The Letterpress Journals: Typoholic
by Erin Beckloff
We packed our vehicles Tetris-style with lights, stands, and all sizes of black Pelican equipment cases, and of course the camera. Being my first road trip with the guys, my initial reaction was that we had way too much stuff and we’d never need it all (I was wrong). For future movie-making reference, the Prius proved to be the best, most spacious production car we could’ve chosen. Andrew Quinn and I spent most of the drive to Des Moines discussing the overall themes for the film, the big ideas that are going to form the Living Story of the documentary. We call it a Living Story because regardless of what we expect or want the interviewees to say, their answers and thoughts are what shape the narrative of the film.
Based on my knowledge of the letterpress community, I selected the majority of the cast of printers before the Kickstarter campaign. They are a representative group who offer a range of points-of-view, life experiences, and specialized skills or areas of knowledge related to printing. The cast is also connected through their relationships, which is crucial as we examine letterpress culture. Andrew conducted phone pre-interviews to give us some background for each printer and to give us a base to write questions. July in Iowa was beautiful, lush green fields and bright blue skies dotted with clouds made for a lovely drive to Rick von Holdt’s farm.
Rick welcomed us with an energetic wave, but there was something odd — his thumb was wrapped in a neon green bandage! Apparently, while repairing an antique fan, he had sliced his thumb and just returned from the emergency room. The green thumb will be a detail that film watchers will surely wonder about, though Rick does have a “green thumb” in the most common sense of the phrase, as evidenced by the colorful, well-tended gardens surrounding his home.
Rick’s shop is in the basement of his beautiful 19th century farmhouse, featuring high ceilings and solid brick walls form rooms packed with type cabinets and book shelves. It’s common knowledge in the letterpress community that Rick has one of the most drool-worthy collections of wood type; he estimates around 2,000 fonts of handset type.
“I was educated in the world of graphic design that immigrated in real life into the production end of printing, so I didn’t have much of a chance to be creative. Along the way I traded a gumball machine for a few fonts of type and a little press,” explained Rick. “I have also been studying typefaces and type designs in that whole four decades and I’m pretty much the go to guy for people that need typefaces identified.”
His encyclopedic memory for not just the typeface name, but also the designer, manufacturer, and other details is renowned. Post a hand-set type ID inquiry to Briar Press and there’s a very good chance Rick will respond.
Considering himself “a fool with a proof press and a couple fonts of type,” the Foolproof Press has been going strong for 40 years, hand-inking bold and often pun-based posters with a brayer on his trusty Poco proof press.
Rick loves letterpress: “It’s terribly emotional and romantic. It has a smell, it has a sound, it has rhythm to those machines when they are going. Which I think is what draws people in it and just fascinates them to see the wheel spinning, and the pistons going back and forth, and paper going in, and coming out, and it’s just the kachunk, kachang, kachang and the whir of things.”
I grinned through his entire interview; his energetic gestures and enthusiasm are contagious.
.918 original t-shirt representing 0.918 inches, the height of printing type
He reflected, “People can do things digitally now and this and that, but it’s not quite the same. Again it all goes back to the physicality, the smell, the feel, it’s just neat stuff. I have come to the conclusion that people like myself are all just custodians at this point.”
Custodians of letterpress like Rick care about passing the equipment on to the next generation. “I want this to go to others someday,” he says, “and it’s my job just to grab what I can and save it from getting melted down, or scrapped and somehow get it to other people. I’m formulating a plan now where I would like to see my whole collection dispersed. There’s a saying, the fine printer begins where the careful printer left off.”
Rick is an all around great guy; he’s actively involved in the letterpress community and you can find his clever posters hanging in nearly every Midwestern letterpress shop you visit.
Posters for the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum Wayzgoose 2014 and Pressing On Kickstarter
We had an entertaining, type-filled day of filming with Rick von Holdt and were still able to catch magic hour in rural Iowa.
Have you created amazing work in the realm of letterpress? Be sure to enter the Typography & Lettering Awards!