A Little Nepotism

January 5, 2016

IMG_20131224_0009 Retouched

This is my father, Ernst Reichl, around 1923, when he was still in Germany, working on his doctorate in German literature.  I think he wrote his thesis on some obscure fifteenth century poet, but his real interest was always book design.  When he was still in school he worked for the publisher Kurt Wolff, and after he came to this country in 1926 he went to work at Doubleday as an art director.

He loved books.  You could see that every time he held one in his hands; he had a way of opening a book and stroking the pages, as if it was some rare and wonderful animal.  He knew more about typography than anyone I’ve ever met; he could tell you, in a second what typeface it was, who had designed it, and which iteration this was. “Look at the descender on the y,” he’d say.  “It’s longer in the Monotype.”

He kept a copy of every one of the thousand of books he designed in his long career; his most famous design is for Ulysses (for which he also designed the original jacket on the American edition).


On weekends Dad sometimes amused himself by  putting little cards into each book; he included notes about the design decisions, along with author comments and anything else he thought might be of interest to bibliophiles. When Dad died his library, along with the notes, went to Columbia, where it sat pretty much unmolested until a couple of years ago when Martha Scotford, an expert on design history, got her hands on it. In 2013 she curated a show about Dad’s work which she called “The Wide Awake Typographer.”  Last month the entire show went online.

You can find it at ernstreichl.org.

Here’s a little note on the show:

The information gathered here is primarily from research at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript library, which holds the Ernst Reichl archives. In particular the information comes from over 500 index cards that Reichl wrote about many of the books he designed from the late 1920s to the late 1970s.

About the Reichl exhibition: The Rare Book and Manuscript Library hosted an exhibition of over 100 books by Ernst Reichl from July 8 to September 13, 2013. The exhibition’s thematic organization and curator’s texts can be seen here, with linked book photos. The Library’s online exhibition is in development.

Note on website sub-title source: Reichl’s comment on the card for Joyce Carol Oates’ The Wheel of Love (Vanguard, 1970): “J.C.O. enjoys using typographic devices of all sorts to express herself… and many other oddities, which require a wide-awake typographer.”


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  • Marilyn Moss Rockefeller says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I love this story. He was handsome, brilliant and a sweet man. I regret I was in conversation with him only twice.

  • jane vile says:

    wonderful, thankyou Ruth

  • JoDee says:

    What an interesting life your Dad lived!

  • Susan T. Case says:

    This is a touching and fascinating post, Ruth.
    The Ulysses cover is stunning!

    Your father’s photograph tells so much.
    His expression is kindly and thoughtful.
    He is well dressed with tasteful attention to detail.
    And he sits in front of an open window, a metaphor for a book?

  • Harry Rissetto says:

    A truly memorable posting.

  • gail says:

    Dear Ruth, This is so cool! Thank you for sharing your Dad with us. I have a deep appreciation for book design and my partner has been a book designer for many years – probably about 25! I work with folks in academia working in German among other languages – so I really relate to your post!
    Thank you again!

  • Joao Roberto says:

    Thank you for sharing such wonderfull post. A fantastic creative work that deserves to be shared. Cheers!

  • Judi Suttles says:

    I am so impressed. I am am a handbound book and invitation designer. I had my own shop for. over.twenty years. I would have loved to know your father. I would have loved to have a conversation about typefaces. What a gentleman and a scholar he must have been. Thanks for sharing.

  • Michael Singer says:

    That was loving and wonderful.

  • Kristine Williams says:

    I know and love that Ulysses cover! So wonderful to know it was your father who designed it.

  • Greg says:

    Ruth, thank you for the personal touch, making your connections with readers more vivid. Your comments about your Mom, now your Dad have us appreciate their world and your background. Beautiful to see that homage made sensitively, with pride and love.

  • tucsonbabe says:

    Lovely. For anyone who loves the printed word, this post is a joy. Thank you.

  • Heidi says:

    Thank you for sharing, Ruth! I am sure your Dad would be as proud of your work as you are of his!

  • Tina String says:

    Bless you for sharing your father’s legacy and his website, from a retired typographer.

  • I also love books, to feel a book in your hands, is to feel time, time present, time past, would have loved to have spoken to your father,thank-you for sharing such an important part of your life Ruth.

  • Robin Keuneke says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your father, who obviously was a great force in book design. I have always loved that Ulysses cover, but did not know until now that your father designed it. It is timeless, stunning work. Your dad was incredibly handsome, too. I am sure he is looking down upon you, and sharing your life with pride. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Lucy McDiarmid says:

    Ruthie, I remember him well; what a dear man he was. You look just like him, and you have much of his personality also. It’s such a pleasure to read about him.


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