Bruce Licher: Letterpress Hero

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Since the early 1980s, Bruce Licher has quietly influenced the fields of independent music and letterpress printing … especially where the two fields overlap. The type foundry P22 has launched a new book through Kickstarter: The first extensive monograph on Bruce Licher’s Independent Project Press and Independent Project Records, titled Savage Impressions—An Aesthetic Expedition Through the Archives of Bruce Licher and Independent Project Records & Press.

Musician, artist & designer Bruce Licher founded Independent Project Press after learning the art of letterpress printing at the Women’s Graphic Center in downtown Los Angeles at the beginning of 1982. His initial projects centered around creating album covers, postcards and promotional stamps for his band Savage Republic. It didn’t take long before he was producing work for other L.A. underground music groups, along with a growing number of clients in the Los Angeles design community. In addition to packaging and releasing music on his own record label (Independent Project Records), he had other music-related clients. Independent Project Press also produces elegant and creative business stationery, invitations, wine labels, promotional stamp sheets and booklets, and numerous other pieces of letterpress-printed ephemera for clients large and small.

Licher was nominated twice for a Grammy Award for his album packaging, and has been credited with starting the trend in letterpress-printed CD and record packaging using industrial-style chipboard. His graphic design and letterpress work has been featured in two major design exhibitions at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, and has also been exhibited in California, Arizona, and Paris, France. This year the Independent Project Press travels to the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop, California.

I asked Richard Kegler of P22 to tell me why Licher is important as a designer and a printer.

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You say that his virtual anonymity has bee a major gap in the history of letterpress printers. Where does he fit in?I consider Licher to be the linchpin of where the traditional letterpress job printers link to the last couple decades of the new letterpress “revival” of artisan printers. The printing of the bottom side of metal type, raw wooden planks, dense patterns and pin hole perforations as design elements would not fly as “fine press’ or suitable for commercial printing, but Licher carved his own niche.

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What is unique about Licher’s work that deserves historical and contemporary attention?The aesthetic of printing on chipboard with metallic inks and found objects built up as printing forms has been well explored in the last couple decades. This approach to design and printing can be traced to the constructivists, dadaists ,and most specifically to HN Werkman. But in the 1980s Bruce Licher defined this look as his own with his record label Independent Project Records and through job work for clients who trusted him to channel his aesthetic into work that was unlike any other existing letterpress shops or graphic designers. His shop which contained a healthy amount of mid-century ATF typefaces and decorative material (as did and does just about every other letterpress shop in the US) The look that Licher defined became an inspiration for other letterpress printers hoping to define their own style and not just crank out three-part invoice forms or other mundane printing in the transition from letterpress/offset to digital in the commercial printing world.

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He clearly inspired others. But how was that inspiration manifested?

A casual mention of Licher’s name to several contemporary letterpress printers of a certain age has brought an immediate confession of something resembling hero worship. Harold Kyle–Boxcar Press (Syracuse), Jennifer Farrell–Starshaped Press (Chicago), Michael Babcock–Interrobang Press (Boston), Eric Woods–Firecracker Press (St. Louis), David Armes–Red Plate Press (Yorkshire, UK), Christos Goussios–Goussios, G., & Co. O.E.( Thessaloniki, Greece)—all established artisan printers who have their own style and approach to printing as an artistic outlet and a professional occupation give props to Bruce Licher as a major influence on their work and seeing letterpress and a viable print medium that can also express a personal style using contemporary influences that honor but are not a pastiche of the past.

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What do you plan to do that will rectify the record?The Book published through P22 hopes to present a comprehensive archive of Licher’s work to a wider audience that may have come across his work without realizing who was behind the design and printing. While many graphic designers may recall the covers of Emigre magazine that Licher designed and printed and music fans may have seen some of the limited edition works for bands such as REM, Stereolab, and Harold Budd, and labels such as 4AD and Virgin Records, the collected work of Licher has not been presented in any comprehensive form. This book will cover Licher’s personal and client work as well as his forays into the highly specialized and meticulous field of stamp design/mail art and other art projects.