Monday, December 15, 2014

A New Type for Hungry Bibliophiles

Pre-Industrial text pages are often described as being alive, full of movement and sparkle that is rarely seen in pages set in post-Industrial typefaces. The most obvious source of this liveliness is technological: every letter was hand engraved, hand cast, hand inked, and hand printed, resulting in unavoidable imperfections and variations. In addition to these technological determinants, most printers had typefaces that contained alternate or out of place letters in their character sets. Rather than a single Q or g, a printer would have two or three or more designs of certain letters and, as they set their pages, would pick and choose among these variant forms, either by preference, accident, or necessity. Any given letter, in other words, was understood to have many potential permutations, and their intermingling on the page added a further element of typographic surprise.

Various uses of the two "g" forms in De le Lettere Nuovamente Aggiunte Libro di Adriano Franci da Siena, printed by Lodovico Vicentino & Lautizio Perugino, Roma, 1525.

Beyond these sources of typographic variability lies another factor, one that would best fit under the rubric of commerce. Historically, most printers have purchased, rather than designed, the typefaces they used. In the pre-digital world, this meant that printers would acquire matrices or punches from a designer or agent, and use these tools to cast type in their own shop. When, as invariably happened, one or more of these tools broke, pre-Industrial printers would rely on local craftspeople to cut replacement letters. As these re-cut letters filtered into a printer's typecases, the formal qualities of the typeface changed in subtle but sudden ways, often occurring in the middle of a book or even a single page. Replacement punches, after all, were not typically commissioned in idle moments, but in a state of urgent necessity; they were cut when a printer ran out of, say, the letter "f" half way through the printing of a book, found that his matrix was worn out, and, when attempting to strike a new one, broke the punch. In a panic, a local punchcutter would be called, shown a model from which to cut a new punch, and the book could be finished and shipped off to market.* Speed, more than aesthetics, is the engine of such moments, and a workable letter quickly engraved trumped any aspirations to strict formal fidelity. I believe this element of speed, whether in the initial cutting or the recutting of letters, was critical to the feel of pre-Industrial pages.

Since I began designing type I have tried to find ways to recapture some of this pre-Industrial liveliness in my typefaces. Short of cutting my own punches or creating large sets of extra characters, I have found that speed is one aspect of historical type design in which I can partake without risking the wonky anachronism that often results from strict historical mimesis. I have also spent a lot of time attempting to redraw historical letterforms in an effort to tap into the gestalt of pre-Industrial letterforms, a pursuit that is frustratingly and consistently futile. If I redraw the same letter five times, I end up with five distinctly different letters, none of which looks quite like the original I was trying to imitate. At best I create a passable likeness. So when considering how to approach the type for Hungry Bibliophiles, I decided that I would put aside any pretensions of genetic accuracy and begin from the presumption that I am acting as a replacement punchcutter. In the spirit of Tim Barrett's experiments with high speed papermaking, I set myself a daily goal of between ten to thirty letters (as if that many punches had broken since I was last at work) and a speed of ten letters per hour, allowing myself only one drawing and one revision per letter.

As my model typeface I chose the Canon Roman and Italic of Peter de Walpergen that was acquired by Oxford University Press in 1686. I consciously chose a typeface that was neither Italian nor Renaissance in origin, one whose workaday forms would have sent Nicolaus Jenson leaping from the Ponte Rialto as if he were a corporeal bit of Doves type. The Dutch typefaces that Bishop Fell acquired for Oxford are full of irregularities—in weight, slope, stress, alignment, and spacing—, and they delight in unexpected pairings and ambiguities. They can be disconcerting in their proportions but they sparkle with life, as if they were coursed through with a dappling light. From a practical standpoint, De Walpergen's types also have a proportionally large x-height, making them eminently readable at a small size. His are typefaces that are ready-made to slog through the various trenches of partisan pamphleteering, Calvinistic tracts, and Uncle Pieter's kugel recipe. Perfect, in other words, for a book like Hungry Bibliophiles.
*Printers who design and manufacture their own type, such as Vicentino and Perugino, would obviously have re-cut a broken punch themselves.

