This past October and November I spent four weeks in Oxford, England as the Bodleian Libraries' inaugural Printer-in-Residence. The residency was structured around a public lecture, Making Third Stream Books in the Post-Digital Age; a couple of seminars, New Books Need New Type and Shakespeare & Shandies; and the idea that I would produce a small personal project at the Bodleian's Bibliographical Press. The Press is located in the previous residence of the Schola Musicae in the courtyard of the Old Bodleian. It features a number of hand presses, including Albions from the Daniel Press and Gehenna Press, as well as a Western flatbed cylinder press, a selection of metal and wood types, and an impressive view of the Radcliffe Camera.
The light drenched, cloistered printshop provided me with a significantly different work environment than my windowless Brooklyn studio:
My personal project and one of the seminars, New Books Need New Type, centered on my metal-type-in-progress, Hungry Dutch, which is based in part on the types purchased by Bishop Fell for the Oxford University Press in the seventeenth century. Prior to arriving in Oxford, however, I was asked to lead another seminar about the Bodleian's Shakespeare sonnet project. In 2016, the Bodleian put out an open call for printers to choose and print one of the sonnets to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. To my surprise, all of the sonnets were chosen, and all but one were printed and delivered. The project's call for entries neglected to put any size or material limitations on the prints, which resulted in a remarkably diverse array of physical objects, from a beer coaster to a wooden card-catalog file drawer. I took this diversity of interpretation as an opportunity to explore the various approaches one can take, and problems one can encounter, when printing Shakespeare.
When we consider the First Folio, what is it about the book that inspires such awe and reverence in us? Is it the title portrait, our singular (imagined) graven image of Willy himself? Or the book's perceived rarity (even though by rare book standards the first folio is not rare)? Or do we imagine, like religious penitents, that in this book the actual words of Shakespeare are made manifest? Because the veracity of the text has been wildly contested for centuries. The First Folio challenges our primary assumptions about books: that their texts are immutable and authoritative, and that, once printed, these texts will remain inviolate. Instead, there is something wonderfully unstable about Shakespearean texts that makes them amenable to change, in the same way that any script is tweaked, re-arranged, and adjusted over the life of its performance. In any but the most conservative productions of Shakespeare's plays this instability is accepted and expected; novelty and experimentation are effective prerequisites for theatrical productions of Shakespeare.
The same cannot be said of printed editions of Shakespeare, which typically err on the conservative side typographically. There may be a flourish or two, the occasional bit of unexpected typography, or some innovative illustration, but for the most part printed editions of Shakespeare's texts are laid out as we expect them to be laid out. This is partly due to length. The plays, longer poems, and sonnets (when printed in sequence) are simply too long to bear out typographic experimentation over their entire length. So the sonnet project provided printers with a rare opportunity to relish brevity when dealing with Shakespeare.
In structure, my seminars were intended to explore ideas in theory and practice. They began by looking at printed materials in the Weston Library, and continued with hands-on printing in the Bibliographical Press. This model is particularly rewarding in a library such as the Bodleian. In addition to looking at submissions to the sonnet project, we also were able to call up copies of the 1609 Sonnets and the First Folio.
For the hands-on section of the Shakespeare seminar I set a passage from King Lear in two ways. The settings were designed to emphasize the difference between traditional and interpretive typography—one was set in 14pt Bell type and laid out as we would expect, the other in 14pt Caslon and laid out and printed in a highly unconventional manner. The unconventional setting I used is one of those ideas that has followed me around for decades. There is a group of books that I have always imagined I would print but know deep down that I never will. One of them is King Lear. The reason I know I won't print it is because I have a single graphic image of how I would like it to look, and that image has never changed or developed. It is an image I like but it is not complex enough to sustain itself through the entire text of Lear. The principle is simple: rather than concentrating on Lear's madness, my design would emphasize how mad everyone else appears to Lear. To convey this, Lear's lines would be printed in black ink and positioned traditionally, while everyone else's text would be printed in varying acid colors and printed from type that is not locked up on the press. As these unlocked lines are printed, the letters move and shake, occasionally fall down, resulting in jumbled, out-of-focus words.
