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Book Review: ‘Shadow Type: Classic Three-dimensional Lettering’ by Steven Heller and Louise Fili

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thPrinceton Architectural Press may not be the first publisher you think of when you think about “bathroom books.” But Shadow Type: Classic Three-Dimensional Letteringis a perfect bathroom book for the design and typography-minded powder room.

Steven Heller and Louise Fili introduce the book with a defense of typography against claims made by media critic Marshall McLuhan, perhaps best known for a cameo in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall. McLuhan appears in line at a movie theater right underneath a marquee set with what at the time was one of the more ubiquitous examples of shadow type.

The media critic argued that Gutenberg’s printing press changed history, but left behind one irrevocable casualty: the human voice. Gone were oral traditions, replaced with silent, passive readers. McLuhan went even further with his critique, romanticizing the noble savage with thoughts that “in literature only people from backward oral areas had any resonance to inject into language.”

If, as McLuhan famously noted, the medium is the message, then typography is a crucial part of that medium. Good typography, like good design, seems mysterious and refined but, when done right, its affect is natural and effortless. You never realize you’re being sold something. The authors of Shadow Type argue that commercial need drove the art of dimensional typography. As more shops competed for more customers, sign makers and advertisers had to devise new ways to lure consumers to open their wallets, before the rise of neon signs brought typography into the third dimension.

You probably aren’t drawn to this book for the essays. The book’s lavish illustrations give  examples of shadow type from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, and are arranged by nationality, American typefaces having a distinct character from French, Italian, German, etc.

The book could have used an appendix spelling out the years and specific purposes of the hundreds of examples. Its eye-catching cover was likely made using the aid of three-dimensional letters  sold to amateur photographers and home movie  markets as a way to create their own title cards. As a collector of such home title kits, I’d love to see a book cover that topic. But that is another time. Shadow Type is a book for edutainment, not scholarship. Readers with any interest in vintage fonts and advertising will love it.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.