Edition Printing on the Cylinder Proof Press

To my knowledge, the first documented use of a modern flatbed cylinder proof press for editioning a finely printed book was in the early 1950s at the newly formed Thistle Press. This was the Bert Clarke and David Way printing of volumes IV through XII of the Frick Collection catalogue (completed in 1955). John Dreyfus, in his book, Bert Clarke, Typographer, notes the pair abandoned the iron handpresses, used to print the first three volumes of the catalogue (published in 1949), after having “successfully experimented with alternative methods for printing dampened handmade paper on a large Vandercook proof press.”

But it was not until the mid-1960s that the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press began to be viewed by some printers as an ideal press for limited edition production work. The most notable early practitioner in this regard was Claire Van Vliet of the Janus Press. Her earliest work on a Vandercook proof press stems from the period of her apprenticeship (1958-1960) at John Anderson’s The Pickering Press. Probably the most influential advocate of the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press, however, was Walter Hamady of The Perishable Press, Ltd., whose first printed work on a Vandercook appeared in 1966 when he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.[1] Both Van Vliet and Hamady were (and are) first and foremost, artists, and practiced the printing arts with a different perspective than their predecessors. Their stylistic approach to personal bookmaking was to have a significant impact on the like-minded fine press “renascence” of the mid-1970s.

As the commercial printing industry completed its shift away from letterpress technology in the late 1960s and early 1970s, flatbed cylinder proof presses and other remnants of the metal type era were flooding into the used printing equipment market. Only a few years after Lewis Allen published his seminal Printing With the Handpress in 1969, the iron handpress, the subject of his study, was already losing its ground as the press of choice for a new generation of fine printers.[2] From William Morris to Allen the iron handpress had remained the only machine deemed traditionally appropriate for hand edition work. Allen begrudgingly felt that a cylinder press could only be considered a legitimate handpress if the roller mechanism was removed (and the form inked by hand); his contemporary, Harry Duncan, thought that the addition of a tympan and frisket cage attached to the end of the bed would suffice. This standing defense of tradition was itself, ironically, a bit blind to traditional technique. In 1933, printing historian Paul Johnston lamented that the “modern” mechanical use of rollers to ink a form had irrevocably invalidated the virtue of, and the skills required for, “hand press printing” by dispensing with the difficult, but more touch-sensitive, ink balls.[3]

 Despite the argument, the iron handpress was increasingly forsaken for the very reasons Clarke and Way had abandoned it in the 1950s: efficiency and availability. In 1973, while beginning work on the Greenwood Press Phoedrus, printer Jack Stauffacher chose handset type and the Vandercook proof press as “the simplest and most trustworthy tools” for producing the book. As more and more of the fine printers entering the field took up the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press, resistance fell by the wayside. By 1980, in his lecture “The Technology of the Hand Press,” Duncan referred with shielded optimism to the “upstart” cylinder press as “the new god.”


1. Interestingly, Van Vliet immediately preceded Hamady at Madison, teaching there for a year in 1965. Previous to this, according to the bibliographic evidence, Hamady printed on a clamshell platen press.

2. In this book, Allen has written that Bruce Rogers was an early practitioner of printing on a Vandercook. I have been unable to find any evidence of this except to note that Rogers was associated with the Thistle Press and the Frick Collection catalogue and may have been influential in Clarke and Way’s decision to complete the project with a Vandercook. Further note: In a letter from William J. Murray, dated March 31, 2006, he notes that his acquaintance William G. Haynes worked on the Thistle Press Frick catalog for three years. Murray states “I distinctly remember his talking about the use of the Vandercooks in the printing and that the project was considered by the workmen to have been under the overall supervision of Bruce Rogers, who at his age (early 80s) did not want the day to day burdens of the printing project itself. But Bill Haynes remembered that he did come, but rarely, to the shop to look at the printing in progress. Haynes recalls meeting him there.”

3. Rollers were first used as inking devices on printing presses in 1812.

Excerpted from “Edition Printing on the Cylinder Proof Press: A Historical Perspective,” Parenthesis: The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Oxford, England. Number 3, May, 1999. Revised, with additional notes not originally included in the article. © 1999, 2003 by Gerald Lange

Koster Initial reconstruction

Retrofitted Koster Initial

Digital reconstruction of 19th-century 72-pt letterform from letterpress proof.

Non-vector. Ink spread removed, directional ink trap enhanced.

Typeface is Koster Initials cast by Cleveland Type Foundry, 1875-1892 [absorbed by ATF but operated as Cleveland Type Foundry until 1895]. Vernon Simpson Collection, Archetype Press, Art Center College of Design. Typeface re-named Euclid (ATF)?

the new god

Available from Ophelia Press is a letterpress printed broadside titled the new god, which is a revised excerpt from Gerald Lange's article “Edition Printing on the Cylinder Proof Press: A Historical Perspective,” originally published in Parenthesis: The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Number 3, May 1999. This is a limited edition of 200 numbered copies signed by the author; 110 of which are a contribution to the Vandercook Centenary Print Bundle, the remainder for distribution/sale by the Press.

Cristal Reconstructed Article

Typeface reconstruction - Cristal (printed)

The article on the reconstruction of the Cristal typeface that was introduced here a while back has been published under the title “Cristal Reconstructed: A Digital Letterform Remade for Letterpress Printing” in Parenthesis: The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Number 13, August 2007.

Digital Type Foundries Respond to Letterpress

This is the article, “An Affinity by Design: Digital Type Foundries Respond to Letterpress” (sans images), which was published in Parenthesis: The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Number 7, November, 2002. Reprinted here with minor post-publication editorial corrections.