Spending time with the sonnet submissions provoked me to reconsider my personal printing project at the Press. Originally, I had intended to make a word puzzle using the fourteen letters of Hungry Dutch that have thus far been produced. But as I thought more about it I realized that I wanted to string words together. I might not have enough letters to make sense, but at least my print would look like language rather than just a bunch of random words set in a grid. As I teased out lines of gibberish, I arranged them into fourteen lines of ten syllables each, rhymed in a Petrarchan scheme of A B B A A B B A C D C C D C. I can't claim that they're in iambic pentameter, but I've never claimed to be a sonneteer either. In a nod to the surprising number of sonnets submitted to the Bodleian in translation, I decided to translate the title, "Sonnet of the Hungry Dutch," into Italian, "Il Sonetto dell'Olandese Affamato."
The fourteen letters that I currently have of Hungry Dutch, C H O N a e f g h i n o p t, consist of the thirteen medial trial characters and the N. The medial trial characters are the thirteen letters that Montoype would produce first when manufacturing a new typeface in order to confirm that the type design worked. Hungry Dutch was designed, on principle but unintentionally, to fail this test. Most of my type designs are created with the idea that the industrial principles of alignment and standardization (the principles that Monotype perfected in metal type design) are neither expedient nor desirable when using digital tools.* Hungry Dutch is an extreme example of this approach. I designed the roman and italic typefaces in two days while referencing low resolution images of some of the seventeenth century Fell types.** Although I have made considerable adjustments to the original design to make it work for Monotype, I have tried to maintain the lively irregularity of the digital typeface. To show that my irregular alignment was not entirely without precedent, I decided to print the medial trial setting alongside the same basic setting in the original Fell Great Primer type.*** In order to set the Fell type I had to happily make my way to Whittington Press near Cheltenham, where some of the original types live after being deaccessioned by Oxford University Press.
* Although I prefer wavy alignment, the type used to set the sonnet is more irregular than I would prefer. The only way I had enough type to set the sonnet was to use two unaligned castings from two different foundries.
** I originally designed the digital type for my book Hungry Bibliophiles. You can read about the digital type here and the metal type here.
*** The Fell type is set in the actual medial trial setting, whereas the Hungry Dutch trial setting text has been modified to accommodate the N
Sunday, July 2, 2017
In their simplest incarnations—a line for an I, a circle for an O—letterforms reveal their true nature: they are forms first, letters second. The connective tissue that transforms a circle into a letterform is only as strong as the imagination and consensus of the community for whom that circle represents the letter O. For some communities the O is a rectangle, for others it is a lozenge balanced between parallel horizontal lines. To tell either of these communities that their Os are not Os is as futile as telling a speaker of one language that he ought to be speaking another. These variable permutations of abstraction and legibility are the source of the alphabet’s dynamism, and it is in the boundary between these two states that I enjoy spending my time.
Roma Abstract is based closely on a geometric alphabet I painted while at the American Academy in Rome. When I first arrived for my fellowship in Rome, I did so with a high level of anxiety. I felt an intense pressure to produce work, and from my first day at the Academy I could feel the time slipping away. In an attempt to calm myself, I painted a seven-inch diameter circle on a wooden panel. As people visited my studio they would unfailingly remark on the “O” on my wall. Each time I would tell them that it was not an O but a circle, and each time they responded that they had assumed that it was a letterform because I had drawn it. I had become the O’s contextual source of legibility, it was through me that the circle became an O. By the fourth or fifth such conversation, I began saying that the circle was an O, and proceeded to paint the remaining twenty-five letterforms in the alphabet.
The west wall of my Rome studio with the circle/O to the left on the wall.
The east wall with many of the original Roma Abstract paintings along the floor.
After returning to New York in 2010, I digitally traced the letterforms and used them at greatly reduced size on my MMXI new year’s card and on a page of Specimens of Diverse Characters. Although I liked the smaller printed versions, something was missing. The original scale of the painted letters was critical to their reading as monumental forms that had been degraded and deprived of their full meaning. Since printing Specimens I have wanted to print the letterforms of Roma Abstract at their original size.
