Michael Bierut | Essays

Rob Roy Kelly’s Old, Weird America

American Wood Type

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.

Posted in: History, Media, Obituaries, Typography

Comments [18]

Thanks for beating me to this, Michael: I just read the obituary this morning and share many (most) of your thoughts. I had some contact with the late RRK when writing my Rand book, a topic on which Kelly had many opinions. His unpublished account of the early days of graphic design at Yale should be recommended reading for many design educators. Kelly wrote in the didactic, world-according-to-me tone that makes many of us roll our eyes, but it is worth remembering that he was exceedingly knowledgeable about many, many things -- not the least of which was wood type.
Jessica Helfand

His unpublished account of the early days of graphic design at Yale should be recommended reading for many design educators.

Don't keep it to yourself -- Winterhouse it.
M Kingsley

"Winterhouse it."

Aye, aye! A reprint of American Woodtypes would also be a great service. (I'm considering spending $125 on an used copy, so I'm an easy mark on this one; I'm sure there are others.)
Jose Nieto

As long as we're calling for other people to do work, editing/collecting both his unpublished and published comments on design education would be a worthy project.
Gunnar Swanson

The idea that Winterhouse has become a verb is incentive enough to go and dig it up. Thanks for the encouragement.
Jessica Helfand

I always wonder what the anthologies of forgotten ephemera of the turn of the 21st century will contain. It makes me look at abominable flyers and secretary-generated desktop publishing anew. Perhaps web banner ads or animated gifs will be mined by future designers for that early-digital aesthetic.

Like most people these days, I love the old wood types, but it takes a rare individual like Rob Roy Kelly to find and elevate something in a time when such things are at best forgotten and at worst discarded as design pollution.
marian bantjes

I studied with Rob Roy Kelly for three years at Arizona State University in the 80's. Before his 1.5" of ashes hanging from the end of the cigarette in his mouth fell onto our plaka boards in his lap, he'd take that stubby pencil of his out of his Sears work shirt pocket and talk about line quality while scratching right through the trace on top of the board. The beauty of the line, his passion and his tenacity, it was all there, in fat pencil. In his office during that time, there were two collections in progress. Tree cancers he gathered from the Arizona forests, polished, finished, photographed and catalogued. Then trivets. Hundreds. Trivets. For their form, for their history, for the gathering.
Professor Kelly's legacy in Design Education cannot be underestimated and yes, should be catalogued and sited for his trail remains in all our blood. Thank you Rob.
And Thank you Bruce Ian Meader and Roger Remington at RIT, Gordon Salchow for:

Daniel, thanks for the great resource. One note: the Times obituary had the original publication date of American Wood Type wrong. It was 1969, not 1977.
Michael Bierut

The American Wood Type book was originally published by Van Nostrand Rinehold in 1969 and the Da Capo paperback reprint was in 1977.
steven heller

Rob Roy Kelly brought me to the U.S. , specifically the Kansas City Art Institute, in 1967. We worked and taught together for the next two years. When I read Margoh's comments (who was a student of Rob's at ASU in the 80's), I could not help smiling, as it brought back a lot of memories of our time together in the 60's. Clearly, Rob never changed. He was very passionate about everything he did. Thanks to him, I got involved in education. To this day I'm still teaching part-time at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. As mentioned by Margoh, Rob Roy Kelly's legacy as an educator cannot be underestimated or ignored. It is my sincere hope that his thoughts and comments on design education be published for the benefit of future generations of design educators and students. Thanks for the memories Rob! You were a major influence in my life.
Hans-U. Allemann

Thanks for the kind comments about by father. He loved teaching probably more than anything else, a close second would be his research (obsessing on) something that little was known about.
Shaun Kelly

As a graphic designer who has just returned to school, I had just begun reading Rob Roy's classic book on American Wood type last week, as research for a project on wood type. His work is incredibly valuable to remembering the importance wood type had in the evolution of the letter press and graphic design. It is also a wonderful honor that Rob Roy gifted the design world by sharing his work and his collection. I also hope his book is reprinted, the next generation of graphic designer could learn from Rob Roy's knowledge of a forgotten art.
Mike Barker

