Letterpress as a technology has gone from world-changing marvel to overlooked obscurity. In fact, it would be safe to say that most haven’t thought much about it since grade school History class. But there are a growing number of practitioners who haven’t forgotten these once coveted machines, many of whom can be found at Charlottesville’s Virginia Arts of the Book Center. Home to a fully-functional letterpress shop that specializes in fine art prints, the VABC’s member artists have completed a project designed to keep the legacy alive. On March 26, during this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, their latest publication—a type specimen book entitled Speaking in Faces—will finally be unveiled to the public.
“Most people aren’t familiar with letterpress, but it was one of the main reasons for the Renaissance,” said contributor Lucas Czarnecki. As you might recall, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1440s when he fitted a wine press with movable type, producing a system of individual letters that can take ink to paper. What seems like a fairly simple idea in retrospect is widely regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium, one that helped bring about the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution. Czarnecki explained, “It took knowledge out of the hands of the elite who could afford handwritten books and put [it] in the hands of the everyman. It was also the way to print for four-hundred or five-hundred years. This was it. It’s astounding that something so important to history is not better understood.”
At its heart, Speaking in Faces is an ode to that achievement. Opening with an introduction on the history of the letterpress, the book goes on to explain typeface anatomy and how the equipment works. Throughout, it showcases the VABC’s extensive typeface catalogue (the largest in the state, by the way) including artistic interpretations of many of them. Though demystifying the technology was the main goal, the authors also wanted to have a little fun with the details that so often go unnoticed.
The book itself was slow to actualize and started from nothing more than idle play. In 2005, two VABC members were sitting at a table; the first printed a short phrase in Baskerville typeface, then silently passed the note along to her neighbor. Upon receipt, the second member responded by printing a phrase in Kenerly typeface. They kept the conversation going and before long, other members had invented letterpress games of their own. As the years went on, their collective output was preserved, presumably to be used in some future publication that came to be known as Speaking in Faces. After about a decade, they were forced to admit that while a lot of the individual pieces were inspired, the aggregate of it all was relatively aimless. So in 2015, they pushed the reset button.
“You can’t manufacture an artist book in reverse. It sort of has to know what it’s doing from the outset,” said Kevin McFadden, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities liaison to the VABC. “Even though it’s a big step to set it all aside and start it again, it’s a fairly common practice in creative processes. Sometimes you realize you’re working on something that’s just not going to turn into a good project by worrying about it.” What the rebooted version does quite well is express the unique value of letterpress products. To get a sense of it, simply touch the page surface to feel the impressions left by the handpicked letters, or lean in to marvel at the nuances of each impression where ink meets paper.
It’s important to note that the VABC’s resurrection of antiquated technology is not meant to subvert modern advances. Each may exist independently on a continuum, rather than in opposition with each other. As McFadden explained, “Making this artist book is about adding that value back in, about how this thing communicates beyond just the lines of text. That’s the easiest thing to do and there are admittedly way better, less time consuming, cheaper formats if that’s what you’re interested in doing, just strict communication.” To make an analogy, the letterpress is like the vinyl record player of the print world. Although digital music files are cheap, portable, and easily transferable, you never really get the same sonic warmth as when you drop the needle to your favorite record. That aficionados can appreciate the difference helps explains why vinyl sales have grown over the past decade, even outpacing digital music sales in recent years.
Similarly, the VABC has seen steady membership growth as of late, but one needn’t rely on romanticism to explain that trend. Many practical applications, including wedding invitations, poetry books, and band posters, may be better served by a traditional approach. Any product that requires an extra bit of gravitas and is to be produced in smaller quantities can benefit from the unmistakable bite of the letterpress. The manual techniques involved also provide a way for designers to hone their skills. By becoming familiar with the personality of a typeface first hand, one can not only better understand the rules of its usage, but also the moments to break with convention.
Letterpress represents the attitude of doing things the hard way and loving it. The end result is more than just a sequence of characters, it’s a bespoke artwork created by human hands. As McFadden mused, “Maybe more books should have an audience of 20 people. There might be more powerful books. When we try to take something and build it up into a mass media book, it strips all those elements that make books really curious and interesting.” For those ready to start that journey, they’ll soon have a book to guide them—one that goes beyond mere letters on a page.
On Sunday, March 26, the Virginia Arts of the Book Center will present “Speaking in Faces: Virginia’s Typographical Treasures Published.” Talk from 12:30–2:00 PM. Full schedule of the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book at vabook.org.
Photography by Tristan Williams