Copyright © 2002, 2005 by Gerald Lange.

The appearance of the work itself is of more importance than any quibble over the method of its translation into the vehicle of thought, since its legibility or beauty is determined by the eye and not by the means employed to produce the type. —Frederic Goudy

For well over the past decade fine press printers have increasingly turned to the photopolymer plate process as the alternative source for metal type. In recent years the productive use of metal type in the overall studio-letterpress community has declined, but to a great extent this is no longer due just to dwindling resources. While not all would agree, the advantages and capabilities of the computer in rendering traditional typography, along with the high printability of photopolymer plates, have proved the process beyond dispute. Residual resistance to the digital/photopolymer process is now less and less based on its technical capabilities, but more on the technique itself. It violates the romanticized view of historical letterpress. This is its cardinal sin, for which there is little forgiveness.

What plagues the photopolymer process is not these considerations, but the nature of digital type itself. It is not that digital type is inferior to metal type, either technically or aesthetically, but that it is simply not designed for the relief process. (Many metal typefaces it should be noted, do not perform well when printed letterpress either. This is self-evident to any seasoned printer, but rarely acknowledged.)

The printer of photopolymer plates, however, does stand at a unique disadvantage to the printer of metal type. The physical formation of the photopolymer plate letterforms—though facilitated by the technical processes that are available to the printer—has not been undertaken at a previous stage in the technology. Metal type is cast at the foundry or on the printer’s casting machine and is im-mutable. The printer works with the physical form of the typeface he or she has been given. The processing of photopolymer plates is much more fraught with the possibilities of disruption at any intermediary step. Even if these steps are taken care of exactingly, the printer is still dependent upon the very first step in the process: the proper configuration of a digital typeface. Digital typefaces face two age-old problems for which they are not equipped: ink spread and lack of optical size compensation.

These problems also affect metal typefaces. With the invention of the pantograph engraving machine in the late nineteenth century, for instance, twentieth-century typefaces themselves had significantly reduced optical size ranges. Typeface designs were scaled to fit a range of group sizes. Ink spread, a thickening effect of the letterform that is unique to relief printing, is caused by impression and accumulating ink gain. This has always been a persistent demon to be controlled by the concerned printer, but the term itself came into currency more as a consequence of twentieth-century revivals of historic typefaces. Typeface designers have traditionally viewed it as an obscuring effect than a problem to be dealt with technically. The punchcutter’s view was perhaps the same. In his Manuel typographique (1764), the great typefounder Pierre Simon Fournier declared, “It is not right to blame the letter for the fault of the ink.”

The digital environment is quite complex and a technically sound typeface must perform well under a variety of diverse conditions: viewing devices from the small hand held to the large screen, printing devices from low resolution dot matrix to high resolution imagesetter. It has to work with varied forms of print delivery systems; inkjet, laser, film-based. It has to function on screen, as print, in electronic transmission. It must set well in the lowliest of text-based programs as well as perform the typographic requirements demanded by sophisticated page-layout programs. Not all digital typefaces function in all these aspects, but to some extent professional design practices ensure such capability in the more sophisticated releases. The evolutionary process of digital type has not been as rapid as one might assume. A good part of the latter third of the twentieth century went into its development, and at every step of the way it had to satisfy parallel developments in electronic technology. At no point in this evolution was any serious consideration given to the unique restraints of the letterpress process, nor should it have been expected.

Digital typefaces also inherited the dubious typographic conventions of the preceding printing technology, that of photomechanical typesetting. With a notable exception or two, photofilm did away with optical size ranging entirely. In following this practice, digital faces are traditionally offered in only one point size, usually 9- or 10-point. All other representations are then extrapolations of this core size. Thus 72-point could actually be 10-point scaled to 720 percent. For a typographer this is problematic in that there is little harmony in weight between the sizes and as a face increases in size it just gets thicker and appears bulky and there is no built-in compensation for this. For legibility, smaller sizes need a large x-height, increased weight and width, opened counters, and wider settings. Larger sized faces need a reduction in weight and width, with serifs refined to a visually pleasing thinness.

Hand punchcutters from the mid-fifteenth to the late nineteenth century are thought to have redesigned a typeface as a matter of course, on a per size basis, building in a natural optical compensation as they graved and filed the letterforms on the ends of the steel punches. Though the pantograph engraving machine allowed this practice to whither away, there was still an attempt throughout the first half of the twentieth century to build in certain optical size ranges in metal type designs. With notable exception, firms selling machine composition matrices commonly restricted their ranges. Monotype often provided only a small text range (6- to 10-point), a text range (12- to 14-point), an intermediary range, and a large size range. Some firms, such as Linotype, had more diverse ranges, but not by much. With the introduction of photofilm there seemed no point in continuing the practice as typesetters could just scale sizes photographically, and, were not willing to pay for ranging. Why buy four versions of a typeface when you could buy four typefaces? Without client resistance there was no need to modify the practice.

The development of digital type followed the same path but, oddly enough, took more seriously the gift the past had handed over to it. The first digital typefoundry, Bitstream Inc., was co-founded by the well-seasoned type designer, Matthew Carter, who as a young man cut punches at the Enschedé foundry. When Adobe Systems Inc. began to manufacture digital typefaces they brought on board individuals who had serious interest in letterforms; professional calligraphers, several with ties to the fine press community. Adobe began to offer original designs that had a historical connection to metal type and they patterned the best offerings of our typographic history, including character forms that were rarely seen in the photofilm years: small capitals, oldstyle figures, alternate characters, and ornaments. Most exciting of all, they revived the type specimen book. Adobe had a strong influence on the industry, as it had also developed one of the more sophisticated font formats, PostScript Type 1.