The first state of the type for Hungry Bibliophiles, based on the canon roman and italic of Peter de Walpergen. In the coming weeks the letter spacing will be adjusted but this gives a good sense of the letterforms and how they work together. The type will also look considerably different when printed letterpress, as it is designed to be.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hungry Bibliophiles: An Experiment in Utilitarian Bookmaking

Over the last 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 have been discussing is this: sizing has a negative impact on print quality but a beneficial impact on the longevity and endurance of paper. Tim’s research into 15th and 16th century 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 prior to binding. For those of us who use very expensive handmade paper to make even more expensive books, the thought of dipping our printed sheets into a vat of liquid gelatin is a ripe topic for contemplation on a dark night of the soul. Despite this, after our initial conversation I sent Tim some printed sheets from which I had removed the sizing 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—books are meant to last beyond a single user or century—the books that I make are used in ways that are not comparable with those that a 16th century book had to endure. A contemporary press book that is printed on soft, unsized cotton paper, housed in a box, and stored inside a temperature-controlled vault will bear its age well. If the same paper had been used to print pocket books 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.

An example of ink bleed on paper that had its sizing washed off in a flood.

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. (A video of this process may be viewed here.) The paper 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. The speed with which it is made does not alter its perceived preciousness. The missing element is content.

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 that would encourage people to take the book off the shelf and 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 have invited a group of bibliophiles to submit one or two recipes each for a small cookbook. In turn, each participant has agreed to cook as many of the recipes in the book as they can within the space of a year, to cook them with the book on their counter top, and to take notes in ink on the pages of the book. At the end of the year Annie will photograph the books for a comparative digital catalogue and I will coordinate an exhibit of the used books. To fund the project I will print an edition of fifty additional copies for sale at a reasonable price.

The text will be set in a new typeface of mine (to be discussed in a future blog post) and printed on unsized sheets of UICB paper. Once printed, I will ship the sheets back to Iowa for sizing. Maria Fredericks, the Drue Heinz Book Conservator at the Morgan Library & Museum, has designed a paper binding typical of inexpensive book production in the European handpress period. A team of binders, overseen by Maria, will attempt a high-speed production process for the binding similar to the one that Tim uses for the paper. The book should be completed by summer 2015.

The Particpants
Walter Bachinsky & Janis Butler
Bob Baris & Freddy Scott
Timothy Barrett & Jodie Plumert
Carolee Campbell
Dan DeSimone
David Esslemont
Susan Filter & Peter Koch
Maria Fredericks
Paul Gehl & Rob Carlson
Ian Kahn & Suzanne Hamlin
Nancy Loeber
Russell Maret & Annie Schlechter
Robert & Margaret McCamant, Jack Croucher
Sandra & Harry Reese
Liv Rockefeller & Kenneth Shure
Frank Rothkamm & Nina Schneider
Sara Sauers & Mike Lewis-Beck
Gaylord Schanilec
Richard Seibert
Jane & Cary Siegel
Mina Takahashi & Marco Breuer

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Sabbatical of Sorts

From left to right: the deluxe and standard copies of Pressed for Time (2014), Specimens of Diverse Characters (2011), Æthelwold Etc (2009), and Interstices & Intersections (2014); Prometheus Bound (2007); A Meditation in Rome (2012); Pervigilium Veneris (2009); Mediæval In Padua (2008); Nocturnes (2011); Book of Jonah (2012); Floating Overhead (2007); A Showing of New Foundry Type (2011); The Blog of Specimens (2012); Visionaries & Fanatics (2010); and A Roman Inscription (2010).

It has been a busy seven years. Since 2007 I have completed fifteen books and, with the publication of Pressed for Time, it feels like the right moment to slow down for a while. My recent "big" books have gotten progressively bigger, and the exhaustion of producing them is beginning to wear on me. But exhaustion is not the primary motivation for the sabbatical. Since printing Æthelwold Etc in 2009, I have been developing a very specific technique of multichromatic printing using photopolymer plates. With the publication of Interstices & Intersections earlier this year, I feel that I have taken that technique as far as I can (for now). Making books only remains interesting for me if their making is a process of learning, and I fear that, if I continue working in the same manner as I have been, I will fall into rote production. It is time for the polymer color printing to transition from raison d'être to its new position in the toolbox beside the other tools that are available to me. So what better solution than to spend a year experimenting? 

