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When Designers Push Printing Presses: An Exhibition

Graphic designers tend to be a tactile bunch. As we spend ever more of our workdays interfacing with plastic screens, the experience of caressing textured, letterpressed, and embossed papers becomes even more precious and valuable. Conversely, the thought of visiting a museum, with all of its glass-encased objects and hovering guards, loses a bit of its appeal. But in the A+D Architecture and Design Museum’s latest show in downtown Los Angeles, touching everything is not only permitted, it’s practically mandatory.

design: John Clark.

The exhibition, “Pushing the Presses,” is from Typecraft Lithography’s Archive Library. Typecraft is a favored printer of Southern California cultural institutions such as LACMA, MOCA, the Hammer Museum, CalArts, Art Center, and Otis. Their client list also extends to political graphics guerrillas such as Shepard Fairey and Robbie Conal. And not surprisingly, demanding designers regularly challenge the company to push the limits of their printing capabilities up to, and occasionally beyond, the limits of their presses.

The show was assembled by Typecraft sales rep David Mayes and Steve Child of the USC Roski School of Fine Arts’ Design Department. You’ll find an earlier Print feature about David here. Named an AIGA LA Fellow in 2012, he has a deep appreciation for the creative artistry of graphic designers. And they, in turn, are grateful for the professional skills of Typecraft’s craftspeople. The show itself is a culmination of David’s self-initiated project to build his Archive Library.

This library documents the noteworthy collaborations between his printing company and the design community. As David tells it, “I’ve been collecting cool print samples from clients for about 25 years now. And around 2009 I started putting the designers’ names on the samples. This started a process of gathering more and more samples, and seeing the incredible collection of names.”

John Clark is just one of many local designers who are most grateful for David’s efforts: “If AIGA LA had an archivist, they might have done exactly what David has done. At a time when people rightly ask ‘what does a graphic designer do?,’ David has assembled the answer. Without judgement or discrimination, David has created an exhaustive and diverse view of the design community. And its value will become increasingly obvious with time.”

For co-curator Steve Child, designing the exhibition space became a class project: they transformed the A+D into a hybrid gallery-slash-library. All 700-plus artifacts, by more than 450 designers worldwide, are readily accessible to all visitors: posters pinned to the walls, books and catalogs resting on ledges and perched atop pedestals, and supplementary material openly shelved. And a great deal of them are extraordinary examples and varieties of specialty papers, split-fountain inking and foil stamping, embossing and debossing, die-cutting, folding, coatings, bindings, and so on.

design: April Greiman. photos: Andy Reed.

The feedback from designers have been nothing short of enthusiastic. April Greiman, whose historically significant works are part of the display, calls it “…unique and important: it not only showcases some of the best graphic work and designers of it, but is wonderfully and unusually educational. It’s show that speaks to technique, production capabilities, and creativity. A delight to behold and inspire, and a real treat!”

Cate Roman, Assistant Chair at Woodbury University’s Graphic Design department whose work is also in the library, brought her class on a field trip and had this to say: “The thing that struck me the strongest — and what I did not expect — was the presence of L.A.’s design community. To see so many designers included — both famous and almost famous — in one place was just spectacular. I’ve always thought of David as a ‘designer’s printer,’ which is really evidenced in the dedication and passion he put into the library, and now the exhibition. And the work that Steve and his class put into it only confirmed that sense of the greater design community for me. I think there’s something there for everyone: designers, students, printers, and the general public.”

When I asked the irrepressible Stefan Bucher for his take on “Pushing the Press” he replied with evangelical fervor: “If you’re used to looking at design on Instagram and Behance or in the pages of design magazines, get yourself down to the A+D Museum and check out this excellent show of actual physical pieces you can actually handle and examine in detail. There’s a lot of design that looks great on your phone that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and lots of beautiful work you’ll never see in design annuals, because it’s too intricate to reproduce well in a photo or two. High end print design rewards close attention to detail both in the making and in the reception. I don’t know of another show that lets you touch the books and then lets you look at the job ticket to see exactly what the technical specifications were that made it happen on press. It’s like eating at a great restaurant and getting to look at the recipes. If you love design and/or if you want to be a better designer, go see this show!”

Whew! So if you’re interested in getting physical with museum objects, the exhibition will be open until February 29th.

Meanwhile, in my interview, David and Steve share their insider perspectives on the creation as well as the benefits of ”Pushing the Press.”

design: Stefan Bucher. photo: Jason Ware.

Michael Dooley: So, what motivated the exhibit?

David Mayes: I love print, of course, but the people are fascinating. Designers are fun, quirky, and intelligent. Just to have the opportunity to engage with so many interesting folks has made my own work infinitely more interesting. And as it became clear that there’s a substantial number of designers who’ve worked with Typecraft, I felt that this could be a good representation of the community.

Steve Child: And for me, it seemed a wonderful opportunity to bring the design library to the public and help David share all of these pieces with the community. Haven Lin-Kirk, the head of our design department at USC, had been in conversation with David about the library a number of years back. Then she offered to design a catalog of the work with our students, I was put in charge of the Special Projects class that produced the catalog. So I became very familiar with the body of work at Typecraft, and I felt connected with David immediately, with his knowledge and passion for design and print. It seemed a natural evolution to propose the exhibit to the Architecture and Design Museum, and involve my students in the process.

design: Haven Lin-Kirk. photos: Andy Reed.

