Wood Never Looked So Good

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Tipoteca Italiana is a private foundation established in 1995 by the Antiga brothers, a family of printers, and is located in Cornuda, in the province of Treviso, in the Veneto region.

The big shift of printing technology happening in Italy meant a loss of the letterpress heritage, along with hundreds of metal and wood typefaces, matrices, punches, casting machines, hand-, cylinder and platen presses, type specimen books and printed ephemera. “But, more dangerous,” says director Sandro Berra, “was the dispersion of a knowledge built into years of practice.” The roots of Tipoteca are connected with the fear of all this irretrievable loss while its existence is preserving a rich vein of the legacy. A new book published by Tipoteca, Alphabets of Wood: Luigi Melchiori & the History of Italian Wood Type by James Clough and Chiara Scattolin, was recently published, adding more scholarship and imagery to the legacy. I asked Berra to discuss the book and its genesis.

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What is the focus of the new publication?The reason why we published Alphabets of Wood was a tribute to a local wood type manufacturer, Luigi Melchiori. He lived between 1864 and 1946 in a small town called Crespano, at the foothills of Monte Grappa. In Tipoteca, we hold his archive: new wood type, a pantograph, his specimen books. Melchiori didn’t have a large workshop, but it’s very interesting because it’s very rare to have news and documents about wood type manufacturers in Italy. So, we asked Chiara Scattolin, an historian interested in local history, to document Melchiori’s life and work.

At the same time, we realized that there was no book in Italy similar to what is a world “milestone”—I’m referring to Rob Roy Kelly’s American Wood Type 1828–1900—the starting point for all studies about wood type. So, we asked James Clough, a good friend and a type and printing scholar, to enlarge the view on other parts of Italy, and discover more of the unwritten story of the wood type manufacturing in Italy.

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It is such a beautiful design. Is it meant to demonstrate how modern Tipoteca has become?I would love to say that Tipoteca was born modern, but of course I must be very careful using this definition. Seriously, at the beginning of this beautiful adventure called Tipoteca one fact was very clear: We couldn’t simply be the guardians of the tradition, but starting from our collections we needed to open our mind to the present. It’s very hard to hold a strong link with the contemporary context of graphic design when you’re surrounded by cases of metal and wood type and you still print on iron hand-presses. Sometimes, we risk [being] nostalgic nerds. We open the doors every morning to “digital natives,” and so we have to give them a sense of the present connected with the past.

Tipoteca opened the museum in 2002. In 2012, the whole exhibition was newly designed because we understood who our visitors were: not letterpress printers, but almost kids and adults just familiar with the names of some digital typefaces. And, of course, we must be thankful to computers, because now people understand what a type called Times New Roman is! Fifty years ago, they were probably staring at you with the familiar look “what is this guy talking about?”

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This is all wonderful vintage typographic material, yet the book gives it a contemporary context. Was that your intent?We strongly believe in the interaction with contemporary design. We aim to attract designers and show them how alive all this vintage stuff still is. It’s fascinating to see how young people approach in a totally different way these old pieces of wood or metal. They are almost all familiar with fonts and layouts, but never hold a type in their hands. It becomes a very interesting short circuit between mind, eyes and hand. Actually, one of the chapters of the book is “Wood type in the digital era,” and [shows] some contemporary prints done with wood type. And Tipoteca is a working museum—the printing equipment is perfectly functioning.

Is wood and metal type a viable form in the digital era?Indeed! We are so lucky to have so many choices standing in front of us, when Gutenberg could only use letterpress or handwriting. A kind of paradox, we know, but it’s a very fascinating aspect of our days. We have many different roads to choose to perform our idea of book, poster, business card … and of course wood and metal type still represent a very impressive form! At the end, it’s simply a matter of fact of finding ways of beauty. Honestly, we still believe in a tangible beauty, and using more senses than only our sight makes us feel more involved. Letterpress still has the full right of citizenship in our contemporary world. Paper will never disappear (ugly printed paper, yes). And what’s more touchable than type on paper?

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What’s next for Tipoteca?We recently opened a new exhibition hall dedicated to the history of printmaking, and a new building with a conference hall and a restaurant (excellent and genuine Italian cuisine, by the way). We hope to attract more people interested in the universe of type, printing, design. Everyone is looking for learning through manuality. Our workshops try to offer this kind of experience. Working with foreign students taught us that they’re also interested in other aspects of our country: language, art, food. So, we’re thinking to connect Tipoteca with other interesting attractions of our area. We feel there is a lot of work, but also many satisfactions.

2014 Typography & Lettering Awards

Typography is one of the most vital keys to successful design—and Print’s all-new Typography & Lettering Awards is here to celebrate it. But this isn’t just a competition for classic type designers: We’re looking for projects that feature great uses of type by any designer. W
e’re looking for handlettered work. And, of course, we’re also looking for original typefaces built from the ground up.

Enter today for a chance to have your work judged by Paul Shaw and Jessica Hische, and for a chance to be featured in Print magazine, and more.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →