Rob Roy Kelly died on January 22 at the age of 78. A designer, educator and writer for nearly fifty years, he was best known for a single book: American Wood Type, 1828-1900: Notes on the Evolution of Decorated and Large Types and Comments on Related Trades of the Period, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1969. To a national profession well on the way to succumbing to Nixon-era Helvetica, Kelly's book, a loving history and analysis based on his own vast collection of fonts, was a nothing less than a Whitmanesque barbaric yawp.
I must have been in my second or third year of design school at the University of Cincinnati when I first saw a copy of American Wood Type. Our program was unabashedly modernist, with instructors from New Haven and Basel, under whom we spent endless hours carefully modulating different weights of Univers and painstakingly rendering exquisite letterforms in black and white Plaka paint, imported from Switzerland for that sole purpose. But our department head, Yale-educated Gordon Salchow, knew Rob Roy Kelly from the Kansas City Art Institute, and a first edition of American Wood Type quickly found its way to our studio.
It occurred to me while I was reading his obituary by Steven Heller in the New York Times that Kelly was not unlike another passionate eccentric, Harry Smith. Like Rob Roy Kelly, Smith was a relentless collector, but instead of wooden typefaces he amassed homegrown field recordings: ballads from Appalachia, gospel from the Deep South, square dance music from the Ozarks. Released on Folkways Records in 1952, "The Anthology of American Folk Music" introduced rough, authentic voices into a culture under the spell of crooners like Sinatra, and influenced generations of musicians around the world. As Greil Marcus said in his seminal essay on Smith, "The Old, Weird America," the recordings represented "...a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America within the America of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power."
Having worked so long and so hard to refine my design palette, I was unprepared for crude vitality of the letterforms that Kelly jammed into his book. Balance, taste, consistency, all the skills I had worked so have to develop were blown away by page after page of vulgar, monstrous, intoxicatingly bold letterforms. Shockingly, the book today is out of print, but if you can get your hands on a copy you won't let go. Years of digitization and manipulation make it hard to see today how original those hundreds of typefaces are. But - and please forgive me for pushing the metaphor - like the digitally-sampled, nearly-forgotten voices on Moby's "Play," even after all these years, their power still comes through.