• Steven Heller

Frank Baseman’s Inner Ben Franklin

Wood type is growing branches all over the country. Frank Baseman, proprietor of Base Press, is “channeling my inner Ben Franklin,” he says.

Why? Because “I live just outside of Philadelphia; my first name is Frank; Ben was a very accomplished printer; and several of the quotes I have been using were from witty ole Ben.” His recent series of letterpress posters is the physical manifestation. His rebus quotes will be on view at the Rouse Gallery of the Stuckeman School at The Pennsylvania State University from Sept. 22–Oct. 27. I asked him about his inner joy working with wood, rebuses and more.

There is a back-to-the-basics movement in graphic design. Is that the reason for your new press? Well, I didn’t really have a movement in mind when I started to pursue this, and I don’t know if “back-to-basics” was the specific interest in my press, but I have had an interest in getting “back to my roots” for a long, long time. I used to casually say that in time, “I wanted to get a letterpress and print manifestos,” so, yes, I suppose so.

Having said that, I have had a long-held interest in letterpress printing (and, for that matter, silkscreen printing and other forms of printmaking) ever since my college and grad-school days. I went to design school during what I call the BC era (“before computers”), and have always appreciated that I had experiences in making work in many other ways than merely using the computer. Back in the day, we physically touched our work much more—and in many different ways—than today, from paste-up and mechanicals to making physical comps (not just printing inkjet prints, but using transfer lettering, rubdowns, identicals, inking things by hand—many of the tools that are so arcane and antiquated today that they don’t even exist). Not saying it was better or worse than the ways in which we make our work today, just in some ways different.

I first printed letterpress in grad school at Tyler School of Art, but while I have used letterpress printing throughout the years in many studio projects, I had not personally printed in quite some time. So, when I had the opportunity to have a sabbatical from my teaching position—and approximately seven to eight months of being away from school—I decided to focus on trying to get back into letterpress printing. Without having a press of my own (at the time) I first started to use the facilities at Raven Press at the University of Delaware as an Artist in Residence. And as I conducted research and contacted/met many folks within the letterpress community, I became aware of a few presses of the kind of press I was most familiar with (a Vandercook cylinder press) and the size that would fit into my studio. And so, much sooner than I had anticipated: et voilà, I had a press of my own that would (just barely) fit into the basement.

So, yes, if what I have been doing lately falls within the larger “maker movement” (within our industry and society writ large), then count me in.

For subject matter as to what to print, I’ve also held a long-time fascination with rebuses, those word and picture puzzles we all are familiar with from when we learned to read. I’ve been interested in the rebus as a form of visual communication for a long time. So, I set out to reinterpret well-known quotes and familiar phrases through the form of a rebus. I first did research and collected many quotes, and then I literally rewrote them with potential images to come in mind, with parentheses being images I would either make or find. So, “To be or not to be” became (two) (bee) (oar) (knot) (two) (bee); and so on.

Along the way, I also started to just experiment with form, and do what I called “letterpress exercises,” just trying to learn how to print again and not be so concerned with what things were looking like, just experimenting and exercising my letterpress muscles. I began to embrace these as the “typographic explorations.”

What does this work do for you emotionally and expressively? It’s been a complete pleasure/joy to be making things with my hands again on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, my working methods completely utilize contemporary technology (almost everything I have been doing I have conceptualized, researched, done sketches and composed using the computer), but there is something completely wonderful about working away from—or “off”—the computer. Letterpress to me has always been very sensory: obviously you look closely at what you are making, and obviously there is the physicality of touching the type, plates and paper. One also smells the ink, and relies on the sound of the ink on the press (Stephanie Carpenter from Hamilton once told me that you know you have the proper amount of ink on the rollers when “it sounds like bacon sizzling on the griddle, and looks like velvet”; doesn’t get much more sensory than that!).

And in some ways I do feel as though I have come full circle—that, in part, I have been interested in making things like this for my entire career. I hope to continue and explore.

How far will you take this? Is it more than a diversion or hobby? I certainly hope that this is more than a hobby/diversion. I hope that I am in it for the long-haul, and that this is just the beginning. For twenty-plus years I have somehow been able to juggle my studio practice with my teaching, so I see this as an extension of my overall work, and that somehow or another my strong interest in letterpress printing/making will continue. I already still have so many ideas of continuing some of the things I have started, and many other project ideas that I hope to be able to get to. We’ll see …

What is the most satisfying aspect of the press and results? It has been so completely satisfying and rewarding to conceive of something in my upstairs studio, and be able to fully execute and realize something downstairs in the letterpress shop. And obviously, all of the stuff I have been making lately is personal work: self-authored, self-directed, self-motivated, and not client-driven. I also see what I have been doing as completely entrepreneurial: I’m starting a new venture, and while parts of it are scary, it’s also invigorating and liberating at the same time. But, mostly, it’s just been a heckuva lot of fun!

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