The Comeback of Victorian Typography

This month’s type discussion is on the resurgence of the Victorian Look. I’m seeing more and more typography and graphic design from this era, the second half of the 1800s. It’s often perceived as ‘over the top’, but I find it charming and recent applications are quite interesting. Join Tiffany Wardle deSousa and I in our conversation about the Victorian look in typography.

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Tiffany Wardle deSousa: I think the resurgence could very well be a reaction to the world of white space and simplification.

Dr. Shelley Gruendler: Is the pendulum now swinging the other way?

TWD: At least some people’s pendulums …

SG: It’s the opposite of Helvetica!

TWD: Maybe people can see that not every problem can be solved with the same solution.

SG: We all need constant reminding that it’s easy to get lazy with one’s ‘bag of tricks’ —we all need new tools and new tricks.

TWD: Kevin Cantrell’s work is a great example of this style.



SG: Wow! He uses letterforms and bifurcated serifs and borders and corners and size differentiation and shadows — you name it, he utilizes it! He did his research and tweaked it so that it feels modern and up to date.

TWD: This style is meant to be visually stimulating. You are supposed to get lost in the minutiae and the details. In many ways it is the polar opposite of the International Style.

SG: I wonder how do you know when to stop, when applying this style?

TWD: There is nothing heavy-handed about it. You can’t be with the Victorian look. Each detail counts.

SG: Great articulation of space even though there are loads of elements.

TWD: Right! Very little white space, but at the same time it is ethereal.

SG: It seems to have depth to it, those drop shadows really bring visual interest. (I can’t believe that I’m actually liking a drop-shadow! It takes me back to my commercial art classes in the mid-1980s.)

TWD: His use of filigree to fill the gaps in the word ‘Luminares’ is pure decoration, but it is being used in a specific and thoughtful way.

SG: You’re right — that filigree is great. All is very carefully planned, which speaks a lot for the designer.

TWD: Perhaps, the lightness of the sun-ray is sort of a visual response to the words.

SG: When one compares this to the book cover we discussed previously, one can see that it’s the articulation of the negative space, not the positive, that contributes to a successful design. The appropriation of space on this one does feel considered and not rushed.

TWD: Positive or negative. Victorian or International Style. One always has to consider the special relationships. It isn’t every only about the negative space or the positive space but how the two interact with one another.

SG: These aren’t actual letterforms, but they are typographic applications from the Victorian era and I think they’re absolutely charming.

victoriantype2 victoriantype1

TWD: These were stock illustrations. Printer kept them on hand for anyone needing marketing ephemera. They had to appeal to as many people as who might use them.

SG: As well as appear as if they were worth the price.

TWD: It’s the same old story: we have to show that what we are creating for the client will actually improve what it is that they are creating. Give reason for useful design. Design is utility, not decoration.

SG: Do you see the Victorian approach (filigree, type on arcs, drop shadows, etc.) growing more as a trend? Or maybe we should define it as more of an illustrated type approach?

TWD: I think you could definitely call it a growing trend. But it didn’t skip the 20th century. We might have considered it historical pastiche at one time. People simply mining the past in order to give their work — restaurant, wedding invitation, book cover— a sense of time travel. But now I think people are escaping pastiche and are doing some very interesting and modern work albeit in a style that is well worn. Perhaps using it as a way to create a more artisanal vibe.

SG: First food, now type.

TWD: Yes exactly. You wouldn’t see Helvetica at a farmer’s market, but you might see something like this.

SG: It’s a move away from the computer type-set look, and back to the humanist forms. Farmers markets sure are trendy now. I wonder if Helvetica has fallen out of favor since the movie? (I always hated it as a typeface because it’s just too difficult to set well in text.)

TWD: I feel as if I’m seeing less Helvetica.

SG: Maybe it met it’s saturation point? I hope so. I guess once a movie is made about a typeface, it’s unavoidably ubiquitous.

TWD: Ubiquitous doesn’t separate you from the pack nor does it differentiate you in the marketplace.

SG: I will always proclaim that a knowledge of type history or just good type can really help you to stand out — even if your clients will neither notice nor appreciate it (as Beatrice Warde stated in her ‘Crystal Goblet’ essay).

TWD: Absolutely agree. It is tantamount to being a good designer, I think.

SG: Not that we’re biased or anything … Me? Never!

Additional Type Resources by “Mastering Type” Author Denise Bosler

3 thoughts on “The Comeback of Victorian Typography

  1. remsan03

    Kevin Cantrell’s work shown here is excellent. Certainly the blind letterpress technique is brilliant although it lost its translucent effect once you frame it (which you obviously would do if you have the poster, right?). But, in my opinion, calling it ‘tweaked and feels modern and up to date’ is not entirely accurate. If you googled ‘Insurance Map Cover’, you will find the exact same style. He simply takes the elements found on those old designs and combined them together here. There’s no tweaking, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. In Marian Bantjes words, it can be call ’emulating’. Worse critics would say ‘copying’ the style. Bantjes older works from 2010s, on the other hand, can be call as her own. She took those style as inspiration but she definitely put her marks. The one who can claim as the brilliant designer is the person who designed the original Insurance cover in the first place. I’ve found so many exciting letterforms there. Some even more daring than recently designed typefaces.