A significant development at Adobe was its eventual line of multiple master typefaces, the first of which was released in 1991. These were unique in offering optical size ranging. A multiple master face came equipped with one or more axes. These axes were primary redrawings of variance, which Adobe called a dynamic range. A weight axis would carry a lighter version of a design as well as a heavier version. Adobe also provided instances of redrawings at selected intervals between the primaries. Thus a multiple master weight axis might carry a number of weight variations built into the face. Multiple master fonts included a software program that allowed users the possibility of interpolating between instances to create their own instance. Adobe eventually offered faces with a variety of design axes: weight, width, style (used primarily in applications equipped for font substitution) and, significantly, optical size.

In 1992, when the influential book arts review Bookways made the switch from machine composition to photopolymer plates, its printer, Bradley Hutchinson, configured Adobe’s multiple master font Minion MM for letterpress printing by reducing the stroke of the face on its weight axis, increasing the optical size axis to open the counters, and slightly expanding the letterform width. This then replaced the metal face, Monotype Bembo, that had previously used in the journal. Subscribers were apparently unaware enough of the transition until informed by the publisher W. Thomas Taylor in a subsequent issue.

Interestingly, in 1994, when Adobe released its version of the historic Jenson as a multiple master (Adobe Jenson MM), it included in its remarkable specimen book a tipped-in letterpress printed poem with a caption reading:

“The use of polymer plates to print digital type by letterpress has become popular in recent years. This method combines the convenience and flexibility of typesetting on a computer with the traditional look of letterpress printing. With multiple master fonts that include axes for optical size and weight, a custom instance can be generated to better suit this method of printing. In letterpress, ink spread occurs naturally, resulting in a denser printed image. To compensate for this in the printed poem, a finer and lighter multiple master font was used.”

Unfortunately, with its co-development of the recent OpenType font format, Adobe has abandoned further offerings in its PostScript Type 1 line. Though several of the multiple master fonts have been reformatted they are now only equipped with “opticals,” the existent multiple master primaries and preconfigured instances.

Generally, digital typefaces need to be altered in a font-editing program such as Fontographer or FontLab to make them more suitable for letterpress printing. This is a fairly simple task but must be approached quite carefully as altered faces may not function properly if not configured correctly. But this is only an alternate solution as, unless one is quite familiar with such programs, only a slight weight reduction is possible without changing the characteristics of the letterforms or damaging the font metrics.

Not all digital typefaces need to be configured for letterpress. A number of them work quite well without any alteration whatsoever. These tend to be from foundries with some historical connection such as Monotype Typography Ltd. or Linotype AG that had inherited large typeface libraries from the years when their predecessors sold matrices for machine composition. One of the last faces released by Monotype Typography, before it merged with Agfa, was Monotype Pastonchi, a quite near replication of the machine composition face issued by The Monotype Corporation Ltd. Unaltered digital revivals of historical typefaces, however, are the exception rather than the rule. Some faces such as HTF Didot Light, issued by The Hoefler Type Foundry Inc., function quite well for letterpress in that they are almost too spindly and anaemic for general digital work. Other than Adobe, however, the only digital foundry previously “friendly” to letterpress was Lanston Type Co. Ltd., which issued a number of digital faces reproduced from the American Lanston Monotype Machine Company’s historic type library. Lanston Type acquired the remnants of Lanston Monotype, along with the original brass master patterns in 1989.

Lanston Type’s goal was to digitize the faces with all the unique spatial and visual characteristics of the original typeface so that the eventual type, when printed, would look as if produced on a Monotype casting machine. All the variant characters associated with the original font scheme would be made, including small caps, ligatures, ranging and non-ranging figures, tied, swash, and accented characters, alternate short or long descenders, etc. At the time, this was quite an ambitious undertaking; no other digital foundry was offering such amenities. (These were not, by the way, often available to the printer in the metal type era, as alternate character matrices were optional purchases, and very few composition houses carried them.) The large masters were pulled as reverse proofs on a Vandercook proof press, then scanned and digitized, with the result that at text sizes the digital recreations were exacting replications of the metal type designs. These digital reenactments perform remarkably well when printed letterpress. Lanston Type digitized a good portion of the Lanston Monotype library but the project came to a sudden halt in the early 90s. There is, however, recent intention to revive the endeavor.

Digital faces such as these do to some extent address the problem of letterform weight exacerbated by ink spread, but unlike Adobe’s multiple masters, there is still no compensation for optical size range. Optical size range can be built into a digital typeface by creating several alternate weight instances with a font-editing program (as mentioned above). But this is not as desirable as if optical size range was offered directly from the typeface designer. Several digital foundries, such as Adobe, Agfa Monotype, Carter & Cone Type Inc., and Hoefler Type Foundry have released certain typefaces drawn at larger size with the recommendation that they not be used at text sizes. If used properly, these can provide satisfactory results when printed letterpress.

An interesting development occurred as an offspring of multiple master technology and possibly of these other considerations. In 1994, International Typeface Corporation completed work on a historically accurate typeface based on the types of Giambattista Bodoni, which was unique in that it was a digital typeface issued in the optical size ranging pattern common to twentieth-century machine composition practice. Originally intended as a multiple master typeface, ITC Bodoni was brought out instead in three separate fonts: 6-, 12-, and 72-point, each representing a redesign of the character set. (This is now the pattern for Adobe OpenType fonts released with opticals.) This was followed in 1998, by ITC Founder’s Caslon (based on specimens and printed text sheets of the types of William Caslon), which was released in 12-, 30-, and 42-point, as well as an 8-line based on wood type. These were less redesigns than exacting replications of originals by type historian and designer Justin Howes.

