Dafi Kühne: Letterpress, Posters & Process

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Editor’s Note: Renowned designer and letterpress printmaker (and former Print New Visual Artist) Dafi Kühne has been recognized for experimentally pairing contemporary devices and methods with classic design and letterpress tools and techniques. Dive into his life and process in this exclusive interview.

Where did you study graphic design and typography?

I started studying in the Architecture Department of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich in 2003. After a year I quit the program. I liked the processes, but at that time I think I was a bit scared of the size of the projects. You work on one project for several years that depends on so many different restrictions and regulations. I thought couldn’t do it. After that I worked on and off as a bricklayer for a year.

In 2005 I applied for Visual Communications at Zürich University of the Arts (ZHdK), but was rejected. Instead, I got into the Interaction Design Department at ZHdK, which I studied at also for one year. But I didn’t like the mentality and methods they were teaching there. For them, functionality had to be fully developed without the design. You would sketch up diagrams and structures for software. Once you were done, you could choose one or another typeface, and maybe choose if you want round corners or something else, but the design development really happened on a small scale. And they didn’t teach the basics of design.

During that time, I began an evening class in typography with Prof. Rudolf Barmettler. Although his class was taught in the letterpress lab, I was more fascinated with his teaching of the design basics—mainly typography in every detail. Then I reapplied and was able to get into the Visual Communications Department at ZHdK. The program has a strong focus on typography.

At that time Barmettler was the head of the department. He and Kurt Eckert were my typography teachers. I also went through the regular digital (and analog) design classes between 2006 and 2009. During my summer break in 2008, I did my internship with Hatch Show Print. Brad Vetter was working with the interns. Jim Sherraden was the shop manager. Both of them have become good friends. The internship inspired my diploma project “Wood Type Now!” I wanted to bring letterpress closer to digital practice. So I researched the combination of digital production tools (mainly the lasercutter) and the analog printing press. Barmettler and Eckert were my mentors for my diploma project.

How did you decide to do an internship with Hatch Show Print?

In the summer of 2007 Sarah—then my girlfriend, now my wife—and I were planning some traveling in the US for the first time. In putting together our tour, we talked about driving through Nashville. A friend of mine had just brought me a Hatch poster that same year and he recommended that I go to see Hatch Show Print. When we were there, I immediately realized this would be the place I wanted to intern the next summer. I sent them a letter of application and a portfolio and was accepted for summer 2008.

Did your time as a bricklayer have any influence on your work as a typographer and letterpress printer?

To be honest, I really believe that everything I ever did in my life has had an influence on how I work as a designer and letterpress printer today. And I am sure that working as a bricklayer had an influence on how I practically approach things. I learned to just do things, not to think for too long. I learned to do things on my own too. If you’re working on a construction base and you have something heavy in your way, you just move that thing on your own. You don’t get a lot of instructions. You just do it. And that’s something I definitely do here in my job: I just do things. If something doesn’t work the way I planned it, I experiment and make it work—or I try something else. I also learned to work with heavy machinery. I would drive dumptrucks, forklifts, asphalt rollers, and even the crane. I used table saws and chainsaws. I am not afraid of running any machine. I am not afraid of moving heavy equipment. My heaviest press weighs two tons. But I don’t think my work as a bricklayer had a big influence on my work as a typographer.

In your studies with Barmettler and Eckert were you influenced at all by the so-called Swiss Style in typography?

If someone had asked me this question right after I graduated school, I probably would have said “no.” I am a 21st-century designer, and the “Swiss style” was big almost fifty years ago. As time goes by, though, I’ve come to realize more and more how much my work has actually been shaped by it and the search for the best possible degree of reduction. I’ve noticed this especially when I compare my work to what’s being done internationally. In a sense, you could almost speak of unconscious conditioning since the letterpress technique has of course always been especially suitable for producing typographic work. I had the good fortune of benefiting from the ZHdK’s letterpress workshop—a rare thing in graphic design training. It was the perfect combination for myself.

Did Barmettler teach the entire class using metal type in the way that Wolfgang Weingart and Emil Ruder used to?

Yes. In the evening class I would go through a strictly guided exercise to design a typographic business card. It took me twenty evenings to design that one business card. At the end we would typeset and print the card. We printed something like 20 cards. Not more. It was all about the process, not production. Rudolf Barmettler has a very nice workshop with about 650 cases of metal type. It is the cleanest workshop I’ve ever worked in. It is as Swiss as you could imagine and kept like a treasure in the basement of Berufsschule für Gestaltung in Zürich. Students are not even allowed to put back small type (4–16pt) after they have printed it. It needs to be done by a professional!

Later, when I was studying in the Visual Communications Department at ZHdK, Barmettler taught us the basics of typography in his workshop too. There, we would to a letterpress printed typographic poster. This course was for two weeks full time.

Then we did another workshop in the spring where we would typeset a justified layout with metal type. But obviously, most of our other classes in typography were mostly digital.

