The Daily Heller: Termites Are Not the Only Bugs to Feast on Wood

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Anthropomorphic typography is not new, although it is novel. Typographers, designers and artists have cleverly made human and animal characters out of letters for ages, using metal, wood, photo and digital types in playful manners. This art dates back (but is not exclusive to) illuminated initials on incunabula (books printed before the year 1500) and earlier that are found in handwritten codexes. In modern times, formal letter shapes have been associated with physical characteristics, resulting in esoteric outcomes.

It is not surprising that Bill Moran, third-generation letterpress printer, graphic designer and professor of printing history at the University of Minnesota—and former development "officer" at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, not to mention author of Hamilton Wood Type: A History in Headlines—has been an exemplar of this transformative typography. Moran has gone full bore in producing his Letterbugs, which this year he's designed as a letterpress-printed calendar. After designing and printing commercial work for many years, it bugged him that he hadn't toyed with this rich supply of material. These were produced at Tipoteca in Cornudo, Italy. Here, he discusses the joy of bringing the bugs to life.

How long have you been working on these wood type insects?

I made my first Letterbug in 1999 as a tribute poster for the Saint Paul Art Crawl. I wanted to focus on art that crawls, and a baby in a beret seemed trite, so I settled on insects made of type. I think I came up with it while walking my dog. Since then I’ve exhibited them at the Gutenburg Museum in Mainz, Tipoteca Italiana near Venice, and at the Haley Gallery in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Are you punning on the newspaper argot for small headings?

I’ve always heard the word “bug” as a newspaper term, but no, this is about insects. I’ve noticed that insects and typography occupy similar strata in their respective “kingdoms”; insects are to animals what type is to words, so I envisioned this Darwinian revolt where type and insects unite and take over the world as hybrids as the last characters standing.

Would you agree they are typographic puns?

In some of my Letterbugs I employ a letter as part of the particular insect (e.g., 'B' as part of a bee print), but it’s more about the coincidence of the name of the insect and the letters employed.

What are the typefaces in use?

For this calendar I started the basic shapes when I did an artist-in-residence gig at Tipoteca in 2018. I drew on their splendiforous collection of wood type to make the bodies of the bugs. Then, last summer, my dear friend Sandro Berra invited me to do the calendar and supplied me with proofs of wood and metal type from their collection, and because of COVID, I had to do the work in the states, then send the electronic art to Italy, where they made plates and printed the work.

Where can we get these critters?

In the U.S. they can be found in Hamilton’s online store. If you’re in Europe, they can be bought from Tipoteca Italiana.

Being so deeply involved with Hamilton Wood Type's collection, what did you find new and different at Tipoteca?

The biggest difference is in the typefaces they have. The Art Deco and Art Nouveau influence on early 20th century European type is tremendous. Those faces are so much more playful than what was being done in the states. Make no mistake, there’s no shortage of idiosyncratic designs done by William Page, Darius Wells and others, but the European faces are simply more lyrical, and that makes for better Letterbugs.

How did the idea dawn upon you that these letters could transform into Letterbugs?

One of my favorite artists is sculptor Deborah Butterfield. Among other things, she makes horses out of sticks and driftwood. When you encounter her work you are confronted with the duality of the shape: Is that a fetlock or a branch? And the answer is yes! The letters in my bugs serve a similar purpose—they can be two things at once. The first ones I made were really simple, but when I had my exhibit in Nashville I really pushed the layering and complexity of the forms.

Do you plan on more prints in this genre?

Heck yeah! It’s a seemingly endless source of inspiration, and I think I’m just starting to scratch the surface. I have a solo exhibition of new bugs coming up in September of 2021 at Tipoteca Italiana (COVID permitting) and I’ve got to crank out a new batch. They are in the larvae state now and I’m gonna smear ink on them till they hatch.