Revivals have been a part of digital type releases almost right from the beginning, but the idea of resurrecting historic typefaces first appears about mid-nineteenth century with the Caslon revival. It does not begin across the board until the late nineteenth century—under the popular sway of William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, and also as a consequence of increased consumer access to the photographic process. This was a two-phase revival that reached its typographic fruition in the 1920s (primarily conducted by the Monotype companies, British and American). One of the more interesting faces produced by Monotype at that time was Poliphilus (1922), which was based on Aldine types but refreshingly, rather than being completely redesigned, was left somewhat with its original “printed” look.

Only relatively recently have digital type designers thought to go beyond this and preserve historic faces in situ. Besides Justin Howes’ work, Hoefler Type Foundry’s Historical Allsorts (a remarkable specimen collection comprised of the Fell Types—Roman, Small Caps, Italics; St. Augustin Civilité—with alternates; English Textura—with alternates; and Great Primer Uncials), which was released in 1997, is an attempt at rendering historic faces without any designer interpretation or intrusion. Characters from original texts were traced algorithmically by software and left be. Hoefler’s comment on the faces, that they “have a pleasantly arrhythmic pace... and overall, an agreeably (if not ironically) un-digital warmth,” hits the mark. Unlike the ITC revivals, however, the faces that comprise this unique experiment are not size optimized.

Astonishingly, in 2001, Justin Howes reissued Founder’s Caslon from his newly “claimed” foundry, H. W. Caslon and Company Limited, in 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, 18-, 22-, 24-, 30-, 36-, 42-, 48-, 60-, and 72-point, as well as in 8-line. Each size offered is based on a specimen showing at that size. In doing so, the twenty-first century was given a gift from the past that the twentieth may never have had—a fully size-ranged type design with true optical compensation.

The reissue consists of some 68 fonts in the fourteen sizes: Caslon Text consisting of 8- to 18-point and Caslon Display, consisting of 22- to 72-point (also included with the Display is the 8-line Poster and a suite of Caslon Ornaments). Separately available is a beta version of the fonts in the OpenType format as well as Founder’s Caslon 1776, a singular font based on the text type (at 14-point) used by the Philadelphia printer John Dunlap for the printing of the Declaration of Independence.

Founder’s Caslon is an “exact and scholarly resuscitation.” Howes’ digital reconstruction attempts to bring back “a simple, really basic typographic tool which earlier designers had been able to take for granted from about 1720 up to about 1980.” By reproducing from high-resolution scans of new proofs of existent founder’s type (or where not available, from printed text and specimen sheets), he was able to “sidestep the conceptual and problems associated with re-interpreting punch-cut letters in terms of pencil outlines and computer curve points.” He suggests his Caslon is “richer in texture than designs based on a single master design, and still with something of the vagaries and beauties inherent in punchcutting and letterpress printing.” Indeed, Howes felt no need to attend to the problem of ink spread in his digitization:

“The irregularities of letterpress printing are also faithfully captured by the process. I see no reason to remove them, since they become troublesome only under high magnification and, at normal size, make an important but virtually invisible contribution to the text of the page... Ligature Caslon [Founder’s Caslon], if it cannot produce diversity, makes an attempt to reproduce it.”

Howes’ work on Founder’s Caslon is quite serious. His scholarly analyses of “Caslon’s Punches and Matrices” (which includes a detailed inventory of the existing Caslon materials) was published in Matrix, in 2000. He had access to the type, punch, and matrix collections of St Bride Printing Library, as well as the Type Museum of Stephenson Blake and Company Limited (Stephenson Blake acquired the remnants of the Caslon firm when it went into liquidation in 1936).

Measured by contemporary standards, the original Caslon old face form is quite quirky in its spacing and lining attributes—the letterspacing is unusually wide and the alignment of the individual characters is not “regularized.” The letterforms themselves suffer from odd contrasts in stroke and color. The face seems designed less for the harmony and details of its letterforms than for the intriguing pattern of its text setting, which provides to it a remarkably deceptive, simple and fluent legibility.

William Caslon cut, in 1722, the first roman for the typeface that is now the ancestor to most faces by that name. It was derived from Dutch type, which then dominated the English market. The popularity of the typeface in years to follow, however, gave England an international reputation as the leader in the type industry. The Caslon old face fell out of use by the turn of the century (the Caslon specimen book of 1805 shows no such fonts) but was revived in 1844 when the Chiswick Press began using it in its books.

In America, the old face style had degraded over the years by successive recuttings. Following the English resurrection, the first “authentic” American version of Caslon dates from 1859, when the Laurence J. Johnson foundry began issuing an old face derived from “borrowed Caslon foundry punches.” By 1892, the American Caslon revival was in full swing. Interestingly, most twentieth-century American Caslon revivals were based on the Johnson types. In the digital era there have been several important revivals, notably Lanston Type’s replication of Lanston Monotype Caslon Oldstyle 337 (considered the closest rendition of the Johnson Caslon), Adobe Caslon (based on Caslon foundry specimen sheets from 1738 and 1786), and Matthew Carter’s Big Caslon, based on titling sizes that appeared in Caslon’s famous broadsheet specimen of 1734.