What typefaces were available in Barmettler’s workshop?

He had Fette Gotisch, Wallau, Schwabacher, Fette Fraktur, Walbaum-Fraktur, Blado, Arrighi, Cooper Black, Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville, Clarendon, Times, Bodoni, Didot, Walbaum, Fette Normande, Ideal, Pro Arte, Forum, Clarendon, Egizio, Superba, Normal Grotesk, Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica, Univers, Futura, Gill, Cairoli, Block, Splendid, Commercial, Headline, Erbar, Syntax, Phosphor, Bravo, Bison, and last but not least, Mistral.

For many of them he has full families in different sizes and styles. I’ve never seen any type in his workshop that was worn out or not in perfect condition. Metal type was available from 3pt up to 96pt. Larger sizes were wood type, plastic poster type and aluminum type, which is the best quality poster type you could find!

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Did you know anything about letterpress before studying with Barmettler?

To be honest, I was young and did not have much of an idea about graphic design and none at all about letterpress printing. I was just fascinated with a technique, that seemed commercially so redundant but yet a great tool for me to learn typography.

So my first contact with letterpress was definitely quite different from what you see in the US. Also Prof. Barmettler was teaching it as if it was the most normal thing. We were learning about type as if it was holy, cleaning it almost with a toothbrush after printing. So I really thought: this is how you have to treat type and also this is the precision you need to do typography.

Wood type was just something cool that was used when the time was right—not something to play around with for the fun of it. I think I liked letterpress printing and Barmettler’s class because it was the first time someone was really teaching me about typography from the ground up. The first night we kerned one word for four hours. And continued like that throughout the 20 evening classes and then later when I studied with him again. We had intense theory classes on micro-typography (letter spacing, word spacing, glyphs), type classification, macro typography (line lengths, line spacing, blocks, paragraphs, rags). Photocopies over photocopies of clear and strict information. And everything we would then explore in letterpress and later digitally in Indesign. Everything that nobody ever told me before when I was studying Architecture and Interaction Design and I was desperately craving to learn about. I guess I was soaking it up like a sponge.

Later, when I went to Hatch I learned a very different approach from Barmettler’s. We were working very playfully with typography and everything was very production-oriented. After sketching up a small concept (A6 size) for 20 minutes we would start typesetting. Being a graphic designer of the digital generation, I was not used to copying anything from others and I was trying to reinvent the wheel with every project. While at Hatch we did exactly that. We reused the same blocks, forms and shapes again and again. People wanted that specific Hatch poster style. This was something completely new for me and also great to see. It was also there I realized for the first time that poster runs (up to 300 copies) are totally doable with a letterpress proof press.

My very first two contacts with letterpress couldn’t have been any more diverse. I experienced two extremes.

Can you tell me more about your diploma project?

My written thesis “Wood Type Now!“ was thirty pages long (with no images!) plus one hundred more pages of interview transcripts. I wanted to explore the potential for digital tools in combination with letterpress technique. Combining the old with the new. I researched the history of wood type production in Switzerland. I did some interviews with Alfred Hoffmann and some of his former employees at Haas after they took over the Roman Scherer Woodtype Manufactory in 1966. Then, in a second step, I did some interviews with contemporary designers to find out if there was any use for new wood type at all. I found out that actually there was a big lack of research and experimentation in the field. In offset and in silkscreen, the connection to the computer has been long done with CTP and CTF. It was clear that a lot of techniques (like the laser cutter and others) have never been explored and tested thoroughly with letterpress. Only polymer plates have been tried.

For “Wood Type Now!” I used the school’s brand-new lasercutter in the Industrial Design Department. In spring 2009, I booked that machine for two months straight! Already the year before I had produced my first complete set of Univers Black as a fount of wood type. I found out that with todays tools it is totally doable to make a set of wood type from digital templates.

It takes some wood working skills (which I had from my time as a craftsman) and some good tools. I wanted to explore new ways of making poster type. What is wood type, if you can engrave halftone images onto plexiglas and then cut them into letter shapes? So it’s not even wood type anymore, but definitely poster type! It was Eckert and again Barmettler who mentored this project. And it was especially Barmettler who pushed me into exploring some new stuff, rather than just reproducing what was there already.

I did my first chromatic types in fall 2008. But when I showed the proofs to Barmettler, he asked, “Why do you want to explore the old stuff, that’s been done for something like almost 150 years ago. You should want to find out what’s new!”

The practical project went on for four months full time and at the end I was even sleeping on the floor of Barmettler’s workshop (Don’t tell him! Haha). The output was the webpage and a ten-page, 23-color letterpress-printed magazine called What is wood type now?

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When did you attend your first Hamilton Waygoose?

