For a designer, learning to set metal and wood type is as essential as learning to drive a car (stick or automatic). One of the most passionate teachers of the craft, Dikko Faust, co-founder with Esther K. Smith of Purgatory Pie Press, offers a hands-on printing class at the SVA NYC Letterpress studio. I spoke with Faust about this intimate experience with ink, paper and type.
Why should today’s designers learn about letterpress printing?
Letterpress is dimensional, textural, direct-relief printing from modular pieces: letters, borders and ornaments, as well as woodcuts, photo engravings (polymer plates) and found objects.
Letterpress is great research and development for any design problem. Change the color, change the paper (or cloth, sheet metal, thin wood, even plastic). Change the angle. Insert ornaments. Add words of different typefaces on the press bed. Add background textures, superimpose type for vibration/emphasis.
“Make a mistake, do something wrong. Make another mistake, do something right.” (Sun Ra)
What does letterpress provide that digital does not?
Texture you can see and feel. SVA’s collection of 72 cases of real metal type, 100+ cases of wood type, and a large cabinet of borders and ornaments, give the designer’s work a freshness and an edge.
Former students have gone on to print their own products. Some use letterpress display type in branding, signage, advertising, packaging, and on book covers. One uses his hand typographic experience to redesign computer fonts.
By making letterpress work, are we learning from the past or exercising nostalgia?
Fashions in graphic design cycle and mutate as they have for clothing, architecture, etc. Designers need to not only keep current with trends but get ahead of the game by looking back at past innovations.
Is nostalgia another way to appreciate history?
Maybe, but this class is not about nostalgia but rather new uses for existing pieces. Playing with blocks. Playing with positive-negative space. Making wood type T-shirts.
Have you seen an increase of interest in letterpress, as I have from afar, or dwindling interest as technology progresses?
I have seen waves of interest in letterpress over the last 40+ years. Linotype took the pressure off hand-setting multiple lines of straight text, as did photo- and computer type, but letterpress is freed for more interesting purposes. SVA’s shop has free photopolymer platemaking (in class) for image-making.
How would you like to see the art, craft, appreciation, practice, etc., perceived in 20 years?
Thriving with many different approaches. The American Typecasting Fellowship, armed with Monotype and Thompson casters, has taken up the slack from the demise of all the commercial foundries. And several small companies are making wood type, some with the traditional router-and-pantograph method, others with C&C routers. Amalgamated Printers’ Association and other groups are replacing retired members with young (some second-generation, mostly not) members. There are wayzgooses (annual printers’ festivals) run by printing museums and associations from Haverill, MA, to rural Wisconsin to Los Angeles.