Most Caslon revivals, however, even these digital versions, are not historically truthful to the originals as they are regularized versions; old face style letterforms were, and are, considered too eccentric for contemporary taste. Founder’s Caslon, on the other hand, has an engaging authenticity about it that hasn’t been seen since the decline of commercial punchcutting. To ensure this, Howes deliberately eliminated inauthentic characters added to the various Caslons since the revival began. To preserve the integrity of Founder’s Caslon he has similarly removed from his definitive version the oldstyle italic figures that are proffered with ITC Founder’s Caslon, and only included those swash and alternate forms that were created by William Caslon himself. The reissued Founder’s Caslon also carries with it character forms that are not in the ITC version, such as a full long-s ligature set. Also included are original Caslon tied characters, small caps, oldstyle nut-fractions, and so forth. Even the 8-line poster font is based on the only authentic wood letter version of Caslon old face (issued in the 1890s).

Working with Founder’s Caslon is a refreshing experience and not too dissimilar from that of standing at the composing bank. The compositor needs to select the font of that size rather than sizing. This might be a bit awkward at first for those who have never handset metal type. And even the most tempered of typographers might be reluctant to adjust the kerning of oddly spaced characters. (Howes, in fact, did not initially intend to apply kerning to the fonts).

Since the face literally changes in its design per size it can be a bit perplexing and one might be tempted to violate the intention of the typeface by using one designed size at other sizes. One anomaly, an unusual jump in size from the 10-point (Long-Primer) to the 12-point (Pica) is not atypical in a metal type design, but could force the compositor to either shrink the Pica or enlarge the Long-Primer. Howes has acknowledged the usefulness of the further addition of a 11-point (Small Pica). This would serve better in the digital Caslon than it might have in metal. In his Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683-4), Joseph Moxon revealed why the Small Pica could prove problematic in the printshop: “I account it no great discretion in a Master-Printer to provide it; because it differs so little from the Pica, that unless the Workmen be carefuller than they sometimes are, it may be mingled with the Pica, and so the Beauty of both Founts may be spoil’d.”

The work on Founder’s Caslon [Ligature Caslon], began in 1995/6. At that time Howes was intending to include eight sizes of Caslon’s Old Black ranging from 8- to 36-point, a reconstruction of Caslon’s Long Primer No. 1, and William Caslon II’s “Proscription” letters, as well showings of Caslon’s Greek, Hebrew, musics, and script type. Since these are not part of Founder’s Caslon as presently configured one can only hope that they will materialize in the new future. Interestingly, in his article, “The Compleat Caslon,” which was published in Matrix, in 1997, there are digitized specimen showings of the Old Black and that of William Caslon II.

Howes has even entertained the possibility of further optimizing Founder’s Caslon specifically for letterpress. I asked him why he would offer this considering the complexity of Founder’s Caslon and the amount of effort that this would take—with little expectation of return. He replied, “There’s the sheer pleasure of getting it right... We all know that Caslon looks best printed on hand-made paper... it should be possible for Caslon to look as good as it’s ever done.”

Equally amazing is the empathetic yet entirely differing approach in the creation of Rialto, which was released by the Austrian foundry dfTYPE in 1999. Rialto is an original digital typeface that was designed with letterpress printing in mind. Begun in 1995, Rialto is the result of a collaboration between Lui Karner, the founder (in 1990) of the fine press, Die Fischbachpresse, and the calligrapher Giovanni de Faccio. dfTYPE is the type design offspring of the press.

Representative of the new breed of fine press printer, Karner is holder of a remarkable collection of handset foundry type (which includes such rarities as Cancelleresca Bastarda, Delphin, Elisabeth Antiqua, Lectura, Peter Jessen Schrift, Romulus, Shakespeare Antiqua, Trump Mediaeval, and Walbaum Antiqua) and prints his work (both metal and “photopolymere Druckplatten”) on the highly regarded European-made FAG “Cylinder-Handpresse.”

A typographic tour de force, Rialto has been released in an optically sized range of four fonts: Rialto, Rialto Piccolo, Rialto Bold (all in roman, italic, and small caps), and Rialto Titling (caps only). A recent addition is Rialto Pressa, a special version of Rialto Piccolo specifically optimized for letterpress printing with photopolymer plates. The nicely produced Rialto specimen book (which is available as a promotion) reveals the concerns that went into the design of the typeface.

Beginning with the idea that the shapes of all roman and italic lowercase derive from roman capitals (which may or may not be the case) the team of Karner and De Faccio sought to create a set of capitals that shared the characteristics of both roman and italic, attempting to develop a face that would allow for a harmonious combination of the various type forms while retaining a certain character and contrast to each. Thus the capitals are shared by both the roman and italic lowercase. Rialto is heralded by its makers as “a bridge between calligraphy and typography.” And this was certainly my initial reaction to the face. It does not quite have the calligraphic look of typefaces that are typographic renditions of hand written letterforms; there is, instead, an enhanced typographic feel to the face because of the calligraphic approach to its design. Rialto is uncommonly beautiful. While not an Aldine, it has a familiar Aldine typographic sensibility, but with a tempered contemporary flair.

Though based on the stone-carved letterforms of Roman inscriptions (Capitalis Monumentalis) with an inspiration from the model of well proportioned Dutch type forms, such as those popularized by the seventeenth-century typefounder Christoffel van Dijck, Rialto’s capitals are “distinct from all historical types” in that they have calligraphic serifs derived from the broad pen. The movement of the pen is also reflected in the “flow of the stems into the serifs” which imparts to them “a delicate lightness and dynamism.”

