Design and Layout • Inspiration Type Ornaments: Building Blocks of Design


Welcome to a new column from Letterform Archive, keepers of graphic design history.


Letterform Archive is home to more than 50,000 objects chronicling the history of graphic design, typography, type design, calligraphy, and lettering. We’re excited to join forces with Adobe Create and debut this column, in which we share some of our treasures with all of you.

We have thousands of type specimens, foundry catalogs, and printers’ specimens that advertise typefaces and print projects. Nestled in most of these are interesting and occasionally intricate type ornaments. Type ornaments are individual elements that can be combined and arranged in any way the typesetter likes to create designs and patterns. These tiny embellishments have a rich history and crop up all over our collection—sometimes in unexpected places. Most often they are used for folio and text break decorations or to make patterns for borders and endsheets.

Spanning several countries, our type catalog collection contains hundreds of volumes from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The type ornaments are generally laid out in a balanced or symmetrical grid—like in the example below by Fundiciòn Tipografica Richard Gans.

Muestrario Edición VI, Richard Gans, Madrid, 1922

To further inspire printers and sales, the Italian foundry Nebiolo provided additional pages of patterns printed in bright colors in their 1889 catalog. When working with metal type, each color represents a separate pass through the printing press. Even as advertisements, these catalog pages are works of art and production mastery, and these designs in particular represent a kind of modernism ahead of its time.

Nebiolo type foundry catalog, Torino, 1889.

Nebiolo type foundry catalog, Torino, 1889.

Some of our oldest, and some of my favorite, examples of type ornaments in use are from our Koppermaandag (Copper Monday) collection. Although accounts of the Dutch Kopperfeest celebrations (observed on the first Monday after epiphany in January) date back to the 15th century, Koppermaandag has been a printers’ holiday linked to guilds and typographic associations since the 18th century. Observance consisted of a feast, but also showcased highly ornate works boasting both the technical skill and aesthetic acumen of printers and their students. Here is an example of a Koppermaandag composition made entirely of type ornaments with exception of the text.

“In honor of Laurens Jansz, Koster, Inventor of Book Printing,… in the city of Haarlem, 1823.” Printed by H. Bakels, 1846

Prints like the one above from 1846 were composed by setting metal type—placing every element in rows by hand. This complex work could be time consuming, but the end products are captivating. Just look at the curves (especially difficult to achieve on letterpress) and perspective on that building.

Not unlike Koppermaandag prints, The Printers’ International Specimen Exchange (1880–1898) was a forum for printing professionals and educators to share specimens with one another. The specimen exchange started as a response to Thomas Haling’s letter to the editor of The Paper and Printing Trades Journal in 1879 and was released as a subscription publication the following year. Though the early issues consisted of mostly British and American specimens, within a few years the The Exchange caught traction with printed submissions from around the world, representing a variety of paper stocks, design styles, and languages. The spirit behind The Printer’s International Specimen Exchange sought to encourage masters to share their work and forward the profession through conversation, critique, and inspiration. Many of the specimens included impressive type ornament arrangements printed with metallic inks. Take notice of the leafy and floral motifs in the example below. This is a subset of type ornaments called fleurons or printers’ flowers.

The Printer’s International Specimen Exchange, The British Printer (ed.), London, 1888. Submission by Fratelli Pozo, Torino.

These historical prints inspired 20th-century works like W. A. Dwiggins’s stencils and modular ornaments and Romano Hänni’s Typo Builder Book (see below)—and even Zuzana Licko’s Hypnopaedia for Emigre. Dwiggins created rubber stamps and stencils employing the individual elements to create a distinctive illustration style. Hänni might be the most direct descendant of the tradition producing letterpressed artists’ books illustrated with elements you can find in a type kit—letters, punctuation, leading spacers, and ornaments. For her digital patterns, Licko concentrically rotated letters from Emigre fonts to create unique and beautiful designs that double as a commentary on copyright law in the US (images are protected intellectual property, but alphabetic typefaces are not). The practice of combining elements to create images, patterns, and decorations continues to grow and change with trends and mediums.

Romano Hänni, Typo Bilder Buch, handset and printed letterpress on paper towels, Basel, 2012.

Monotype released a book of printers’ ornaments in 1928 by Frederic Warde called Monotype Ornaments. In it, Warde writes: “There are no principles; there are only the units themselves, small and willing, amazingly able to take on new appearances upside-down or back-to-back yet always retaining the subtle relation to the printed surface that makes them so valuable.” I think this is true for digitally born work too. A designer or artist should have their medium in mind, whether creating for screen or print. The examples in our collection are almost exclusively in print, but imagine what you could do on screen or with animation.

As part of our collaboration with Adobe Create, we are providing free, downloadable ornament samples from the Nebiolo type foundry. And while these elements are small, as Warde said, they are also willing building blocks—and we can’t wait to see what you make. Post your designs and tag #adobecreate so we don’t miss it.

Check out "Vintage Type Reborn as Photoshop Brushes and Patterns."

In the meantime, please consider helping us preserve our collection of foundry specimens and other examples of type ornaments by supporting our move campaign.

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