During a changing economy, it is often said that people revert to more traditional ways. For instance, the Industrial Revolution sparked Romanticism and the yearning for individual expression and creativity. I can feel this happening around me today in reaction to not only the sluggish economy, but the computerized age as well. Computers have revolutionized the way people go about making everything – so much so that we have figured out ways to make digitally mastered music sound like it was recorded in a junky old studio and how to make machine-made items look old and worn.
“Typeface: Great Characters Both Wooden & Human” is a documentary that focuses on this sentiment. It takes place in the Hamilton museum and print shop in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where some of the country’s best printmakers still visit to run workshops and classes. From carving the letter blocks on a pantograph to mixing the inks and hand pulling the fresh prints, this film depicts the entire process and the people who live for it. It’s almost too perfect for the story that Two Rivers is an industrial town that houses this hotbed of creativity.
I am enamored by the letterpress process and outcome, but I don’t think most people understand the amount of dedication and hard work used to go into printing a single run of posters, newspapers, books etc. It is so much more fulfilling to hold the letters in your hands, to carefully place the heavy paper on the letterpress and to troubleshoot with color mixing than to click a single button and watch the printer spit out hundreds of copies.
It is fascinating to watch the artists at work in the film and to hear them speaking nostalgically about the bygone era of the necessity of the letterpress. A few of the original factory workers, like and older man named Norb, still work part time and show the traditional processes. Norb does not understand Professor Dennis Ichiyama’s overlapping prints or one of the requests from a younger guy for him not to finish the serifs on a letterpress block. It might sting a little to hear the uber-hip guys from The Post Family print shop talking about how lame it is that people collect the letterpress blocks and keep them on their coffee tables (he even refers to it as “a shame”) and then with further disdain, bash the trend of ordering letterpressed wedding invitations. Again, I believe it is more about a generation’s reaction to over-mechanization of today’s craft. Even if it is a trend, it has to be a good thing that people want to get their hands dirty and see some authentic work, right?
I recommend the film to anyone interested in the process or hoping to be inspired. There aren’t many bells and whistles, but the message is clearly conveyed. Bonus for design blog readers and artists alike: the Renegade Craft Fair is featured toward the end of the film.
Here are a few limited edition prints (available for purchase here) made by various artists at the Hamilton factory for this documentary:
I’ll be returning the Portland Public Library copy today, but in the meantime, check out the trailer…