Thursday, 26 February 2015

Ron Costley

Above, I Saw Three Ships; Ian Hamilton Finlay/Ron Costley. Below, Figleaf, 1992, Ian Hamilton Finlay/Ron Costley, acrylic on garden wall.

Decades ago, I read a book by the ‘social psychologist’ Liam Hudson – probably the one published as a blue Pelican in 1968 and subtitled ‘Psychological Study of the English Schoolboy’, which is what I was at the time – from which I remember only this: what good teachers teach is not a little specialised body of information (you can get that anywhere) but a way of apprehending the world: conviction, openness, humility. And they don’t actually teach these things; you just learn them from being in the same room.

No one has to shout. I remember one awful day at Faber when – tired, frustrated – I did shout at someone, and Ron was in the room and I couldn’t meet his eye, I felt ashamed.

Ron Costley, who died earlier this month, had started his job at Faber as text designer before I joined in 1991. I somehow knew vaguely who he was, probably from Alan Ross – when Ross became editor of the London Magazine in 1961, Ron gave it a design that still looked contemporary four decades later (Ross died in 2001); and in 1966 he designed the paperback London Magazine Editions, typographic covers on brown card and a text font chosen to mesh with their narrow measure. See here for images. Ron is, you understand, a godfather of my own press, CB editions. Of course when we just happened to be working in the same office, I didn’t know that this would be a result.

The 90s were that time when it dawned upon the managers, slowly but inevitably, that given the new machines on the desks and the software programs becoming available, they could cut out specialist designers and typesetters and just have people press buttons in Quark. Credit to Faber, they did not sideline Ron. While all around was going a little haywire – cover design given over to Pentagram – they trusted Ron with the text design, how the books looked when you got past the cover and started reading. They trusted him also with cover design for the first several books in the poet-to-poet series in 2000 (below; this series has gone through at least two non-Ron makeovers since then).

Almost none of the books he designed carry a credit. (There are many blogs devoted to cover design, very few to text design, a silent skill.) And that you may not recognise any particular book as being a Ron Costley design (though you can see when it’s not) was exactly the point – the aim of good design being that it should be invisible to the reader, entirely in service of the text and the reader's experience of that. The last thing it should be doing is drawing attention to itself. He was a ‘less is more’ man: a precise aesthetic, selective (only certain fonts favoured; small caps; bold eschewed; no letter-spacing of lower case) to the point at which it could be termed conservative, but if so, further, to the point where it comes out the other side and is absolutely radical.

Ron enjoyed working with authors. This is, among in-house designers and editors, a rarer thing than you might think: authors can be difficult, with knotted insecurities and anxieties, and many are surprisingly non-visual. Ron also worked for many years with Ian Hamilton Finlay (who I doubt was the easiest person to get along with): see above. Below is a spread from Ron’s In Horto, in memoriam IHF, edition of 150, 2007. There was another tiny book he did with the photographer Fay Godwin. For Christopher Reid, he designed All Sorts (with illustrations by Sara Fanelli) and other books from the Ondt & Gracehoper imprint. Nothing solo, I think. It’s one of the several ways in which in which he is instructive, exemplary: the matter of a book is the author’s, but the manner in which a book comes into being is collaborative, none of us can do this thing entirely on our own. Ron added a lot, for so many authors.

These limited editions, this minimalism – a bit austere, a bit precious? There’s control in there, and absolute focus, but there’s also, in everything he worked on, a clearly sensuous feel for the shape of a page, a line, a letter, a comma (there are books set in one font but with another font for the punctuation). When in the early days of CBe I wasn’t feeling too confident about a design, I’d go and have lunch with Ron at Pizza Express (extra chili flakes for him), and sometimes he’d suggest a tiny adjustment that made all the difference, and sometimes I disagreed with him, and we’d laugh at that. And order just one more glass, and then back to work.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

The older I get, the more I appreciate people who are competent and efficient. Ron Costley certainly seemed to be both in his particular area of expertise.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Nellissima said...

Loved this, Charles.

Bob D. said...

The Guardian has now uploaded an obituary:

charles said...

Bob - thank you. Until this, the silence on the obituary front was a little eerie.

Shona said...

Lovely Charles. I like Non-Ron, very good. Ron once told me I could "handle type" and I've never quite got over it.

BBB said...

I used to notice when a a press's book design was off, but I couldn't pinpoint what was wrong until you told me it was the text design. Thanks for writing about Ron Costley.