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So what’s William Morris ever done for us book designers?

It’s rare for two copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer (‘the pocket Cathedral’) to be on public show at the same time. In early 2015, Morris’ own copy was at the Modern Art Oxford exhibition ‘Love is Enough’, showing works by Morris and Warhol. A beautiful white pigs-skin bound copy was simultaneously on show at the Anarchy & Beauty exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

This was the pinnacle of the Press’s achievements and a fulfillment of the dreams of both Morris and Burne-Jones to produce an illustrated book to compare with the best in medieval printing.

When Morris started the Kelmscott Press, it was against a background of poor quality book design and printing. The dominance of the Modern typefaces (Bodoni, Didot etc.), with their narrow width, fine serifs, printed on soft, machine-made paper gave a mean grey look to the page.

By contrast, Morris demanded black ink, robust letterforms, the highest quality handmade rag paper and a consistent level of printing. But it didn’t imply a highly illustrated or even decorated book. The majority of the Kelmscott books were simple, clean typographic designs in one or two colours.

It’s false to think that his late interest in typeface design, book design and printing was an attempt to create mere imitations of the medieval book or to produce them following 15th century methods. His books were printed on cast iron Albion presses, not wooden presses. They were not printed on the new ‘commercial’ presses of the late Victorian period, but this was always meant to be a small ‘private’ press where the pressmen had control over their work.

Having mastered an art, Morris felt entitled to preach. And what he said about typography and book design, which seemed revolutionary in his day, is what we book designers have had passed down to us as best practice, possibly without realizing the debt we owe to him.

What Morris said about book design was:

  • treat the two-page spread as a single design identity.
  • set margins which increase from the back margin, to the head margin, to the foredge and finally to the foot margin. (He complained that many modern books looked like they were upside down.)
  • choose a typeface which had legible letterforms, avoiding ‘irrational and spikey projections’.
  • aim for even and close word and letterspacing, and avoid rivers of white.
  • any pictures should be placed to form part of the page or spread and considered within the whole scheme of the book.
  • set the text in a typesize and with leading appropriate for the text measure.  Nothing smaller than Long Primer in his view. (That’s about 10pt which seems pretty small given the poorer lighting in those days, and no doubt Morris’s reading glasses were not as good as mine.)

Morris died in 1896, leaving several Kelmscott Press books to be finished. How long did it take for Morris’s lessons to be learnt? No time at all. Just look at one of the most beautiful books ever printed – the Doves Press Bible of 1902, produced by Emery Walker and TJ Cobden-Sanderson.

You can find some of our own beautiful books here.

Written by Pete Lawrence