Karner and De Faccio provide an interesting synopsis of the historical evolution of the height and slope of capitals in defending their relatively small cap height and degree of slope. The capitals are noticeably lower than usually presented and the rationale was that this would allow them to harmonize better with the italic. This seems to be the case and certainly sets Rialto apart. Based on historical romans, a one degree slope to the right was considered by the team to be “an important requirement for optimum legibility.” The calligraphic features imparted to the capitals were also given over to the lowercase roman font, which are likewise sloped. The mark of the broad pen is revealed in the sharp angles where the stroke changes direction and in the precision of the serifs (especially the baseline serifs which have a remarkably engaging dip, extended draw, and sudden lift).

Concern for legibility is also shown in the distinctive movements of the individual letterforms relative to the x-height and in the traditional small counters provided the a and e characters. The italic was allowed upright shapes without regard to slope but to ensure harmony with the capitals the slope was held to three degrees. There is also a considered empathy with the roman in the spacing of the italics, which are set a bit wider than normal and therefore show well in text mass.

Other typographic amenities provide typographic breadth to the font. Small caps are provided for the three Rialto upper- and lowercase fonts and are unique is that they are self-spacing. The oldstyle Dutch inspired figures (e.g., Jan van Krimpen’s Romanée) follow the example of the capitals and serve both the roman and italic, being set at the x-height of the small caps and supplied for both text and columnar uses. A healthy palette of ligatures is provided for both the italic and roman, including both tied-characters and a full set of long-s ligatures. Rialto also contains special characters such as early Italian italic es is us ligatures, a double-storied italic g, and variants of capitals.

Most importantly, Rialto is optically ranged. dfTYPE recommends Rialto Bold for sizes smaller than 6-point, Rialto Piccolo for sizes up to 14-point, and Rialto [regular] for sizes 16-point and larger. The Titling font itself reveals clearly the weight reduction, narrow shapes, and elongated serifs necessary for display.

The special letterpress configured Rialto Pressa is absolutely remarkable. At first I could not detect any significance difference between its Roman and that of Piccolo’s because I was looking for stroke or stem weight reduction. In fact, Pressa has a slight heavier appearance. In examining the italic, I noticed outline point disturbances. When the fonts were matched at 148-point several alterations were apparent. The face appears to have been modified for ink trapping, as well as slightly extended serifs and changes in junctions.

Rialto is a typographer’s dream. Its typographic beauty is not just skin-deep, and it is pleasing to work with. The settings require little fussing and the typographic amenities are configured to each specific font. I have found the roman lowercase combinations of ch and ck a bit too tight for my pleasure, as is the unit space setting of the parentheses, and the characters comprising the tied italics are too widely set apart, but these are quite minor quibbles compared to the deficiencies of most typefaces. All this is made up for by an unbelievably disarming italic f with its wonderfully exaggerated descender—a defining typeface identification mark if there ever was one.

In the Rialto specimen book there is a tiny gloss next to the description of the optical ranging capability of the typeface: “Voilà—there are no more excuses!” Lewis Allen’s statement on the selection of metal type, “choose only after thorough study, for inferior tools corrode the spirit,” is as appropriate today as it was in 1969, when he published Printing With the Handpress. There are no more excuses.


[Jonathan Hoefler and various]. Catalogue of Typefaces: Fourth Edition. The Hoefler Type Foundry, NY. 2000.
Justin Howes. “The Compleat Caslon.” Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, Herefordshire, UK. 17, 1997.
Lui Karner and Waltraud Stefan. Rialto df: a bridge between [calligraphy and typography]. dfTYPE, Texing, Österreich. 2000.
Gerald Lange. “Intelligent Letterform Scaling: Adobe System’s Forthcoming Multiple Master Font Adobe Jenson.” Bookways: A Quarterly For the Book Arts, Austin. Number 10, January, 1994.
Gerald Lange. “Monotype Type Revivals (Part III): Lanston Type’s Caslon Oldstyle 337.” The Typographer (Typographers International Association), Washington, DC. Volume 19, Number 5, July/August, 1993.
Gerald Lange. Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press. Bieler Press Monographs, Marina del Rey. Second Edition, 2001.
Robert Slimbach [and various]. Adobe Jenson: A Contemporary Revival: A new multiple master typeface family based on the original types of Nicolas Jenson and Ludovico degli Arrighi. Adobe Systems Incorporated, Palo Alto. 1994.

Andy Crewdson New Series Interview

Questions for Gerald Lange

In the current issue of the fine printing journal Parenthesis Gerald Lange writes: ‘In recent years the productive use of metal type in the overall studio-letterpress community has declined, but to a very great extent this is no longer due just to dwindling resources … the advantages and capabilities of the computer in rendering traditional typography, along with the high printability of photopolymer plates, have proved the process beyond dispute.’ This contention has spurred Lange’s advocacy of the relatively new combination of techniques in which type is composed on a computer, output on film, etched in relief on plastic plates, and then printed by standard letterpress methods. In 2001 Lange’s Bieler Press published the second edition of Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press, a comprehensive technical monograph on the subject. More recently Lange initiated a discussion list to serve as a resource for printers using photopolymer. Lange has worked as a fine printer for nearly three decades and has taught printing and typography widely. He lives in Southern California.

Andy Crewdson

Printing type from photopolymer plates has become pretty common over the last decade. Do you still encounter many fine printers who object to the use of photopolymer?

