Letterpress, type


The lovely Mrs. Lestaret bought me a DVD copy of the documentary film “Typeface” by Justine Nagan (Kartemquin Films) on a pre-order that contains extra stuff and a letterpress print too. It wasn’t released until a few days after my birthday, and has took a while to get here. It was worth the wait.

The film is primarily about The Hamilton Woodtype Museum in Wisconsin, but is also goes into the history of the company, originally one of many, then the biggest and finally, the last of it’s kind. It also highlights the importance of keeping elements of tradition alive; with fewer people left who actually worked in the industry, very specialist skills will disappear. You may wonder why it is important that we keep some of these skills alive when woodtype is dead as a commercial franchise? Good question.

The young designers who have fallen under the allure of woodtype are a real point of proof. Web designers, graphic designers, marketing and advertising people, all under 25 (so they look) all seeking confirmation of their skills without the sexy Mac, Adobe Suites and infinite downloads. Getting inky, frustrated and pleasantly surprised by the time taken to set a simple line, excited at the variations in each print, the tactile qualities of the heavy imprint and the involvement in the kind of manufacture that they are detached from in their day-to-day lives.

It is also a plea for help. Places like Hamilton do not make huge amounts of money and rely on volunteers and the remains of an almost depleted workforce. As a graphic designer who was originally trained in typography using old letterpress equipment and now returned to the craft after 25 years in the ‘digital wilderness,’ as well as a lecturer who is still trying to relate to the old skills whilst accommodating the demands of the Awarding Body and the design industry, as well as pandering to the clamour of student expectations where the computer is the only tool, I recognise the value of such important specialisms, and the difficulties they face maintaining levels of income, funding and support.

The film bears the legend “great characters, both wood and human” on the cover. A better description could not be found. There are some really quirky old boys (and girls) who had made their lives around the company (see Norb, above), as well as those who have given theirs to keep the museum going. It’s interesting, enlightening, amusing, sad and inspirational. The cinematography is excellent too. Nagan has created a documentary that is artistically and aesthetically appealing to the kind of audience it has been made for, without being dull or (as I expected it to be) overly sentimental and maudlin. Yet it is both of these to some extent, but Nagan has captured the enthusiasm of individuals and groups for printing with wood type, the preservation of the museum and it’s facilities (there is mention in the film of how many other woodtype factories ended up simply burning their stock) as well as those responsible for its ongoing viability. There are some interesting facts and follow-up notes during the final credits that give the film some elements of closure, but one can’t help wondering…

Buy the DVD, watch the film and see what I’m going on about. You won’t regret it.

Checkout these “Typeface” links:
Hamilton’s site
Typeface Film
Eye magazine review
Trailer (youtube)


2 thoughts on “Typeface

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