Letraset rub-down sheet, 1977.

Work-related research this past week had me looking for old Letraset fonts like Quicksilver here, one of the foundry’s many quirky type designs from the 1970s whose novelty inspired brief flushes of popularity before they were replaced by trendier designs. Quicksilver, which first appeared in 1976, has been lodged in my memory since I first saw it in a Letraset catalogue that was one of only two books lurking in a cupboard in the art room at school. (The other was a much-thumbed copy of The World of MC Escher.) The catalogue fascinated me because it revealed that these unusual typefaces could be identified by name: Data 70, Block Up, Pluto, Shatter, etc. I already knew that typefaces had names, of course, thanks to the occasional notes you’d find in paperbacks telling you that the book was set in 11pt Plantin or similar; but in the days before computers made everyone a lot more familiar with typography the typesetting business was a remote and mysterious world. Information about new type designs wasn’t easy to find unless you had access to the latest design magazines or a well-stocked library. The further realisation, that typefaces were designed by individuals who also had names, came later.


Quicksilver was designed by Dean Morris who was only 16 at the time he sent off his design to Letraset:

The name Quicksilver was my second choice, however. Letraset Englishly felt that my first choice, ‘Polished Sausage’, would be ‘rather unpopular in foreign markets’. I designed it as a 16-year-old kid at John Glenn High School in Bay City, Michigan (born in Mercy Hospital 3 months after Madonna), and sent Letraset a xerox of a tight marker sketch of 3″ letters letterspaced with the heavy outlines slightly overlapping as I originally intended. I drew only a skinny S without an alternate, and submitted no punctuation. I knew nothing about submitting typeface artwork and I assumed there’d be, you know, discussion.

But Letraset wanted it, and they must have wanted it REAL FAST (fifties nostalgia and disco were WHITE HOT then, remember), because they sent a letter and contract soon after, and they did the finished art themselves at 5″ high (they can’t have known my age, maybe they had no confidence in my technical skills), starting with the E as did I in the design stage. And what a gorgeous rendering job they did in the pre-Mac days of ruling pens, straight-edges, and compasses (they shunned rapidographs!) — and they hand retouched the curves where they met the straight lines! Letraset sent a 5″ sample E for approval, but I’m sure they had already drawn all the characters. They followed my sketch very closely, designed the punctuation, and suggested an alternate but weird wide S, which I approved, figuring there was probably no other decent way to design it. I don’t know if the thematically wrong heavy-overlap-line on the P came from me or them. (more)

Morris has a collection of Flickr albums which show how popular the design was in the late 70s and early 80s, especially on record sleeves. It’s probably going a little too far to describe this as “the disco font” but it was certainly popular with the disco crowd. The robot book below is one of the few book covers. I expected there to be many others but Morris’s design might have been regarded as too eccentric for use in the publishing world where readabilty is more of an issue.


Cerrone 3 (Supernature) (1977) by Cerrone. Silly cover art but Supernature is a great song.


Robots (1978).


The Message (1982) by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five.

Quicksilver also proved distinctive enough but not too weird (like Block Up, for example) to stay around and find further uses years later, often ironically as tends to happen to type designs that become associated with a particular period or idiom. The font’s bold outline is an unusual feature, one that gives it an advantage over similar designs like Letraset’s later Chromium One which doesn’t read so well at a distance. And I like the shape of the letters, the result of Morris’s determination to shape everything with a single shiny bar.


One thing that Quicksilver does share with a handful of its contemporaries from that old Letraset catalogue is a lack of an official digital version. The sample above has been created with Neon Lights, a copy afflicted with poor spacing and inconsistent character sizes. It works if you need something in a hurry but Morris’s design deserves better treatment. As to my use of the font that prompted the Letraset search, this is subject to the usual embargoes so you’ll have to wait a while before seeing the results.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Typefaces of the occult revival

Weekend links 142


Gratifying this week to see album cover art under discussion even if the heat-to-light ratio was as unbalanced as it usually is when pop culture is the subject. Jonathan Barnbrook, who also designed the Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) packaging for David Bowie, wrote about the thinking behind the new cover on his blog. (And for the time being let’s note that this is still only a cover design, we don’t know what else is on its way.)

For my part I’ll point out that the artist-as-cover-image is the great cliché of album design, and the bigger the name the more the rule applies; Neville Brody complains about this in the first book of his work, as does Storm Thorgerson in the Hipgnosis books. In Bowie’s case the rule has been applied almost universally since his debut album in 1967, the only variations being illustrational ones or slight dodges like having his feet appear on the front of Lodger and his back facing the viewer on Earthling. Consequently the new design is a radical gesture from an artist who could have got away with a photo of himself du jour. By way of contrast, consider that Rod Stewart is a year older than David Bowie and presented the world with this artefact in October 2012.

Related: Hard Format responds to the cover, Chris Roberts on “Picasso resurrected in a Rolf Harris era“, and Alexis Petridis on The inside story of how David Bowie made The Next Day.

The Quicksilver typeface, designed by Dean Morris when he was only 16, bought by Letraset and now an indelible feature of pop design from the 1970s. Morris describes his experience here (“they shunned rapidographs!”) and collects examples of the print history here.

When the days are short, we are closest to the medieval world. To the avoidance of mirrors where death improves our portraits every morning with a few more lines and shadows. What would once have been a sermon, a conjuring of hellfire, a phantom slide show, is now an entertainment. But before we can begin again, we have to kick free of the embrace of our inconvenient predecessors, that compost legion of the anonymous dead. They come uninvited, requiring us to sign up for what the late Derek Raymond called the general contract: a brief turn in the light, then extinction. Eternal darkness. How to live with such knowledge? William Burroughs admired the unswerving bleakness of Beckett’s gaze, the way he reduced compensatory illusions to zero. Nowhere left to crawl. And nothing to crawl on. Last breath is last breath. Stare into the abyss and the abyss will stare right back.

Iain Sinclair reviews The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by Carl Watkins

Broadcast’s James Cargill on Morricone, Minidiscs and Scoring Berberian Sound Studio. Related: Melmoth the Wanderer posts a new mix, The Curious Episode of the Wizard’s Skull, and more spooky sounds are on their way from The Haxan Cloak.

• A Firm Turn Toward the Objective: Joanne Meister on meeting the great Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann.


Twitter user @thisnorthernboy reworked Paul Emsley’s portrait of Kate Middleton. @barnbrook approved.

• The Beatles of Comedy: David Free on the Monty Python team.

• The history of the London Underground poster.

Impossible Architecture by Filip Dujardin.

• At Pinterest: Art Dolls & Sculpture

• Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing album has been on repeat play this week: Warm Leatherette/Walking In The Rain | I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) | Demolition Man