Many fine press printer-publishers are using photopolymer (and metal type as well) though there is still some resistance by die-hard traditionalists. The current economic recession has hit this group hard though so it is difficult (in this environment) to gauge how much production is actually being done (with any method). I’d guess half of the printers that fall into the ‘fine press’ category might be using photopolymer regularly and a goodly portion of the rest use it occasionally or have, at least, experimented with it. Most of the few remaining commercial letterpress book printers, such as Bradley Hutchinson and Patrick Reagh, have switched over and were actually among the first to embrace the technology. Much more resistance is to be found among the hobbyists and ‘occasional’ printers. I think that the more commercially successful ‘boutique letterpress’ folks (the Martha Stewart kind of stuff – wedding invitations, party announcements, ‘special’ cards, jar labels, and the like) have switched over as well, even though ‘metal’ is somewhat of a calling card for this group. Outside of the phenomenon of the wood type poster shops, boutique is the only growing sector of profitable letterpress activity. The vast majority of the plate-processing jobs that come through the shop are now for boutique, whereas only a few years ago we were mostly processing for fine bookwork.

So I guess I could safely say that where ongoing production and associated economics come into play photopolymer is much more prevalent. As time progresses, however, and metal type sources become increasingly fugitive, more and more practitioners of studio letterpress will eventually have to come over or be forced over out of necessity. Assuming, of course, that film technology itself remains viable.

Resistance seems entirely based on traditional posing. I attended the Oak Knoll Book Fest a few years back and a hobby printer (and curator of a significant institutional printing collection) came over to my table and spotted my monograph on printing digital type via the letterpress process. He would not even pick up the book, or any of the books produced with the photopolymer plate process, but instead proudly announced himself as a ‘Luddite.’ Just then his pager went off and he had to excuse himself. It will take some folks a bit of time to come to terms with the latter decades of the twentieth century.

I think that there is a strong and somewhat false myth that has grown around letterpress in recent years that has less to do with the quality of the printed page than it does with the idea of surrounding oneself with the accruements of the historical past, even though that past may not be thoroughly understood or is skewed by the mythmaking itself. Current practice seems not as concerned with typography as much as it is with the aura of the technology’s physicality, which can convey an erroneous message. This may also be why so many non-practitioners (and unfortunately, most graphic designers) associate over-inking, broken characters, deep impression, crude composition, etc., with letterpress. To paraphrase Martha, ‘and the wonderful thing about it is how varied each print can be!’

Overlooked in the clamor generated by Martha and her growing minions is that the combination of digital type and letterpress printing with photopolymer plates provides the potential for a considered typography and enhanced printed page that extends far beyond the inherent restrictions of metal type technology. This is a marginal vision obviously, but fine press printing has always occupied a very narrow spectrum of letterpress. It does not look like that has changed, or likely ever will. To some extent the value of the fine press/private press has often been questioned, ever since Morris/Walker, et al. If I remember correctly, Robin Kinross takes a similar stance in his Modern typography. Though I find this to be wrongly dismissive, and oddly so, because a reasoned consideration of it might provide more support to his overall thesis.

There was actually a short article not long ago in The New York Times about what you call ‘boutique’ letterpress and it included that Martha Stewart quote. (‘[Letterpress] has personality and individualism … Each [letterpress-printed item] is slightly different.’) The Times writer also quotes a buyer of ‘letterpressed’ items as praising the printing method for its ‘tactile’ and ‘sculptural’ qualities – two of the words that frequently get used fetishistically in connection with letterpress. It seems like the use of ‘letterpress’ as a verb especially rankles some fine printers, maybe because it typifies the boutique mentality and its overemphasis on physical aspects.

But despite the trend you describe where letterpress has become an unthinking process, separated from the tradition of printing and employed superficially, it also sounds like fine printers may now have better tools for producing good work than ever before. The ability to do refined digital typography and to print this from photopolymer seems to have lots of potential for exploitation by the makers of books. Would it be right to say that though letterpress printing has now reached a sort of low point, where it is used in a debased way only for effect, it has at the same time become capable of an unprecedented degree of sophistication through the combined use of computers and photopolymer plates?

I would certainly agree that when the process is used for effect, as if the process itself were the aesthetic, yes, that is quite a low point. But that is also part of the times we live in. The art world embraces this. Imagine though, how the early metal type printers must have felt when the latent wood block book printers emerged and quickly took the new and quite successful concept of book printing right down to its lowest common denominator. It became economically pointless to put out the kind of incredible effort that went into the 42-line Bible and the Mainz Psalter. The architects of these books were quite aware that the process was only good enough if it were capable of rendering an artifact that captured the glory of the model, in this case, the hand-written manuscript book. And they were able to accomplish this, but in doing so they were not in anyway concerned with the tactile and sculptural nature of metal type or that effect on the page. In fact, it was the unsolvable ‘problem,’ and remained so throughout most of printing’s history. We have come to accept this effect as the inexplicable beauty of the letterpress printed page but, unfortunately, the effect itself has somehow taken center stage.

It should be said though that while current letterpress practices (which a correspondent of mine delightfully terms ‘post-letterpress’) are largely atypographic, there has always been poor printing and poor typography, ever since mechanical letterforms were introduced. But it certainly is frustrating today to see crude and poorly executed work masquerading as the essence of letterpress typography, especially when, as you have surmised, the current technologies we have available for typographic relief printing are capable of yielding the finest work yet possible. The problem now, however (and I’m sure you’d just as soon I not go there), is almost the opposite facing that of the earliest of printers: there is no model to emulate.

But let’s make the leap of faith here and assume that there is a rationale and affirmation for – and in – doing work that is ‘careful,’ as Saul Marks modestly claimed for his own typography-printing, and further, that there are those out there who are cognizant enough to even recognize these efforts.

