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Roobert Hunter Middleton | Art & Design in Chicago

Robert Hunter Middleton

Type designed by Robert Hunter Middleton
Type designed by Robert Hunter Middleton. Image courtesy of the Newberry Library

Although he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and spent his life creating aesthetically pleasing things, Robert Hunter Middleton thought of himself more as a craftsman than an artist when he began his career. That career, as a typeface designer and printer, was something of a surprise.

Robert Hunter Middleton
Watch:Typeface Designer Robert Hunter Middleton

Middleton, who was born in Scotland in 1898 and came to the United States with his family at the age of 10, wanted to be a painter when he went to study at the Art Institute. While there, he assisted his teacher Ernst Detterer in an unusual project: creating a typeface for the Ludlow Typograph Company based on a type from the fifteenth century. The success of the project led to a job offer upon Middleton’s graduation in 1923, and he accepted.

By the late nineteenth century, Chicago had become a center of commercial printing, with large firms such as R. R. Donnelley, W. F. Hall, Cuneo, and a variety of others established in the area of the city now known as Printer’s Row. Ludlow sold a typesetting system, invented in 1906, that made possible the mass production of a wide range of typefaces and sizes. But by the 1920s, despite advances in printing technology, type design for machine printing had not kept pace. Old styles needed to be adapted for machines; new ones had to be designed.

Chrimstas card designed by Robert Hunter Middleton
Chrimstas card designed by Robert Hunter Middleton
A collection of Christmas cards made by Middleton. Images courtesy of the Newberry Library

That’s where Middleton came in. During his 47 years at the Ludlow Typograph Company, he designed some 98 different typefaces – including Tempo, Coronet, Radiant, and Umbra – that were widely used in advertising and newspapers. As principal designer at Ludlow from 1933 until 1970, he assessed what sorts of typefaces printers needed, designed or adapted these for the Ludlow system, and oversaw their translation into numerous sizes and weights. This entailed not just a creative impulse but also technical knowledge and attention to a client’s needs. “To accomplish the art [of printing] in a professional manner,” he wrote, “one requires a high degree of craftsmanship, a mechanical aptitude, and a fine sense for the use of materials.”

Chrimstas card designed by Robert Hunter Middleton
Christmas card made by Middleton. Image courtesy of the Newberry Library

In addition to his work at Ludlow, Middleton also founded his own small printing press named Cherryburn, after the English wood engraver Thomas Bewick’s home. It specialized in beautiful prints made from Bewick’s woodblocks, which Middleton collected (and later donated to the Newberry Library, along with much of his own work).

Middleton may not have considered himself an artist, but his typographic and printing work is worthy of the name art.