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stories 2016

 

Society of Typographic Arts / Chicago
Designers Weekend keynote address
and bookmaking / letterpress workshops
January 15, 2016


ead Graffiti was invited to deliver the keynote address at the Society of Typographic Arts in Chicago on January 15, 2016, when they held their annual Designers Weekend. Conference chairs Guy Villa and Sharon Oiga had seen our Tour de lead Graffiti exhibition at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum this past summer where they were taking a letterpress workshop. Their request was exciting, and we tried to figure out a few logistics for such a big trip.

We've been experimenting with a couple of simpler, engaging book forms, so we suggested a bookmaking workshop might be of interest. Also, our new H.N. Werkman workshop has shown great results. And what could be a better location than the excellent facilities of the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts? Also, Pittsburgh (and Carnegie Mellon University) was on the way. Hmm. So we accepted the STA invitation and drew up a plan.

Reader warning: this is a long story full of harrowing exploits and amazing coincidences, but it's worth it, we think.

. . . C A R N E G I E . M E L L O N

Leaving Newark by car on a Tuesday, our first big stop was planned for Carnegie Mellon's Hunt Library in Pittsburgh where we hoped to find more details about our Albion. Research on our Harrild & Sons Albion iron handpress revealed that the press had originally been purchased by Porter Garnet for the Laboratory Press at the former Carnegie Institute of Technology. Our press is one of a pair purchased in 1928 specifically to print The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalog, a 12-volume set with pages sized about 12" x 17". Remember this catalog as it will show up again in this story.

We set up a meeting with Special Collections at the Hunt Library at Carnegie Mellon University to see if anyone could shed light on Laboratory Press and hopefully, our Albion. About 60 miles or so outside of Pittsburgh it started to snow a bit. By the time we got to the University around noon, it was a whiteout. Street signs were unreadable and none of the 3 students we stopped could point us to the library. Hmm. We found a CVS store whose clerk (4th-year student) could direct the way.

We excitedly entered the library and walked up to the Information Desk to ask where Special Collection was. We were confronted with, "You cannot visit Special Collections without an appointment." A bit of a pause and Ray said, "I don't have a specific appointment, but they know we are coming."

"No problem. Fourth floor."

We met with a very gracious and knowledgeable Mary Catharine Johnsen, who told us of the connection between Rachael Hunt and Porter Garnet and how Ms. Hunt (of Hunt Library fame) was instrumental in getting Garnet to become part of CIT.

We were standing at a large work table and all Mary had to do was walk over about 5 feet and lift a large, green box off the top of a filing cabinet. It was filled with dozens of meticulous, student letterpress samples from Laboratory Press that Porter Garnet called projets (pronounced pro-zhays). Yep, we were in the right place.

Mary generously gave us a copy of a booklet printed in 1985 recounting the story of the Laboratory Press and its evolution into the New Laboratory Press. The story just keeps getting better and better.

. . . T H E . D R I V E . O V E R

Leaving Pittsburgh, we wanted to drive as far as Toledo, Ohio, to spend the night. That would give us about a 4-hour drive the next morning to get to Columbia College in time for a meeting with the people involved in our two workshops.

About 7:30pm we were flying across a dry, cold and very windy Ohio Turnpike doing the speed limit. All of a sudden the car's engine stops. We are about 1/2 mile from a service plaza where we were aiming to fill up. Our gas tank was just a bit below 1/8 tank.

It was BLACK, freezing and turbulent sitting on the side of the turnpike, so we called AAA immediately. About 30 minutes later, the tow truck company called to say they would be there in an hour and what did we need. We thought a tow was probably in our future, but to bring some gas, just in case that was all it was. Our fuel gauge didn't say we actually needed gas, but clearly, it was getting there. The outside temperature was 12°, so after sitting out there in the dark for nearly 2 hours (we could actually see the lights of the service area) the temperature inside the car was really dropping. We bundled up with hats, gloves and scarves and debated our next move.

The tow truck driver arrived and put some gas in the car first—it started immediately. Our rescuer suggested that our gas had frozen or, more likely, moisture in the tank had frozen. Not sure what the deal was with the gas gauge, but for the rest of our trip, we made sure the tank didn't get much below 1/2 before we topped it off. Our anti-freeze infused windshield washer fluid had also frozen during the trip. What we're trying to say is, it was C O L D !

We easily got to Columbia College Chicago the next day with time to spare before the meeting. We checked into nice digs at the school: a 2-level apartment space with lots of amenities. Chicago already had about 3" of snow on the ground, so we didn't spend much time in our patio hammock.

We met with the workshop hosts, including Guy Villa (who with his partner Sharon Oiga) were the Society of Typographic Arts members responsible for recruiting us. The workshops would be held at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, a school with a killer reputation for high-quality graduate and undergraduate students. We were privileged and excited to be there. We discussed our workshop processes, toured the two workspaces where they would be held, and met our assistants and several of the faculty.

After the meeting and a quick bite at Flaco's Tacos, we headed back to our apartment to look over the presentation we would give in two days. We were pretty beat and the bed felt especially comfortable.

