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The Man Who Designed Ulysses

On display at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the work of prolific designer Ernst Reichl gives a glimpse at his other passion—reading

By Anne Quito, Superscript August 27, 2013

The phrase “Wide Awake Typographer” comes from a note scribbled by Ernst Reichl about his design for Joyce Carol Oates's The Wheel of Love, explains Martha Scotford, curator of the exhibit on the prolific book designer’s work currently on display at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. At the heart of the exhibition, named with that phrase, are the designer’s handwritten reflections logged on more than 500 index cards, carefully transcribed by Scotford over the course of three years.

Ernst Reichl's handwritten diary. Photo courtesy of Anne Quito/Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

"His handwriting was rather European, so it's harder to read because we're not used to it," she said. Reichl’s words, via Scotford’s transcription, serve as the exhibit’s wall text, giving the visitor a first person tour direct from the designer’s lively mind. The 3x5 index cards were discovered tucked within books in Reichl’s collection, which was donated to Columbia University upon his death in 1980. His comments—candid, witty, scholarly, at times acerbic—were never published, but possibly served as instructional notes for Reichl’s seminars when he taught at New York University.

Reichl's design for James Joyce's Ulysses. Photo courtesy of Anne Quito/Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Working from the 1930s through the 1970s as a trade book designer, Ernst Reichl is perhaps best known as the book designer of the first American edition of James Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Leipzig, Germany, he earned a PhD in Art History and Literature and worked as an editor of classical art books before immigrating to the United States in 1926. Over the course of his career, Reichl designed more than 2,000 books, working with authors like Oates, Gertrude Stein, Kurt Vonnegut and Marshall McLuhan. He was known as a “whole book designer,” having command over all aspects of a book’s design and production process.

One of Reichl's dramatic double-page title spreads. Photo courtesy of Anne Quito/Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 


The Books

Books for Our Time Marshall Lee
Ernst Reichl
Herbert Bayer
American Institute of Graphic Arts Trade Book Clinic

A critical reader, Reichl’s designs served to vivify and amplify the author’s intent through the thoughtful use of graphic elements and evocative use of book materials. The dramatic double-page title spread is a Reichl innovation, memorably deployed in Ulysses. His nuanced, at times playful title page treatment served to trumpet a book’s tone or foreshadow an aspect of the plot. He read manuscripts and was as astute in the technical aspects of production as he was with the oeuvre of the authors he designed for.

The exhibition, which runs through September 13, offers a rewarding experience for typographers, designers, and bibliophiles. If there is one minor critique to be made, the design of the exhibition itself seems to be missing a title page, a defined entry point for the visitor that adequately heralds Reichl’s inventions. Childhood photographs and Reichl's diary are presented in a glass case to the left of the main entrance, while his biography and introductory text to the exhibit is in a case in the middle of the room under a small banner.

Reichl founded two personal imprints, Roman Press and Archway Press, with his wife Miriam. Their daughter Ruth is a food writer and was the former restaurant critic at the New York Times. In fact, it was her writings that first inspired Scotford’s research on Reichl.

Curators transcribed Reichl's handwritten notecards for exhibition plates. Photo courtesy of Anne Quito/Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Reichl's handwritten notecards. Photo courtesy of Anne Quito/Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

"Ernst Reichl: Wide Awake Typographer" is showing at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library located at the sixth floor of the Butler Library at Columbia University through September 13. A website cataloging Reichl's book design notes found in his archives is currently being developed.  

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