For many typographers, the best thing about U.S. Income Tax day is that John Dreyfus was born on April 15, 97 years ago, in 1918. When this day rolls around again every year, we are happy to remember him.
John Dreyfus was a notable book designer, typographic adviser, printing historian, and editor, who performed many other deeds benefitting typography and type design, too numerous to list here. His numerous writings constitute a revealing panorama of 20th century typography and typographers, many of whom he knew personally, including Stanley Morison, Beatrice Warde, and Jan van Krimpen.
He also delved deep into typographic history and scholarship in his writing, investigating subjects ranging from the history of Baskerville's punches, which he arranged to have returned to Cambridge, through the generosity of his friend and colleague, Charles Peignot, to French type ornaments of the eighteenth century, bringing together mathematician Sébastien Truchet, who invented the typographic point as well as complex tiling patterns, with type designer Pierre-Simon Fournier, who re-invented the point, created the first "extended family" of typefaces, and cut a dazzling series of fleurons.
John Dreyfus' talk and essay on the relationship between eyeglasses and the advent of printing is one of my favorites. When we heard him give the lecture at a conference in New York, he said it would be a "Spectacular View of Typography". It was certainly eye-opening. His essay, published in his collected writings, Into Print, omitted the pun, becoming: "The Invention of Spectacles and the Advent of Printing". Decades later, it turned out to be relevant to recent psychophysical studies of legibility, but he didn't know that at the time he wrote it. His inquiring mind just found it interesting and illuminating. He wrote lucid essays on the type designs of Giovanni Mardersteig, on Jan Tschichold's Sabon, and other noteworthy faces.
John Dreyfus was a founding member of the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) and served as the second president of the organization, where he was a leader in the campaign for legal recognition of type designers' rights. A wonderful and popular lecturer, he spoke precisely about typography, evocatively about human personality and culture, and knowledgeably about grand themes of history, all of which he presented with such easy warmth and evident engagement that audiences felt that they, too, understood such things as clearly and deeply he did, were as cultured and articulate as he was, and possessed the goodwill and generosity that he demonstrated effortlessly.
Unfailingly courteous, personally generous, bilingual in English and French and fluent in German, he was befriended and admired by many in the typographic fraternities of Europe and America, not only of his own generation, but also of younger generations to whom he cheerfully gave assistance, advice, and information, all the while convincing us that it was his pleasure to do so. In 1984, he received the Frederic W. Goudy Award from Rochester Institute of Technology, one of many honors and appreciations he received during his lifetime.
From the many reminiscences that have been written about him, I gather that nearly everyone who knew him could tell stories of his remarkable qualities, mentioning, as here, his gentlemanly courtesy, sincere generosity, and genuine engagement. Some admirers have also mentioned his elegant tailoring, comparing it to that of a male model, but with that description, I disagree. He did not look like a male model; he dressed far better than that. True, the fit and fabrics of his suits were exquisite, but it was the manner of the man who wore them that made his clothes seem sublime.
Apart from his great love of books and typography, he was a theatergoer and member of the Garrick Club, where he was a congenial host to visiting American typographers. Lest this brief portrait lead you to think of him as a sedate clubman, I should say, from personal experience, that he was an uncommonly adroit wheelman, racing his Mini Cooper through the narrow, teeming byways of London with as much panache as Michael Caine in the original movie of "The Italian Job".
Informally, in person, he was as articulate as in his public talks, quick to find just the right thing to say to put everyone at ease in any situation. When he visited our studio in 1987, Kris Holmes asked if he would autograph a book he had edited about Dutch type designer and lettering artist Jan van Krimpen, for which he had written a lengthy introduction and commentary. The book was out of print and Kris had purchased her copy second-hand. Dreyfus cheerfully agreed to sign it, but on opening the book, he was taken aback, for maybe as long as half a second, to see that years earlier, he had already inscribed the book to someone else, who had apparently sold it: "For my dear friend, David ----, from John Dreyfus...1972." John smiled warmly at Kris, took out his pen, and wrote in his fluent italic hand, "Re-signed for my much dearer friend - Kris Holmes, John Dreyfus...1987."
Kris still has it.
John died on December 29, 2002. Of course, we miss him, as does nearly everyone who knew him.
-- Chuck Bigelow
(Photo of John Dreyfus from his Goudy Lecture poster.)