‘Design Double Feature’ Highlights Graphic Design and Letterpress Printing Past and Future
The Music Box Theatre is hosting a Design Double Feature on Tuesday, September 19 that will be a glorious night of film for graphic designers, typographers and fans of printing technology. It’s one night only so be sure to get to the Music Box to see these two films back to back: Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production at 7pm and Pressing On: The Letterpress Film at 8:30pm.
Graphic Means, directed by Briar Levit (assistant professor of graphic design at Portland State University), starts with the original typographer, Johannes Gutenberg, who invented movable type and made possible book printing in quantity in the 15th century. (An estimated 150-180 copies of his Gutenberg Bible were printed.) Type was set more or less that way, letter by letter, until the introduction of the Mergenthaler linotype machine in 1876. A century later, the last edition of the New York Times was set on a linotype machine in July 1978 before the newspaper moved to photo-typesetting.
Interesting (frustrating) aside: the transition to photo-typesetting had its place in feminist labor history. Linotype operators were highly paid union members. The “typists” who replaced them on the photo-typesetting machines were all women and paid half as much.
The film covers all the mutations of photo-typesetting, such as the introduction of the Macintosh in 1983-84, which made “desktop publishing” feasible. Lots of attention is given to type font design and the ways that designers actually created pages, first through pasteup of paper columns of type and art elements and eventually on a computer screen. Some of the transitions were rough.
The Macintosh and desktop publishing software (such as Aldus’ pioneering PageMaker) made pasteup obsolete. One designer comments, “It was like the heavens parted and the angels sang.”
Director Levit has done a fine job of researching and combining old film and video with interview clips with veterans of the hot metal era to contemporary designers and typographers. Original electronic music, composed by Norm Chambers, skillfully links the disparate film and interview sections.
Pressing On: The Letterpress Film asks not only why letterpress didn’t die but also why it’s surviving. A new generation of artists and printers—and some from an older generation—is fascinated by an obsolete technology. The sounds and smells of a print shop plus the tactile nature of the hands-on experience are riveting.
Pressing On, directed by Erin Beckloff and Andrew P. Quinn, is not just about musty printing history but about the contemporary fascination for printing from metal type. (You might speculate that this mini-trend is related to the revival of interest in vinyl music recordings—valued for the authenticity of their sound quality.) There’s something real and tactile in printing one image at a time from metal type on a platen press.
Interviewees include hobby printers and a guy who still manufactures metal type, letter by letter. The stars of the film, to my mind, are Tammy and Adam Winn, owners of Red Door Press in Des Moines. Their garage—filled with 20 old letterpresses—is their place of business. They print flyers, cards, forms, invitations, art prints—all sorts of short-run jobs. They also sell from their booth at a Des Moines farmers market. It all started when Tammy brought home an old press and told Adam he had to come out to the garage for a surprise. His first response was “Huh.”
Co-director Beckloff, an assistant professor of graphic design at Miami University, got interested in letterpress after receiving an historic printing press as a wedding gift. Inspired by the technology, she began to record interviews with printers in the letterpress community, mostly in the midwest, and later partnered with Quinn to create the documentary.
The films are being presented by the Society of Typographic Arts Chicago chapter and Chicago’s Field Notes.
Tickets for both films are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Arrive at 6pm to mingle and take advantage of the Music Box lounge and patio.
Author’s note. If I sound excited about these films, it’s because they parallel my own experience. My working life follows all these revolutions, from my father’s letterpress shop in the West Loop through university and corporate design and printing, to my current role as editor and publisher of this nonprinted magazine.