I am pleased that Rob Roy Kelly's death has caused a bit of a stir in the design community. It was reassuring to see the fine obiturary for Rob by Steven Heller, to hear from my ex students, such as Michael Bierut, and to share memories, such as my beginning of an education career with Hans-U. Allemann. Unfortunately, the reverberations may fall short of the significance and the breadth of Rob's influence on our profession because his primary passion was design education. He was a gregarious, opiniated, pure and powerful presence while pioneering many educational initiatives beginning, when I first met him, in the late 50's. The dominos have nudged numerous curricula, and thousands of students of students. He was my primary mentor and a dear friend.
Gordon Salchow

I was a student of RRK at ASU in the 80s. And like Margoh, my memories are vivid, laughter provoking, and the experience was life changing. I remember his honesty, opinionated dialogue, warmth, high standards, and the genuine passion he had for teaching. He literally required us to think and to learn. I recall Rob looking more like the janitor than a professor. He would glide in to the classroom and head straight for the wall where our Vis Comm boards were tacked. He'd pace back and forth with his eyes fixed upward. "You don't get it." And out he would go in a puff of smoke and ash (literally). The "answer" I later realized was not necessarily in the final board, but it was in the process of getting there. Learning to communicate with exquisite simplicity. Perserverance. Collaboration. When we did "get it" there was nothing like a piece of praise from Rob. He meant it and we felt it. I will always remember Rob as my most influential design educator (who also had a passion for wood type and trivets). He was one-of-a-kind. I hope someone out there is going to publish a book of his writings on design education. I'll take 2!
Debra Johnson

I went to my first design conference in 1988 because Kelly was speaking. I'd had the Dover "100 Wood Type Alphabets" book for years, and had just landed a copy of "American Wood Type" which Da Capo press had issued in paperback, and the Strand was selling for $5. (By all means, Bill and Jessica, do a reprint!)

Kelly's talk had the word "trivets" in the title. I don't think I was alone in presuming that it must be some arcane bit of printer's jargon, like muttons and nuts and such. His opening slide was of a cast iron trivet with a steaming kettle on top. We all laughed.

His second slide was also of a trivet, this time sans kettle. More laughter from the audience, which crescendoed as Kelly began actually discussing the things, in terms of their visual history and morphology. He was in the middle of advancing a taxonomy for Pennsylvania Dutch drop-forged iron trivets a few slides later when we all realized that this wasn't a put on: he'd actually come to the "Modernism & Eclecticism Conference on Graphic Design" to talk about trivets.

A couple of people left in a huff, but most of us just stared in amazement. It wasn't that we were especially interested -- part of it was simply the shock of listening to the world's foremost expert on American wood type of the nineteenth century talk about kitchenware -- though I have to admit that his enthusiasm was infectious.

I think we all left amazed by his ability to obsess about, and fully inhabit, those things that the rest of the world had left behind. Somewhere there's no doubt an antiques collector to whom Kelly's later mania was as inspiring as his earlier fascination with printing types was to me. He was one of those rare people whose enthusiasm and scholarship was unalloyed with any kind of agenda, or any kind of snobbery. I'll miss him.
Jonathan Hoefler

mr. kelly's book on wood type was the only book i have ever stolen from a library. i still feel guilty about it.
art chantry

Rob Kelly said, (or I imagined that he said)
"My standards are higher than anyone here can ever achieve". When you can persevere like Rob, you can say things like that. I will miss him.
Dale K. Johnston

I was a student of Rob's when he first came to KCAI in 1964. I had just finished my first year of art school and even though I liked it, it seemed like high school. Then Rob came on the scene. He established something new for me—Graphic Design. He set up a new program with Joe Lucca, Gordon Salchow, John Garrison, Lloyd Schnell and later Inge Druckrey from Basel. My life was changer! There was never a dull moment and we all had new homes—the studio! The critiques were gut wrenching, but we survived. We followed Rob like baby chicks down the sidewalks of KCAI to coffee breaks in the dorm cafeteria, where we would continue to discuss and be challanged. He got into our craws and we never were the same. We started with 60 sophomores in 1964 and had 16 graduate as seniors in 1967. I was lucky to be one. When Kathy Salchow called me one day a few years ago and said I should get in touch with Rob as he was very ill, I deciede to do that. Thank you Kathy. I first wrote Rob a letter and later we started emailing. We exchanged emails for the last two years. He always encouraged me and he was there for me, to give advice and just talk shop. I owe him for his unique ability to challenge, to critique, to teach and push me beyond what I thought were my limits. I miss you Rob! May you be at peace.

John Sylvester
John Sylvester

Jobs | July 23