. . . T H E . W O R K S H O P S

We brought everything for both workshops: glue, paper, covers, wood type, ink, paper to print on, etc. It made us more comfortable with the workshops. And it reassured people sceptically looking over our shoulders in the letterpress workshop. It seems to violate the most basic rule of letterpress, which is "Lock everything tight."

Our first workshop was bookmaking with 7 participants working on 2 different book formats. The first was a "flutter" book, which we use on our Moments Carved in Paper books. We included a wrap-around cover which we had pre-printed with the workshop title and date on the spine—a nice detail. Having a guillotine cutter and an expert graduate assistant allowed us to clean up the edges of the books a bit.

The second book form was a "meander" book, which for this workshop was blank, except for a pre-printed title page and spine. This one is typically also typeset and printed by participants in a day-long Creative Letterpress workshop at our Lead Graffiti studio. Printed or blank, the folding and tearing seem tricky until you've tried it a few times. Most of the participants were either new to bookmaking or didn't know these 2 books. Excited about the experience, everyone made 2 copies of each one.

The afternoon workshop was our H.N. Werkman creative letterpress workshop, which is always an eyeopener even for people with lots of letterpress experience. While most participants had little, if any, letterpress experience, all were excited and curious to try this one.

We love telling people how the process for the workshop will be printing upside down. You can see the wheels turning inside their heads, trying to figure out what that means. Columbia College had 5 handcranked Vandercook presses. We set them up so the packing would be as close as reasonable for each. That way the participants could print on any press at any time.

The process starts by picking a wood type letterform and inking it—just holding it and gently rolling over it with a hand brayer coated in any of 6 colors of ink we brought.

Next, place your paper down onto the bed of the press. This is where the upside-down part starts. Position the inked type anywhere you choose over the paper and set it face down very carefully, trying not to smear it as it touches. Then press it down just enough to make it stick.

Most people seemed to think this was the end of it, kind of like using a rubber stamp.

Now you crank the press over the type WITHOUT LOCKING IT UP. Strangely, the type sticks right there. No movement. No smudging. The next critical step is holding down the paper while you pull the sticky type off of it without smearing. Everyone seemed to get that part down quite easily. The next 3 photos show the process of printing the inked type.

Positioning the type, then rolling the cylinder over it to press it against the paper.

Carefully lifting the wood type from the sheet to avoid slurring the edges.

Voila!

Now drop that type off to be cleaned (we had two graduate assistants, Kelly and JiSun, who were helping do this part of the work) and get a new piece of type to add to the composition. One of the major differences between this and normal letterpress (other than the printing upside-down part) is that you only produce a single print and not multiples. Think of the process as making a "typographic illustration."

JiSun cleaning the type.

Heads are down and everyone is working intently in the letterpress studio.

Below are just 10 of the 30 or so really nice results. Everyone picked 2 prints they definitely wanted to keep. Then we chose 1 and they got to keep the rest. You could design these on a computer, but you never would get the idea or the texture of the results. Some designs would make great initial caps or whimsical illustrations for an editorial article.

After the Werkman workshop came to its colorful conclusion, Guy and Sharon took us to Tuscany's for an absolutely delicious Italian feast. Everyone had dessert and a very full, satisfied stomach. Time for a food coma.

The next morning we checked out and headed toward the Eaglewood Resort & Spa. At Guy and Sharon's suggestion, we stopped by Architectural Artifacts to admire some wonderful old cabinets, tables, lights, chairs, etc., lunch at the Bad Apple tavern, and sample some tasty sweet treats at Merle's Candies.

. . . A . W I E R D . T H I N G . H A P P E N E D

Remember the earlier mention of our Harrild & Sons iron handpress being used to print The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalog? Well, Ray's cell phone vibrated in the middle of the Werkman workshop. The caller wasn't identified, but as we were in Illinois, Ray thought it might have some connection to our trip.

The caller was a man named Tim Pecenka whose father, who had recently passed away, had been enrolled in printing at the Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1949 through 1952. Apparently Tim's father had worked on printing the final parts of the Frick catalog, most importantly, the title page. Tim had a roll of 20 or so printed press sheets from the book.

I cannot say this loud enough. "What! Proofs from the Frick catalog? From 1949?"

To make a long story short, Porter Garnet had retired in 1935 and the Frick catalog had been put on hold until 1949 when the lives of the book, Tim's father, and Bruce Rogers would run into each other. We made plans to meet Tim for lunch after the STA conference ended two and a half days later. We are delighted and completely amazed at our good fortune.

. . . T H E . K E Y N O T E . A D D R E S S

The theme of the STA Designers Weekend was "Dearly Discarded," explained as follows.

"Some of the best works created didn't reach an audience or total fruition. Perhaps these works were castoff ideas that fostered changes in creative direction and lead to alternative solutions. Perhaps these unpublished works remain to be some of the most beloved items in your repository. We invite you to share your vision of a work before any compromises were made. What were the merits, the perceived shortcomings, and the lessons learned? In retrospect, what would have been done differently, if anything? Discuss your beautiful misdirections as well as the incites gained to shed light on the design process."