My plan is not to stop working but to work differently, with one pulsing neon mantra beaming above all else: NO DEADLINES! I intend to spend most of my time sketching but there are two small projects that are certain. The first is a collaborative cookbook, Hungry Bibliophiles, which is meant to test some of Timothy Barrett's ideas about durability and "authenticity" in handmade paper. I have received the paper from Tim and am almost done designing the typefaces in which I will print the book. I will post more information about the book when I am closer to printing. The other project I have lined up is the engraving and casting of a new metal titling face and ornament suite. The type will be produced by Ed Rayher at Swamp Press and will result in a small specimen when complete. (The ornament is a twelve piece, two color combination ornament.) Ed has engraved a sample matrix and everything looked good, so I should receive the finished type sometime in January. 

As I work I will post regular photos on the blog accompanied by varying amounts of text.

Friday, September 26, 2014

First copies of Pressed for Time arrive!

The first copies of the Pressed for Time standard edition have arrived from the binder, Priscilla Spitler. The final push of the production involved a lot of finishing handwork: a letter I from the Job alphabet painted in black gouache by Nancy; an intersection, circle, and arc drawn by me in pencil, liquid watercolor, and India ink to illustrate Eclectic Geometric or, Lunch with Nicolete; and last, but not least, a smoke drawing. With these drawings complete all of the books have been collated and shipped to the binders. I did the smoke drawings in stages so that we could get the binders started before I finished, with the end goal of having a finished book for the Oak Knoll Fest next weekend. In the coming weeks Annie will take better photos of the book but, in the meantime, here are some quick pics.

 Form of my proprietary foundry types and a proof, from the type specimen.

 Nancy Loeber painting the Job "I".

 Drawing the circles for Eclectic Geometric.

 Making a smoke drawing.

 The bound book in slipcase.

The title spread.

The pages describing the Noise series and Incidents.

Titling types from the type specimen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

October Events

Oak Knoll Fest XVIII, October 3-5
I will be speaking at the Oak Knoll Fest Symposium on Friday, October 3rd and showing my books at the Fest on the 4th and 5th. As usual, there is a great roster of speakers and exhibitors. Visit for details.

The Collecting of Artist Books, Museum of Modern Art, October 11
As part of the Center for Book Arts 40th Anniversary celebrations I will be on a panel, Letterpress Today and Its Relevancy for Artmaking, moderated by Katherine Ruffin. The other panelists include Robin Price, Mark Dimunation, and Duke Collier. Visit for details.

Comprehending a Cube: Eighteen Months of Living with Euclid, The Grolier Club, October 16
I will be discussing my recent book, Interstices & Intersections or, An Autodidact Comprehends a Cube, at a special functions dinner at The Grolier Club. The event is only open to Grolier Club members so, if you are one, I hope to see you there.

Diverse Characters: An Exhibition of Letterforms and Books by Russell Maret, October 23
6:00pm Chang Octagon, Butler Library, Columbia University
An opening reception for an exhibition of my more recent books, timed to coincide with the publication of my new bibliography, Pressed for Time. The show is on display now, closing January 23, 2015. Visit for details.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Announcing a new publication: Pressed for Time

Pressed for Time is a descriptive bibliography of my work compiled by Nina Schneider to mark my twenty-fifth year of printing. It contains bibliographic descriptions of my published and commissioned books, broadsides, and ephemera; anecdotes about the making of the books; a section of four-color photographs of the books by Annie Schlechter; and essays by Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, and Paul F. Gehl, Custodian of the Wing Foundation on the History of Printing at the Newberry Library. The book is profusely illustrated with original leaves from books; broadsides; type specimens; and marginal illustrations, including original drawings made in pencil, ink, gouache, and candle smoke. The large size of the book (16.5 x 11.5 inches) was determined so that it could accommodate untrimmed leaves from Æthelwold Etc, Specimens of Diverse Characters, and Interstices & Intersections.

