Remembering Michael Mitchell: how he brought order to the world of typography

Michael Mitchell, British typographer commissioned by the likes of National Gallery and Peter Blake, and author of definitive style handbooks for designers, has died aged 78. We look back at some of his studio’s achievements and projects.

Michael Mitchell, courtesy of Susan Wightman, © James Mitchell

Typographer and designer Michael Mitchell has died aged 78, having devoted his working life to helping designers and publishers create beautiful and legible books.

Mitchell was born in 1939 in Leicester, but was certainly not set on pursuing design from a young age; he studied dentistry at Guy’s hospital in London, and took his first job as a dentist in 1962.

Thirteen years later, in 1975, Mitchell received his first printing press, and began typesetting and printing poetry books in his garage.

He went on to found press house Libanus Press, which specialised in letterpress, and eventually retired after 30 years as a dentist in 1992 to pursue his love of printing books.

Libanus Press ran alongside publishing house MacLehose, after Mitchell met the publisher and founder Christopher MacLehose. The letterpress workshop was eventually closed in 2006, but Libanus Press lives on as a design studio specialising in book design, now run by typographer and author Susan Wightman.

In his time as a typographer, Mitchell not only printed texts and designed publications but also co-wrote several typographic bibles alongside Wightman that went on to inform many graphic designers and publishers about best practice in laying out pages and type.

Below are five of Mitchell and Libanus Press’ notable achievements.

Typographic Style Handbook

Written by Michael Mitchell and Susan Wightman
Published by MacLehose Press, 2017

Courtesy of MacLehose Press and Quercus

The Typographic Style Handbook is a small and concise design bible for designers working on any kind of printed publication or website. The book provides best practice guidelines on how to create a “clean, clear and consistent” house style and typography for the page.

It is split up into General Typesetting, which covers how to set out text; Books and Journals, which looks at the various typographic styles used in publishing; and Corporate Style, which looks at how text can be laid out when putting together a company’s brand guidelines.

It is split up into understandable and extensive chapters, such as Body Text, Punctuation, Speech and Quotations, Headings and Sub-Headings, and Illustrations and Captions, and includes descriptive diagrams and text to demonstrate points. The forensic, hand-held guide is not only useful for those designing pages, but also for any publisher or writer who needs to brush up on grammar and terminology.

Book Typography: a Designer’s Manual

Written by Michael Mitchell and Susan Wightman
Published by Libanus Press, 2005

Courtesy of Oak Knoll

While Mitchell and Wightman’s 2017 book was aimed at designers of all experience levels, this guidebook was intended for students, graduates and also non-designers such as publishers. Written before Libanus’ letterpress workshop closed for good in 2006, the book goes into detail on how to create “good design” through letterpress and typography.

It starts with the basics, such as the structure of different types of books, from novels through to illustration-based ones, advising on how to make text “readable”. Like the Typographic Style Handbook, it is split up into very detailed chapters such as Function and Readability, Typeface Characteristics and Choices, Images, Numbers and Binding, Covers and Jackets.

It also runs through the process of printing and publishing from start to finish. Chapters near the end are devoted to managing time and money, and production methods such as how to reproduce images and binding. It’s full of real-life, visual examples of spreads of books, demonstrating different typographic principles put into practice.

Sir John Soane Museum: a Complete Description

Designed by Libanus Press
Published by Sir John Soane Museum, 2014

Courtesy of Sir John Soane Museum

Before sharing their expertise as typographers through writing informative guidebooks, Mitchell and Wightman’s letterpress-turned-design studio Libanus helped to design informative guides for visitors to museums and cultural institutions UK-wide.

One is the guidebook for the Sir John Soane Museum, a gallery based in Holborn, London, which used to be the home of late 18th-19th century architect John Soane. Soane is best known for designing the Bank of England building, Dulwich Picture Gallery and a museum in Lincoln which he used to house his life-long collection of art works and architectural artefacts.

The 166-page, softback, colour book is a guide for visitors and academics who want to explore and find their way around the museum, learn about its history and also see detailed illustrations, photography and architectural plans of its previous iterations.

National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin

Designed by Libanus Press
Published annually by National Gallery since 1977, designed by Libanus since 2010

Courtesy of National Gallery

London’s National Gallery, home to one of the biggest collections of paintings in the world, publishes an annual publication aimed at art historians, curators and collectors.

The National Gallery Technical Bulletin is now in its 36th edition, and was first published in 1977. It provides insight into artists’ materials, practices and techniques, as well as more analytical essays on the examination of paintings. Often, editions are dedicated to particular artists and collections in the museum.

Libanus Press has designed the 112-page, annual, literary publication since 2010, adding an accessible and legible touch to an academic publication appreciated by art enthusiasts and scholars.

Under Milk Wood: Special Edition and Exhibition Catalogue

Illustrated by Peter Blake and designed by Libanus Press
Published by Enitharmon Press, 2013

Courtesy of Libanus Press

Under Milk Wood was originally a play written by late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in 1953, the year he died, which was intended as a radio drama for the BBC then later adapted for stage. A film version was also released in 1972. It tells the satirical story of the inhabitants of a small, fictional Welsh village called Llareggub (“bugger all”, spelt backwards).

Renowned artist Peter Blake, known best as one of the founding fathers of pop art, had an obsession with the play, and devoted three decades of his life to recreating it visually. This culminated in an exhibition by Blake in 2013 at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, showcasing 170 watercolour paintings, collages and drawings bringing the play to life.

Libanus worked with Blake and publishing houses Enitharman Press and Queen Anne Press to produce a paperback catalogue for the exhibition of works, which ranged in price quite significantly; £30 for a regular paperback copy through to £5,500 for a copy containing three prints and which was signed and numbered by Blake. A special edition of the play, also published by Enitharmon, illustrated by Blake and designed by Libanus, followed the exhibition.

But this all started with an unlikely friendship; Mitchell was strangely a neighbour of Blake’s when both the artist and designer lived in Bath in the 1970s, and at the time Mitchell attempted to convince Blake to bring his obsession to life through a series of wood engravings based on Under Milk Wood. These were sadly never realised.

Michael Mitchell, typographer, designer and printer: 13 July 1939 – 17 November 2017.
See more of Libanus Press’ work here.

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  • Annie Henderson-Begg February 19, 2018 at 10:33 am

    Don’t you mean Lincoln’s Inn Fields for Sir John Soane? Not Lincoln city – quite different…

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