Anachronism An Exploration of letterpress and the concept of recurring influence
I would like to thank Richard Burmeister for always being willing to lend some insight and a helping hand throughout this project. I would also like to thank NELM for use of their facilities, and finally Kim Mathurine and Brian Garman for being fonts of knowledge and inspiration, and providing never-ending support throughout the process
Abstract Nothing can ever be said to be truly original. Everything is influenced by actions, ideas, or needs that have preceded it. Even the first sentient thought by ancient man can be said to be nothing more than an expansion on the basic instinct to survive that is shared by all living beings on this planet. Even though nothing can be said to be truly original everything can be said to be unique. Even processes that can be and are repeated endlessly will never be exactly the same down to the very last detail, unique variations between iterations will always occur. Anachronism is an exploration of this phenomenon and how it has played out in the field of design and publication through the examination of a now defunct process and how it has played a fundamental influential role and how it may still be applicable in contemporary society, if not perhaps in its original context. Automated press can be said to be one of the inventions that brought about modern society as we know it before Johan Gutenbergâ€™s invention of the printing press books had to be hand scribed and as a result the majority of the worldâ€™s population was illiterate. This unique moment in history is ideal for my project for two reasons: It unique moment in time that sent out tremendous ripples through society that can still be felt today over a century later; and secondly no process shows variation between repeated iteration quite like letterpress does. For the purpose of this exploration I decided to make use of the Eastern Star Galleryâ€™s Wharfdale letterpress. This was one of the first commercial presses in the country, but now stands almost completely unused. My project consisted of me doing a series of one off custom prints on the press. These prints made use of the existing wood and metal type in the museum as well as some custom sorts that I created out of wood and linoleum.
Inspiration The inspiration behind this project is threefold. Firstly the idea that nothing is original and that everything is a derivation or improvement on something that has come before. This is the fundamental principal behind innovation. However, so often once something is improved upon the initial iteration is often abandoned completely as no longer needed or as offering little to no value. This however is often not the case. It is only by knowing where we have come from that we can begin to see where we are going. This is especially the case in the field of communication design. A student of design today would more than likely only experience the process from behind a computer screen. Kerning, leading and justification are just abstract concepts to the contemporary design student. They may know that they adjust spacing between letters, lines of text and how the text sits on a page from having to adjust them to suit their aesthetic preferences, but they will have no appreciation of just how important these concepts are to the whole process because they have never had to manually kern type or justify text not to achieve a particular aesthetic but to actually make the production process easier for the typesetter. I feel that the fundamentals from the dawn of design as we know it have more to offer today’s design student than today’s emphasis on contemporary design trends. I was also deeply impressed upon by a Japanese concept called Ichi-go Ichi-E. It roughly translates to once in a lifetime, or one moment one experience. It is a cultural belief that permeates many aspects of Japanese life. Ichi-go ichi-e is closely linked with Zen Buddhism. The term is particularly associated with the Japanese tea ceremony, and is often brushed onto scrolls which are hung in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique. Many Japanese theatre companies will not do a complete run through of a performance other than it’s presentation to the public as they believe that a complete run through will result in trying to recreate moments of a performance that can never be recreated. They should therefore appreciate every performance for what it is. It also forms an integral part of Bushido or way of the warrior. Students of the Japanese sport of kendo still follow many tenets of Bushido practiced by their samurai ancestors. One of the beliefs is that in battle you will never get a second attempt. Kendo masters will often scold students who pull back from a movement when they’ve realised they’ve made a mistake by barking “Ichi-go Ichi-E” at them to remind them that everything must be followed through to completion as there may never be a second chance. This concept is visible in every aspect of everyday life as even “perfect” replication process will never yield exactly the same result twice. It is, however, hyperbolic in the letterpress process as variations in ink saturation minute shifts in the mechanics, or the pages will yield a truly unique representation every time. My final piece of inspiration came from the world of mathematics in the form of fractals. In Mathematical terms a fractal is a set of self-similar patterns. That is to say they are the same near as from far. This concept intrigued me in that a single instance sparked off multiple endless repetitions. While in the mathematical sense these repetitions are 100% identical in every way this does not necessarily apply in reality. Theory rarely does. Where is does apply is, as stated above, events constantly sparking the next. The need to communicate necessitated the need to develop a common language and the need to preserve this for future generations lead to methods of recording like writing, the need to democratise information lead to the press and mass publication and eventually lead to sound recording, video, and in current day mass dissemination through the Internet.