I found out about Hamilton in 2008, but I didn’t go to the Wayzgoose until 2011 when I was visiting the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia Colllege in Chicago. I was teaching some workshops and giving some lectures in Chicago during the Woodtype Evolved exhibition which included my work. April Sheridan took me up to Two Rivers for the Wayzgoose. There I met David Shields for the first time. Both April and David found out about me through Nick Shermans Woodtyper blog post in 2009. That’s how I got invited to the Wood Type Evolved exhibition.

I remember seeing that exhibition and how exciting it was to see people rethinking the materials of letterpress typography.

I really liked that exhibtion, too. I had a big space (one whole corner for myself) in it. I had something like sixteen posters on display. I sent them a total of 50kg of printing blocks (small and big). They had an iPad with the woodtype-now.ch website on display and I also got invited to teach two workshops at Columbia College and do a talk.

Do you ever use techniques like exposing photopolymer plates or the laser cutter to turn digital files into forms for printing?

Yes. I’ve had a photopolymer processor since 2008. And I also have a laser cutter at my studio. But I got a little tired of the total possibility that you can again produce basically everything that you can do on your screen and just expose it to a photopolymer plate or send it straight to the lasercutter to then print. It gets too close to what people do in digital printing. For me, if letterpress printing gets too easy, it loses some of its qualities of having to work with the technical restrictions that can push your design process so much. Of course I knew from “Wood Type Now!” that there is much more to it since you can use many different materials to cut with the laser cutter. But if it all comes back to “command-P” and no transformation from the file to the block, it gets boring for me. It’s the same reason why so far I never got too far into CNC routing, waterjet cutting, or 3D printing.

There was a time right after I finished my studies, when I didn’t have access to a laser cutter and photo plates were not an option for bigger poster work. That forced me into exploring different analog techniques like lino cutting and chipboard cutting. And then I bought a pantograph from the scrapyard. Since I got it, I definitely use it and it is a 100% analog tool.

See this video:

baby ink twice – überyou from Dafi Kühne on Vimeo.

So today I can really choose not to make it too comfortable and easy for myself. It all depends on the job: For me, every project, with all of its restrictions (graphic style, number of the edition, budget, time, etc….), asks for a certain technique.

What is your studio like?

I have a lot of equipment in now. Twenty tons in my studio and something like a little less than ten tons in my basement. This may sound as if I have put in a ridiculous amount of money into furnishing my studio. But this is not the case. The first photopolymer processor I got with the second press I bought for scrap metal price. The pantograph cost me $150, the Ludlow (I now have two of them) plus some matrices cost me $100 total. This is really scrap metal. I think this was also part of my huge fascination with letterpress. Even as a student I could afford to start buying this equipment. I could buy professional printing equipment from the 1970s for almost nothing. This is important to me because when I give talks, people often ask if I have rich parents who paid for my workshop or so… Definitely not.

My dad used to be a pilot. My mother had an aerobic studio in the basement of our house. Always if I had a little extra money, I would buy some cheap printing equipment from old printers. If I didn’t have any, then I didn’t buy any. That’s how I collected, cleaned and built up the twenty tons of letterpress equipment at my studio.

What is your working process?

It can be very diverse. It is a back and forth process between the computer and the press. After some concept sketching, I often start with experimenting on the press. Then I might do some scans, and work digitally. The clients normally get to see a combination of physical proofs, paper samples and digital layout simulation. Then I go into production. Sometimes the process is more digital, sometimes more analog. But the production is always analog. You can see some of that in the video I made as I was designing the Voodoo Rhythm Dance Night poster. This one is very old school with cut-and-paste. Even a waxing machine which designers used in the pre-Mac era!

Baby ink twice – Voodoo Rhythm dance night from Dafi Kühne on Vimeo.

But I also experiment with what materials are at hand as you can see in the refrigerator magnets video/ That project was done while I was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The video only shows the production process, not the design process that went before.

baby ink twice – refrigerator magnets from Dafi Kühne on Vimeo.

Before we finish the interview, can you tell me how you designed the True Print poster that comes with the deluxe edition of your book?

Well, the poster is a personal manifesto, an attempt to distill my thoughts on what design is and how I work at my studio. It is composed of phrases I carried with me since I started my studio and some that I’ve learned on my way—but I never brought to paper so far. With this poster, I was facing a big problem: I needed something like 490 letters in 36pt to typeset the copy.

This means you need a set with at least 1000 characters or more. It is hard to find such a large fount. I made many phone calls and didn’t find a good solution for the problem. A printer friend could cast it in monotype, but that would have been 800 Euros just for the type. I could buy the Ludlow matrices—but they didn’t have German umlauts (ä,ö,ü) that I would later need. So I developed my own plastic resin casting technique and I cast all the type from silicone moulds. It took me two weeks to develop this technique. In the end it probably cost me more than any other option. But now I have my own procedure to reproduce letters of any existing set of type which is great!

You can see this process in the video:

TRUE PRINT – Things I keep telling myself – Poster from Dafi Kühne on Vimeo.

Thanks Dafi for sharing your time and your working methods with Imprint.