Dooley: What were the advantages of having a print person and design person co-curate?

Mayes: I have no training in design. As a printer I could never pass judgement on a design, I just need to know how many copies you want printed. To be able to work with Steve and ask him which pieces we should display was invaluable. To have his trained eye decide what we show made this a great exhibition.

Child: I think we were able to balance our understanding and experience in looking at the work. David’s knowledge of the printing process and each piece’s history was critical in considering what to choose to display. It also helped to be able to bounce ideas off one another. And working together made it fun to produce the show.

Dooley: How did you make these decisions?

Mayes: The focus is on print techniques, so pieces were evaluated on how well they show a particular ink or fold or die-cut. We also looked for pieces that are fun or challenging.

Child: We wanted this exhibit to be a celebration of the whole design community. Therefore, everything in the library is in the museum, whether out on display or in the bookshelves. The body of work that is on display required that it be considered through the lens of printing rather than through one of a design competition or an historical reference. Except for the posters, which fill up the walls, each piece was reviewed for its relevance to printing processes.

design: Maggie Kennedy and Mallory Cohen. photos: Andy Reed.

Dooley: The show is also quite an interactive, hands-on experience.

Mayes: I know that print design must be handled and felt to be appreciated. There are so many textures and surfaces, so many folds and interesting bindings in the collection. We knew that there’s a danger of damage or theft, but we felt that it’s important for the viewer to have the full experience of the piece. So for us, it’s worth the risk to make the show have a better impact.

Child: The work is made to be picked up and looked through, instead of under glass. David was incredibly generous in lending the work so viewers can browse through the pieces just like a conventional library. And Amita Makdani at M+R, the interior design studio, was pivotal in designing the library space and helping to acquire the furniture and rugs so viewers sit down and relax while perusing the work.

Dooley: David, you’ve told me so many fascinating “pushing the press” stories; what’s one of your favorites?

Mayes: The Lecture Series poster we printed with Brian Roettinger for SCI-Arc was a relatively straightforward project printed with a PMS color and a fluorescent color, but what made it unique is that Brian found a food packing company who would vacuum pack the poster after printing. It was expensive, so one of the ways he made it work was to hand-crunch all of the printed posters with his assistant for two days before giving them to the packing company to seal into small plastic packages. It’s neat because the final package is hard as a rock because it’s packed so tightly. This package was put into a small box with a postcard and mailed out. It was one of their most popular mailers ever, and they received requests for more copies for months after the original mailing.

design: Brian Roettinger.

Dooley: And Steve, what did you find to be particularly valuable to your students?

Child: Everything can be interesting and instructive if looked at in the right way. It was fascinating to watch my students interact with the pieces as they designed the exhibition over the semester. They gravitated towards one piece or another: “I love the color.” “This fold is so cool!” So each solution had some important lesson for them to learn. As an educator I want my students to see the whole process. I wanted them not only to understand the problems that designers face and how they solve them, but to see the entire picture. The whole universe is in those printed pieces: the paper that’s made from the trees; the trees that are made from the sun, water, earth, and oxygen; the entire chain of professionals from the paper makers, clients, printers, and binders to, of course, the designers who contribute to the final work. It’s all interconnected. For the students to see all of the work and how it came together and how important all of these factors are in bringing a piece to fruition, that may have been the most important lesson of the class.

Dooley: What’s been most gratifying for you personally about this whole experience?

Mayes: To me, as I collected the pieces and began to realize that we have a significant body of work here, I wanted to be able to gather all of the people in the Archive Library into one room and have a great big party. This opportunity to celebrate the good work of the L.A. design community came to pass on opening night when we had almost 400 people come to the museum. This is tremendously gratifying to me.

Child: My role was to be curator as well as teacher, so I had to balance these functions. I got to learn a lot through the process, which I always enjoy. And it was a pleasure to work with David and the students to bring this work to the public. If you weren’t at the opening, you missed a wonderfully warm and fun event.

Dooley: And what about future plans?

Mayes: It would be marvelous if the show could travel. A dream would be for it to make an appearance at the AIGA National offices in New York City. After the exhibition closes the collection will come home to Typecraft, and it’s my hope to continue adding to the library. My intention is that it continues to grow as a resource for educating print designers.

design: Juliette Bellocq. photos: Andy Reed.

design: Grace Jing and Sonora Miller. photos: Andy Reed.

design: Chase Design Group.

design: Lorraine Molina and Jennifer Rider. photos: Andy Reed.

design: Martin Venezky.

Design: Brian Roettinger. photos: Andy Reed.

design: Stefan Bucher. photo: Andy Reed.

design: Mick Hodgson. photos: Andy Reed.

design: Tom Recchion.

design: Megan Remillard and Tomi Okuno. photos: Andy Reed.

A+D Architecture and Design Museum. photo: M. Dooley.

photo: M. Dooley.

design: Tim Biskup. photo: M. Dooley.

design: Ana Llorente and Jessica Fleischmann. photo: M. Dooley.

design: Dennis Reed. photo: M. Dooley.

design: Eric Heiman & Daniel Surgeon. photo: M. Dooley.

design: April Greiman. photo: M. Dooley.

design: Willem Henri Lucas. photo: M. Dooley.

design: Pae White and Willem Henri Lucas. photo: M. Dooley.

design: Stefan Bucher. photo: M. Dooley.

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