Process In Terms of the process of bringing this project to fruition I my first idea was to make an entire manuscript following the traditional letterpress method. I would then print it multiple times letting the press itself create the variations though dwindling ink levels and minor shifts of the form due to the imperfect improvisation (a wad of newspaper) I had to come up with to account for the missing roller blanket on the press. This however, proved extremely impractical given the time period I had to work in and my inexperience in typesetting, as well as the limited materials available to me as a lot of the equipment at the museum had at one point been damaged, stolen or lost. Trying to set, kern and lead 8 point type by hand is extremely fiddly and tedious. I often ended up with sort all over the work bench. I decided to move doing headlines for another project (a magazine) I was working on concurrently and then do a series of posters exploring my influences for this project as well as the theme of anachronism and how something that appears to be out of sync with the period it is presented in can in another context be viewed as a thing of beauty in and of itself and not just an outdated, flawed, slow or otherwise imperfect method of production. The finest example is the press itself. It is painfully slow by modern standards but watching each of the hand cast parts interacting so smoothly in perfect unison is completely mesmerising. I experimented with different inking techniques from re-inking for every print, to seeing how many print runs I could achieve before the ink completely ran out, to inking the page first and letting the sort remove ink rather than placing it. These choices were provoked mainly through curiosity in exploring all the idiosyncrasies of the process. The exception being inking the page first. This was inspired by a designer that I greatly admire: Dieter Rams. His approach was one of subtraction and simplification. This lead me to think that perhaps a more interesting representation could be achieved through subtracting ink from one page and then transferring it to the next page in itâ€™s most minimal form.
Final presentation The final presentation came in the form of an exhibition that was hosted at the print museum. I felt this would be the best way to get the most exposure for the project, as well as staying true to the spirit of the project. Digital distribution would lose all the tactility that forms such a fundamental part of letter pressing. It would also go strongly against the theme of anachronism, except in the most cynical ironic sense of the term. The final presentation of the work was also extremely pared down from the initial conception. The original plan had 10-15 more prints that would be included each getting increasingly more complicated to try bring the variations to the fore, and emphasize the uniqueness of each print. I however ever decided to take a step back and simplify the whole project. The variations were extremely evident in even the simplest prints there was no need to obfuscate with overly complicated process work.
Reflection on resources used While researching my project I had many resources made available to me including first hand accounts on typesetting and using the press to masters theses on the subject of the letterpress. From these I learned that 95% of terminology used in design today, from the words uppercase and lowercase to various descriptions of parts of a letter-form to processes all come from the letterpress process. Before these were all just abstract concepts but seeing them put into practice really drove them home for me, as well as seeing how difficult to achieve and important good kerning and leading is. I firmly believe that every new design student should spend some time away from their Macs and PCs and manually lay out a page at least once to truly gain an appreciation for the craft. In interviews with all the current design greats they tell of how they started doing everything by hand, the correlation between respect for and knowledge of a process and good work is undeniable. Researching concepts like fractals and Japanese Zen Buddhism also reminded me that it is all too often easy to get caught up in an insular mode of creativity that focuses on what is current, and popular. Inspiration is more often than not found outside oneâ€™s field and design solutions can be found from every field from philosophy to mathematics.
Personal growth & final conclusion Through working on this project I learned that as a designer I excel at bringing together seemingly unrelated concepts to form a cohesive whole. I have also learned to value the process as much as the end result. Often it is not what others can see but what they know has gone into the production that creates value. In terms of my own design voice I myself am an anachronism. I really hate the instant gratification digital is now trend that not only the design world but the entire world is tending towards. The slick “invisible” design has become passe and that truly good design should in my opinion have a voice of it’s own. It should not overpower the message it is conveying but it should compliment and add to it in a way that is its own. Apple computers is a company I feel recognises this. The packaging is every much as important as what’s inside. People do not buy macs because they do the job better than a Windows PC would; the adobe suite for example is identical on both, but it is a beautiful product with a voice all its own. I want all my designs to follow this example. In terms of what I have learned about design has been stated above but needs to be re-iterated. The whole design process from its inception to its current state is inextricably linked and by learning the fundamental principals that design was founded on you can improve contemporary design practice ten fold.
Gallery of process and exhibition photos Process photos by Alexa Sedgwick Exhibition photos by Jess Poulos
The Project book for my Anachronism Project. This project was my Final year Bachelors Thesis project