The problem I faced was that I did not simply want to make a facsimile of the painted alphabet, and I could not find a compelling exterior reason to print the book. So I put the idea aside and waited. Then increasingly over the last two years I have come to feel that every aspirational symbol of culture and civility has been abstracted into unrecognizable ciphers; and any stable understanding I thought I had of a Roman ideal has been shattered by the steady onslaught of global social and political upheavals. My illegible alphabet suddenly makes sense, has gained in legibility within the current political context. What grew out of a desire to challenge the Roman ideal suddenly changed into a lament of its passing.
The title page reading Roma Abstract/An Alphabet By/Russell Maret
In contrast to the original alphabet in which each letterform was painted on its own wooden panel, the letterforms in Roma Abstract are printed on translucent paper to emphasize their communal aspect—rather than standing alone, each letter is supported and explicated by those around it. The book’s cover is printed with the text from the inscription on Trajan’s column, the letterforms of which are widely regarded as the apotheosis of Roman alphabetical form. Set in the letterforms of Roma Abstract, this Trajanic benchmark of enlightened Imperial form is rendered nearly illegible, echoing the absurd mockery of statehood in which we find ourselves living.
Detail of the cover with the text from the inscription on Trajan's column set in Roma Abstract.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Over the course of a couple of years, Tim Barrett and I have engaged in a conversation about the role of gelatin sizing in papermaking and printing. The central issue we discussed was this: sizing has a negative impact on print quality but a beneficial impact on the endurance and aesthetics of handmade paper. Tim’s research into pre-Industrial European papermaking processes has suggested that some, and perhaps many, post-15th century books were printed on waterleaf (unsized) paper to which the books’ printers, or someone else, added sizing after printing. For those of us who use expensive handmade paper to make even more expensive books, the thought of dipping our printed sheets into a vat of liquid gelatin is fraught with morbid possibilities. Despite this, after our initial conversation I sent Tim some sheets printed on waterleaf paper so that he could re-size them. The results were intriguing but not entirely persuasive. Although the increased durability that sizing can lend to paper is appealing, the books that I make are used in ways that are not comparable with those in which a 16th century book was used. A contemporary press book that is printed on soft, unsized cotton paper, housed in a box, and stored inside a temperature-controlled library will bear its age well. If the same paper had been used to print pocketbooks for traveling Humanists, the books would not have withstood the demands of their owners.
The repeated physical use to which many early printed books were subjected lent them a patina similar to that of well-used tools, full of shine and scuff. In addition to the frequency of opening or the method of storing their books, early modern bibliophiles differentiated themselves in one important way from their 21st century avatars: they wrote in their books. They wrote in the margins, between the lines, in the voids of woodcuts, on fly leaves and paste downs. They parsed, debated, excised, and amended their texts in ways that are unthinkable to contemporary private press printers, but that were certainly expected by the printers of the day. If the paper in their books had not been sized, the ink of their pens would have bled into the paper fibers rather than holding a crisp line. The expectation of marginalia was another determining factor in the sizing of book paper after printing. Just as it is today, use was the arbiter of process.
One might reasonably ask then: If my books do not require the durable benefits of gelatin sizing, why would I deal with sizing at all, particularly with the risky proposition of adding sizing to printed sheets? But ultimately my interests in paper sizing are not utilitarian, they are aesthetic. My favorite sheets of handmade paper are crisp, like freshly ironed linen, and turning them in a book is a complex sensory experience. The papers quiver with a gentle rattle as they are turned, making it hard to resist drumming one’s fingertips against them. When bent they make a snapping sound, when shuffled they whisper like rustling leaves. These qualities are the accidental aesthetic benefits of gelatin sizing, and they are the qualities that I most want to have in the papers that I use for my books.
