The Daily Heller: Words and Vision, Vision and Words

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The pandemic has brought the author out in virtually everyone I know. One could say that an unintended COVID-19 consequence was this authorpandemic, a bittersweet year-plus where time almost stood still for artists, designers and writers to collect their thoughts, activate ideas and project projects in the world. One beneficiary of this time is Russell Maret, type designer and private press printer working in New York City. His new book, The Legacy Press edition of Visionaries & Fanatics and Other Essays on Type Design, Technology and the Private Press, was released just as we were all emerging from hibernation. It is a detailed dive into the history of letters and Maret’s own “visions” of the art, craft and trade.

Maret began printing in San Francisco as a teenager. He set up his own press at the Center for Book Arts, New York, in 1993, and has been printing and publishing ever since. In 1996 he began to teach himself to design typefaces, leading to 12 years of practice before completing his first face in 2008. In 2011, he began working to convert some of his type designs into new metal typefaces.

Maret has produced three metal typefaces and four suites of metal ornaments. In 2009, he was awarded the Rome Prize in Design from the American Academy in Rome. He has been the Printer in Residence of the Press in Tuscany Alley, San Francisco (1990); Artist-in-Residence at the Center for Book Arts, NYC (1996); the Bodleian Libraries’ inaugural Printer-in-Residence (2017); the North American Chair of the Fine Press Book Association; and a trustee of the American Printing History Association. Maret’s books and manuscripts can be found in public and private collections throughout the world.

Visionaries & Fanatics (copies available here) will inspire, inform and illuminate.

I am impressed by the depth of scholarship that you’ve brought to your practice. What inspired your leap into printing and type?

In 1989 I went to a small college in SFO to study poetics (with no real interest in studying anything). Around the campus were little fliers advertising a letterpress printing class in the Marxist vein of poets taking control of the means of production. I eventually found my way to the printshop and it was love at first sight. By the end of my freshman year I had dropped out and was apprenticing with the printer Peter Koch and at the Press in Tuscany Alley. I was fortunate to study with people for whom the history of their craft was central to their practice. Seven years later, in 1996, I had a sudden vision for a type design and spent about a decade afterward studying letterforms and teaching myself how to draw them.

Both letterpress printing and type design are disciplines of minutiae. In the setting of metal type, the printing of that type precisely where it is meant to be printed, or the design of a letterform, differences of 0.001″ are huge. I don’t see how one can operate in any of these fields without a minor (or major) obsession with minute details. Though I do find as I get older and more experienced I am increasingly less interested in measurement.

For someone who has such strong classical roots, you seem content to work with current technologies and materials (e.g., polymer plates). This may be considered heresy for some diehards. How does past and present coexist for you?

Diehards are boring people, in my experience. They destroy the traditions they claim to be preserving. The fields of book arts and type design are living traditions that are predicated on change. To make books that continue to be related to their art historical moment, one needs to engage with the technology of one’s time. I try to make as many of my typefaces into metal as possible, but, as a printer determined to print from letterforms that I designed, it’s simply not realistic. So I print from polymer when I need, metal when I can. In the design of either I make full use of the digital and analog technologies that are available to me.

The whole book was conceived in an effort to reframe the past as evidence that one needs to be alert to the future possibilities of the book and type design if those disciplines are to continue to be relevant. With that said, it is written with the understanding that it is for others to determine that future. I’m just doing what I can in the present moment.

How many faces have you designed? And what is your purpose when you decide to spend your time doing so?

I’m not really sure. When I design a face, I only design the characters I need for the specific project. If I reuse the face, I will alter it, add on to it, etc., but it can take years before I have a full character set. I would guess I’ve designed about 30 or 40 complete faces, and parts of about 50 more. Initially I attempted to design letterforms that were structurally evocative of specific texts, which meant that they were intended for a single use. For instance, the first metal titling face I made was manufactured for a single page of one of my books. As time has passed and my writing has become more central to my projects, the focus of my type design has changed to trying to capture my personal voice in the shape and movement of faces.

What is the goal for your book? Who have you created it for?

Partially answered in previous responses, but … the primary audience is anyone concerned with the book arts of printing, type design and book design in general. The essays are written from the perspective of the private press, which can be quite limiting, but they were also written with contemporary digital font designers in mind—they just might have to trudge through the weeds of some of the more arcane printing references.

There is a certain memoir quality—are you the visionary or the fanatic or both?

And what does each quality mean to you? I tend to identify with both, though more so with vision. The ideas for my books come to me in an instant and can often result in years of work. It is an experience that I have gradually become comfortable identifying as visionary. I suppose anyone who does what I do has to be a bit fanatical.