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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