Because our Tour de Lead Graffiti project is so type oriented visually, we had been asked to present the keynote address. We were excited to add images form 2015 to the talk and we wanted to touch on one of our "Dearly Discarded" experiences as well.

The TdLG project follows the daily exploits of the Tour de France cycling race with us printing 23 posters in 23 days via letterpress. We call it "endurance letterpress." We watch the Tour live on TV, looking for moments that we can translate through typography into a ink on paper. Here is an example from each of the 5 years of this project, 2011 to 2015.

We explained the spontaneous process we use in creating the posters based on one or more events witnessed during each day's stage. It might be a crash, extreme environmental conditions, a mountaintop finish, an outstanding effort, etc. We invite collaborators to join us in the studio to work. Many have neither design nor letterpress experience. Some are professionals and some are students. And we depend on every one of them to contribute energy, enthusiasm and something visual to the finished poster.

Working without sketches for the most part, we try to flow with the medium and just react to the way each layer of the typography, color and other printed objects suggest.

At the end of the talk we showed a variety of portfolio pieces: books, posters, business cards, greeting cards, certificates, and clamshell boxes for a variety of clients. We often try to develop projects or attract clients who will allow us to work in a way we haven't seen before. One of our favorite project is a diploma for an 8th-grade class.

We ended with one of ou own "Dearly Discarded" projects that had been approved one day by the client and then abruptly killed the next because an uninvolved satellite group "didn't get it."

We displayed physical copies of all of the posters in our presentation so everyone could feel the paper and the depth of impression of the type. Our two most recent Tour clamshell box sets and our newest 16" Onyx initials were also there for show and sale. The STA group asked lots of follow-up questions and lingered for quite a while, delaying their dinner banquet.

We did finally get to dinner as evidenced from the photo above.

. . . T H E . P A R T I C I P A N T . T A L K S

Most of the weekend participants took at the opportunity to stand up front, sometimes reopening their own wounds. Below are three of the best dyptic images of presentations with the speaker. The lighting was tricky, so apologies for our lack of digital photography skills. We would prefer to have included everyone.

Perrin Stamatis talked about the Werkman workshop he took part in the previous day..

Jack Weiss took us along with his Art Deco trip to Havana, Cuba.

Alice Lee laid out her word-exchange graduate thesis project. We would like to print one of her pieces at Lead Graffiti.

A nice photo of Robert McCamant during one of the well-stocked breaks.

Bud Rodecker flashed through a super-condensed X-Files and about another 50 typographical subjects.

Robert McCamant talked about a recent ATypI conference in Sao Paulo. He also gave us 2 key items to Google: Andrew Van Der Merwe (sand calligraphy) and Letterform Archive.

Matt Doherty took us back to Hypertext (from the early days of personal computers) and linked it to a recent spot-on organizational solution for Columbia College Chicago.

Five University of Illinois / Chicago design students each talked about designing 3-dimensional typography and displayed a great newspaper-style promotion for the project.

Dennis Ichiyama talked about and presented samples by 8 young, progressive letterpress printers he recently visited in London.

Ray talking with attendees during the break.

Guy Villa and Sharon Oiga, Designers Weekend hosts, finishing up things at the end.

And a few additional images of members of the group celebrating with a glass of champagne as we all prepare to head back our separate ways.

Jill demonstrating her uncanny ability to shut her eyes in the wrong fraction of a second. She and Bud threw out a bit of X-Files typography. Not sure it will turn into a typeface, but I liked the effort.

. . . T H E . P R O O F S

We drove the 30 minutes to meet Tim and gaze upon the Frick proofs. Tim had left a voicemail message with the name of the diner, which we couldn't quite understand, and the address to meet. We got as far as the right street, and decided to pause to consider our next step. I pulled into the first available parking lot to let Jill take a shot at the voice message. Turns out we were in the parking lot of the exact place he told us to meet.

We cleared off the table and started to flatten the tightly rolled proofs. Here are a few photos from the gathering.

 

Tim's dad on the left.

Part of one of the pages showing some complicated hand type composition.

Here is a closeup of those Greek Capitals.

Hard to see in the photo, but there is a pencil line drawn around part of the text. We plan go up and find the page in the copy in Special Collections at the University of Delaware and see if we can find the logic in the editing suggestion.

. . . T H E . T R I P . B A C K

It was a rather eventless trip back except for the lake effect snow storm we hit just before Toledo, Ohio. The discussion with Tim got us started on even more questions regarding Laboratory Press. I wrote the head of archives at the Hunt Library at Carnegie Mellon University late Sunday night to see if we could stop by Monday morning to see if they had useful photos. She fired back an email within minutes: Monday was Martin Luther King Day and the archives would be closed.

So ends our week-long trip to Chicago and the Society of Typographic Arts. Great time. Great people. Great fun. Great food. Great new ideas to investigate. Now to hang on to those relationships. A bunch of them were doing some seriously nice work in their creative lives.