With many of these issues in mind, Tim Barrett and his students at the University of Iowa Center for the Book have been trying to recreate the working conditions of a pre-Industrial papermill, employing a three person team to make 100-200 sheets of handmade paper per hour. The paper they are making is not meant to be perfect or precious but well-made and serviceable, to invite contact and annotation. With this paper, Tim and his colleagues are attempting an intriguing sleight of hand, engaging an historical process in the hope that it will arbitrate contemporary use. The problem, of course, is that once a craftsperson puts something out into the world, he/she cannot control how that object is used. It’s all well and good to want people to use paper in a certain way, it’s another matter altogether to get them to actually do it. Handmade paper, however quickly made, instills a certain amount of fear in bibliophiles, and the speed with which it is made does not alter a paper’s perceived preciousness.
In thinking about how to get people to use Tim’s paper more aggressively, it occurred to me that I would have to make a book whose content would tilt the scales; a book whose text would encourage people to remove it from the shelf and bring it into the messy world of their daily lives. No book satisfied this requirement better than a cookbook. In the hope of finding people who would be willing to put a fine book through the paces, I invited a group of printers, binders, and librarians to submit one or two recipes each for a small cookbook called Hungry Bibliophiles. In turn, each participant agreed to cook as many of the recipes as they can within the space of a year, to cook them with the book open on their countertop, and to take notes in ink on the pages. The book would be printed on waterleaf paper that would be gelatin sized after printing, and bound in a historically inspired paper binding designed by Maria Fredericks.
Maria Fredericks' copy of Hungry Bibliophiles
Every aspect of Hungry Bibliophiles was conceived in the spirit of Tim’s work in the papermill, primarily his experiments with speed. Tim, Maria, and I each respond viscerally to the imperfections that are the byproducts of pre-Industrial speed—those of a practiced hand working quickly, as opposed to a machine working efficiently—and Hungry Bibliophiles gave us a chance to explore them in practice. Following Tim’s lead, I designed a revival of a seventeenth century Dutch typeface for the text in two days. I allowed myself one drawing and one revision per letterform, aligned the letters by eye, and set each on a fixed width, in the hope of tapping in to the spirited irregularity of my model typeface. I then printed the book in twelve days, shipped any finished sheets to Tim for sizing at the end of each week, and drove the final batch out to Iowa City so that I could participate in the sizing and transport the sized sheets back to New York for binding.
Sandra and Harry Reese's copy of Hungry Bibliophiles
In keeping with the speed experiment, Maria Fredericks set a goal of binding all seventy-five books in the edition in two days. To accomplish this we assembled a crew of eight variously experienced binders and set aside a weekend for our experiment. (The crew consisted of Maria Fredericks, Anne Hillam, Vasaré Rastonis, Yukari Hayashida, Annie Schlechter, Nancy Loeber, Gaylord Schanilec, and me.) Maria designed a long stitch paper binding structure made entirely from UICB papers, and lead the production; Annie made sandwiches to fuel the workers; and by Sunday afternoon the eight of us had bound seventy-nine copies of the book. The books were distributed to the participants for cooking and annotating, and now the used books have been photographed by 42-Line to make this facsimile.Copies are available for purchase at russellmaret.com.
Russell Maret and Annie Schlechter's copy of Hungry Bibliophiles
Paul F Gehl and Rob Carlson's copy of Hungry Bibliophiles
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Letterforms are contingent on the technology by which they are created. Lettering technologies sort themselves into four basic categories—calligraphic, epigraphic, typographic, and digigraphic—and can be simplified for our purposes thus: letterforms that are drawn directly onto a surface using a hand-held tool are calligraphic; those that are incised directly into a surface, epigraphic; those that are cast from a matrix, or mechanically engraved, onto a body of fixed height and depth but flexible width, typographic; and those that are digitally outlined around pixelated clusters, digigraphic. Identifying a letterform’s generative technology gives us insight into the fact that although one variety of letterform may be made to look like another variety, it cannot be made to act like another without, at best, suffering significant loss. For instance, the printed form of a typographic letter may look calligraphic, but typography itself cannot accurately replicate the action of calligraphy. In incunable periods of new technologies, these distinctions take on a deeper relevance as the nascent technology attempts to differentiate itself from other available technologies. This is the period we find ourselves in today with digital letter design.