Two editions will be published. One hundred copies are printed on Zerkall and French papers, and bound in cloth and patterned-paper with slipcase by Priscilla Spitler. Seventeen copies are printed on two different Twinrocker Handmade Papers, and bound in goatskin and patterned-paper by John DeMerritt. These seventeen are housed in a clamshell box containing a pull out drawer of extra ephemera. Both editions will be published at the end of September, with copies beginning to ship out toward the end of October.

Production is well underway, with Nancy Loeber and I dividing the printing between us. On a normal day, Nancy prints the large text pages while I work on the marginal illustrations. Below are some photos of the production.

Above: The binding dummy of the standard edition, showing the tipped-in bifolium from Interstices & Intersections and CODEX poster, as well as an assortment of sheets in progress.
Below: piles of ephemera for the deluxe edition.

The palette, above, for the ink draw-downs to accompany the description of the Æthelwold Etc color diary, and the process below.

To illustrate my book, Incidents, from 1996, each copy has a hand-printed piece of wood furniture pressed onto the paper below a print taken from the form-roller gear of my press.

To illustrate my series of books, Noise, from 1995-96, each copy has a unique print of hand-brayered ink over blind debossed type, outlined in pencil, in the style of Noise 3.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Interstices & Intersections at The Printing Museum

This past week Annie and I were in Houston to install and open my show, Interstices & Intersections or, An Autodidact Comprehends a Cube, at The Printing Museum. I have never been an enthusiastic exhibitor of my books. Books do not want to be locked in vitrines. Their ontological essence is narrative progression and, when frozen at a single spread in a display case, that essence is arrested and disrupted. So when The Printing Museum approached me with the idea of a show dedicated to the making of a single book, I was excited. The show allowed eight display cases that were assigned as such: one for the standard edition, one for the deluxe, five for in-depth displays of process, and one of various sketches, maps, and schedules produced during the making of the book. Photos are below. For information on the show or the museum, visit The Printing Museum website.

 Two copies of the standard edition.

  The deluxe edition with box, acrylic and watercolor paintings, and a photo of Daniel Kelm at work on the binding.

  Manuscript, watercolors, final prints, state proofs, and polymer plates for proposition xiii.17.

   Manuscript, watercolors, final prints, progressive and state proofs for the twelve color print for proposition viii.15.

 State and progressive proofs and color map for proposition xi.38.

Close up of final print and color map for proposition xi.38.

 Manuscript drawings and state proofs for proposition vi.30.

 Sketches, watercolors, maps, manuscripts, and schedules for Interstices & Intersections.

 Presenting the book to the Houston chapter of the AIGA.

Friday, March 7, 2014

First copy of Interstices & Intersections in motion

The first copy of Interstices & Intersections arrived on Sunday from Daniel Kelm. We shot a short video of the book in motion. The cover materials are calfskin (blue) and Tim Barrett's UICB Paper Case (gray) with a white line printed letterpress. Below are two photos of the book standing still.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Interstices & Intersections: Printing Complete!

On Wednesday, February 6, I finished the last press run of Interstices & Intersections or, An Autodidact Comprehends a Cube. At final count, the book's thirty spreads required 225 press runs. During the last month of printing, my assistant Nancy began preparing any finished sheets for binding while I was chained to the press. The binding is a double sided leperello accordion structure that requires dry adhesive to be tacked onto the foredge of every sheet before the books can be assembled. This is an extremely laborious process and it would have delayed the binding by weeks if we had had to do it after all the printing was completed. Instead, by having Nancy prep the sheets while I finished the printing, we were able to collate the books the day after I completed the last press run. Nancy has now been joined by another helper, Katrina Kiapos, and they will spend the rest of the month finishing the prep work while I bask in a languorous state of unfettered leisure.

On Saturday, Annie & I drove the first batch of sheets up to Daniel Kelm's Wide Awake Garage bindery in Easthampton, Mass. After a tour of Daniel's chemistry book and apparatus collection, we were joined by his wife Greta. The four of us stopped by a local ice harvest before heading to lunch.

The finished book hung on the studio wall.

Collating the first twenty-six copies.

The oysters at Keen's Chophouse where Nancy, Annie & I had our Friday wrap party.

 Standing outside the Cottage Street studios, home of the Wide Awake Garage.

Daniel in his chemistry library.

 Havesting ice from the local pond above, tools for said harvesting below.