type is the fact that the books stay open. So, when you read you are not holding the book open, you are not conscious of the mechanism permitting access to the content. This design meant that instead of being forced to stay open, they need to be forced to close. Therefore, many of the books had a silk ribbons to tie the vellum covered books closed.

Kelmscott books
[Mobpic of some books at the exhibition, with my mum in the background!]

Morris discussed the ‘architecture’ of pages, claiming that clearness of reading can be assisted by topography. Letters, Morris insists, ’should be designed by an artist, and not an engineer’ (Morris, The Ideal Book). For one, he insists that ‘the letters should be properly put on their bodies, and, I think, especially that there should be small whites between them’. The spaces between words then is also of importance. there should be ‘no more white should be used between the words than just clearly cuts them of from one another; if the whites are bigger than this it both tends to illegibility and makes the page ugly’ (ibid.). Indeed, Kelmscott books did not have paragraph breaks. Instead, the text would continue or an icon — a leaf for instance — would delineate movement.

Legibility is assisted by the font. Here, Morris is even more specific. The ‘full-sized lower-case letters a, b, d, & c’, for instance, ‘ should be designed on something like a square to get good results’ (ibid.). Each letter should have a unique shaping and ‘the dot of the i should not be a circle drawn with compasses, but a delicately drawn diamond’. He also comments that one should avoid ‘irrational swellings and spiky projections’ (Printing, 1893).

Morris designed three fonts: ‘Golden’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Chaucer’. Initial letters and words were also developed.
Initial Letters:

Kelmscott Press: initial letters

Initial Word:

Initial Word: One

The most important aspect of the design, Morris adds, is the position of the print on the page. He explains that pages should be designed in tandem as a ‘unit’, as they are viewed together, not one-at-a-time. The spacing should follow these dimensions: ‘the hinder edge (that which is bound in) must be the smallest member of the margins, the head margin must be larger than this, the fore larger still, and the tail largest of all’ (Ideal Book).

Borders & Illustrations
Morris’ borders are exquisite. Brian Allison describes how the borders, with their ’sinuous interweaving lines’ act as ‘continual friezes without obvious beginnings or ends’ (Allison, Brian (2005) ???Dreamer of Dreams, Born Out of My Time??? in Kelmscott: A Medieval Adventure in the Age of the Machine, Baillieu Library Exhibition, Curated by Brian Allison and Astrid Krautschneider, 7 June-29 July, 2005). In The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1896, Morris created 14 page borders, 18 illustration borders, a title page, 26 initial words and initial letters over 3 years; and Edward Burne-Jones created 87 woodcut illustrations. Allison describes the Chaucer book as his ‘opus magnus’.

Page from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1896

Book Size
Morris explains:

The fact is, a small book seldom does lie quiet, and you have either to cramp you hand by holding it, or else to put it on the table with a paraphernalia of matters to keep it down, a table-spoon on one side, a knife on another, and so on, which things always tumble off at a critical moment, and fidget you out of the repose which is absolutely necessary to reading. Whereas, a big folio lies quiet and majestic on the table, waiting kindly till you please to come to it, with its leaves flat and peaceful, giving you no trouble of body, so that your mind is free to enjoy the literature which its beauty enshrines. (Ideal Book)

The picture-book is not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to man’s life, but it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things towards the production of which reasonable men should strive. (Ideal Book)

You can see Morris’ design online at the Morris Society website.

I wrote this post because I am as fascinated by why books are so pleasing to me as text on a screen or projected is. I like to find out about the material dimensions of books because there is so little said about them, their affordances are not discussed anymore. But also, I think the standards that Morris developed are a good bar to measure screen standards against. What are the equivalent rules or recommendations for a pleasing screen experience? As an example of what I mean, the influence of Hick’s and Fitt’s Laws on interface design is of relevance.

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