Carl Dair. Epistles to the Torontonians, with Articles from Canadian Printer and Publisher

Carl Dair. Epistles to the Torontonians, with Articles from Canadian Printer and Publisher. William Ross, Introduction, and Rod McDonald, Notes. Toronto and New Castle, Delaware: Coach House Press with Sheridan College and Oak Knoll Press, 2015. 127p. ISBN 9781584563396. US $75.00.

There is something magical about discovering old letters. Whether it be in the attic or the archive, reading old letters provides a personal insight into the lives of both the sender and receiver that stands apart both from histories of their lives and the more self-conscious writings of autobiographies and diaries. Through letters we can eavesdrop on the past.

Epistles to the Torontonians captures the conversations that Canadian typographer Carl Dair (1912–1967), and his wife Edith, had with other members of the Toronto typographical community during 1956–57. Dair, who is now perhaps best known as the author of Design with Type (1952), desired to create the first Canadian Latin typeface and received a grant from the Royal Society of Canada to spend a year studying under type-cutter Paul Rädisch at the Johannes Enschedé Foundry in Haarlem, Netherlands.

Through the Dairs’ letters home to their friends we get not only a glimpse into life in post-war Holland, but, more importantly, an inside look at the contemporary European typographical scene. The letters recount Dair’s meetings with Jan Tschichold, Hermann Zapf, Jan van Krimpen, Maximilian Vox, and others. They also recount in great detail Dair’s apprenticeship under Rädisch, the last master punch-cutter, and his assistant S. L. Hartz. Metal type was on the verge of becoming obsolete, and these letters document the immense skill that was required to take a letter from a drawing to a piece of type. Finally, through Dair’s urgings that his friends participate, the letters hint at the emergence of the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada.

In addition to the letters, the book contains an Introduction by William Ross, a note on Dair’s Cartier typeface by Rod McDonald, who used it as a basis for his own Cartier Book, illustrations of Dair’s work, including sketches towards the development of Cartier, and a number of articles Dair wrote for Canadian Printer & Publisher. The book is very handsomely designed by Stan Bevington and superbly printed by Toronto’s Coach House Press. In particular, the reproductions of the letters are extremely clear and easy to read.

However, in capturing the magic of discovering a box of old letters, the book also recreates some of the frustrations and thus unnecessarily limits its use. The letters are arranged in mostly chronological order, but all of the “Epistles” are lumped together, breaking up the order. There are also items missing, such as Epistles 7 and 8, and one can only assume they were not in the archive. This lack of structure makes it easy for a mistake to slip in – a duplicate page appears, resulting in a missing page of another letter. It is also up to the reader to know, or to find out, whom exactly the people in the letters are; for example, most of the letters are to “Frank and Sheila,” but nowhere is their surname given (Smith). Similarly, the illustrations lack captions. A few footnotes and a small editorial introduction would have been valuable additions.

Any shortcomings in the book are more than made up for by the inclusion of the DVD Carl Dair at Enschedé: The Last Days of Metal Type. This remastered version of Dair’s 16mm footage of Rädisch at work is introduced by Rod McDonald and narrated by Matthew Carter. Carter himself trained at Enschedé, and his narration and interview cast further light on the last days of metal type.

Jon Bath
University of Saskatchewan