Although it is generally assumed that contiguous technologies build upon one another, the relationship between them is often quite limited. Fifteenth century book hands provided the initial models for typographic lettering, for instance, but beyond outward appearance there is no meaningful technological connection between the models and their successors. Similarly, typographic lettering (ie. type) has provided the organizing principle for digigraphic lettering, but that is where the relationship ends. Typographic and digigraphic letterforms are subject to different technological limitations, and there is no reason for one to strictly imitate the other. Instead, the goal ought to be to identify and explore the specific technological limitations of digigraphic lettering. This will be achieved by pushing limits.
If we accept the division of letterforms into four general technological categories, then we must also acknowledge that typographic lettering is ontologically distinct from the other three. Every lettering technology has practical restraints, but typographic letterforms are the only ones that are restrained not only in the moment of their creation but in their succeeding existence. They remain subject to the demands of their physical quadratic bodies post partum, in eterno. By contrast, digigraphic lettering, like calligraphic and most epigraphic lettering, is unencumbered by the quadratic grid. (These letterforms may be willingly subjected to a quadratic system, but it is an aesthetic choice, not a technological necessity.) The ontological differences between typographic and other kinds of letterforms suggest that we might find more meaningful lessons for digigraphic lettering by looking to calligraphic and epigraphic models than we will by aping typographic ones.
Lettering technologies embody incumbent practical and aesthetic presumptions that appear universal when they are in fact technologically specific. The gravitational pull of these presumptions long outlasts the transition from one technology to another. An obvious example is the Industrial Age proposition that a single typeface, or a grouping of closely sympathetic designs, is sufficient for the conveyance of complex textual information. In the pre-typographic era it was taken for granted that different kinds of information would be presented in different lettering styles. Early typography imitated this variety in the convention of setting ecclesiastical texts in black letter and secular ones in roman types, in the use of structurally diverse typefaces (often determined by no other means than availability), and in the generational re-interpretation of historical styles. This variety quickly became impractical within the framework of Industrial typographic technology, giving rise to aesthetic presumptions that validated the technology. Such presumptions may have made sense within the framework of their native technologies, but the technological limitations from which they arose no longer exist.
These ideas will be explored in my forthcoming book,
Character Traits. Follow the book’s progress here.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
I met the poet Eliza Griswold in 2009 while we were both fellows at the American Academy in Rome. Early on in our time there, we visited the tomb of the baker Eurysacis, a strikingly modern structure built in 30 BCE just outside the Porta Maggiore. It was a beautiful autumn morning—Annie was taking pictures of the tomb, the archaeologist Suzanna McFadden was reading about it from the Blue Guide. While I ogled the tomb's late Republican inscription, Eliza took out her notebook and wrote a poem about Eurysacis. Shortly afterward I designed a typeface based on the inscription.
A detail of the tomb of Eurysacis and his wife.
The following year we all moved back to New York, and for years afterward Eliza and I had a semi-annual conversation about a book that we would someday make together. Her original poem was thrown out, we both pursued other books. Then a couple of years ago, Eliza completed a sizable poetry manuscript, Ovid on Climate Change. I had begun working with Ed Rayher at Swamp Press to make a metal version of my Baker typeface, and the time seemed right to actually make our book. Eliza wrote a new poem about Eurysacis, I found a large cache of Adrian Frutiger's Meridien typeface for the text, and we set to work choosing a selection of the poems for a small edition. (Read 'Poetry Magazine''s interview with Eliza about the poems.)
The Baker typeface.
In thinking of a visual component of the book, it was important to me that I not illustrate the poems. In general, I am timid about appending imagery to living people's words, but these poems in particular cover a diverse array of physical and emotional landscapes—one poem calls out for one kind of imagery, another wants something else entirely. Nevertheless, it was important for me to alter the page in some way, to visually link the poems without interfering with them. The solution I came up with was a modulating ground of sprayed acrylic paint running through the book, a kind of desert landscape from which the poems rise. Below are some process photos.
The poems tied up on galleys.
Tearing down the Twinrocker Handmade Paper.
Mock-up of the title page.
Proof of the title page, set in Baker and Meridien.
Proof of the poem "Libyan Proverbs." Copyright 2017 Eliza Griswold.