Having now the highly sophisticated tools of digital type and typographic software, as well as the ability to transform the work produced with them to the printed page (with the relief surface provided by photopolymer plates), is indeed potential beyond dream, but these do not in themselves create ‘good’ work. That is up to the practitioner. Fine press book printing, no matter which tools and techniques, is not an easy or even a rewarding task. And these new tools and techniques do not simplify the process, as many wrongly assume, but rather complicate the task even more so. Good work and bad work is all done the same way, but there are many more steps taken during the work sequence to ensure the former, and most practitioners are simply not up to this, for one good or bad reason or another.

Your point about how new techniques do not necessarily simplify the work leads into what I wanted to ask about the problems with making digital typefaces work when printed letterpress. Would you explain why it is important to tune most digital typefaces for relief printing and briefly summarize the process you follow in doing this? Can you speculate on how widely font editing is being practiced by printers using photopolymer plates?

The relief printing process is unique in that the letterform is subject to a thickening effect caused by increased impression and accumulating ink gain. In addition, there can be a uniform gain of as much as five percent from film negative to photopolymer plate during exposure depending upon processing variables. Essentially, the letterforms’ main strokes need to be thinned out a bit to compensate, without which the exactness of character outline will be distorted on the printed page. While some adjustment can be made during exposure, most digital fonts need to be altered with font editing software such as Fontographer or FontLab. Other fonts such as Multiple Masters can be adjusted with the software that is supplied with them. There are also anomalies: fonts that can be used without alteration, such as those produced by Lanston Type Foundry (which had access to Lanston Monotype’s original brass master patterns) and the Monotype Typography fonts (some of which are fairly direct copies of the metal typefaces). I’ve printed Lanston’s Caslon Oldstyle No. 337 and Monotype Pastonchi without alteration and they performed well. Monotype Centaur actually prints better via the photopolymer process than it ever did with metal because the inherent weaknesses that were incorporated into the design of the metal letterforms are inadvertently strengthened with the differing printing surface structure. In this regard, typefaces that are almost too thin and anemic for laser printing will often work well without adjustment.

In addition to basic configuration for letterpress there are more sophisticated typographic concerns that should be considered, such as optical scaling and optimization as well as minute adjustments to the letterforms themselves, such as the incorporation of ink traps and supports. These are techniques, however, that require the abilities of someone well acquainted with letterform design. Any of these alterations are not meant to disturb the letterform but rather to bring it back to where it should be when it appears on the printed page. Since the Multiple Master format/software anticipates user interpolation, these fonts are easily configured. Those equipped with weight, width, and optical scale axes are especially useful for optimizing small text sizes where opened counters, increased color, and expanded width are of concern.

A growing number of foundries are releasing faces with a form of built-in optimization. This is usually in the form of multiple size re-designs. (I suspect we will see further development of this with typeface designs offered in the OpenType format.) The Rialto font, by the Austrian foundry dfTYPE, is particularly interesting in this regard, especially the variant Rialto Pressa, which is quite singular in that it was designed for letterpress and includes built-in ink traps. Also unique is Founder’s Caslon by Justin Howes, which offers true optical sizing, each of its 13 size offerings from 8 to 72 point are re-designs based on historical specimens and proofs of the original metal typefaces. I think it should be said that these are concerns that were rarely addressed by most twentieth century producers of metal type.

There are other compositional considerations as well. These are usually in the form of size ranking and transpositions to facilitate a uniform color and harmony to the page. As such, these adjustments are made either with font editing software or directly in the page-layout program. These would include, besides kerning or building of kerning pairs, minute size reduction and/or weight transpositions in punctuation, figures and other symbols, uppercase and/or small text lowercase letterforms, vertical characters, etc. For the most part these are adjustments that in a perfect typographic world would have been part of the typeface design in the first place but, with notable exception, invariably are not.

When I configure a digital font for letterpress I will normally also create a number of variants to provide a certain level of optical sizing, for special characters, small text, text, larger display, titling, etc. This can only be taken so far though as at some point the letterform outline will become disturbed and begin to break up. Given this limitation, the increasing concern toward optimization shown by certain foundries is a good sign. I am not a type designer, and have never had the inclination, so my level of understanding of letterform construction and font editing programs is limited to what I need from them as a typographer-printer. I will rarely alter a font beyond a slight stroke weight reduction (or addition), which is a fairly quick and simple procedure (though it may be a bit daunting at first). I know there are a number of other fine press printers who also concerned with optimizing their digital output but to what extent it is happening I could not say. I suspect most probably do not. In many cases this is due to a lack of knowledge or concern, in others the time spent might not be thought justifiable in terms of economics and market.

It sounds like there are several factors that could hinder the more widespread use of properly adjusted types by letterpress printers. The font editing technique you describe above (and also discuss in Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press) would be easy for someone familiar with the software, but I would guess it might be too involved for many printers. Maybe a better solution would be for printers to be supplied with types designed just for letterpress. What do you think of the prospects for a new niche geared to the production of faces for photopolymer plate printing? Would it just be a question of making type designers aware of the demand while also telling fine printers of the availability of the types?

Well, given market exigencies, I can’t imagine that type designers would bother to make typefaces designed for letterpress. In the examples I gave there were specific reasons for the type to have an affinity to letterpress but these are fonts that must also perform well in the normal market. This would need to be the primary consideration for any type designer.

The Rialto typeface was developed for Die Fischbachpresse, a fine press that uses the photopolymer plate process for letterpress. The special letterpress version Rialto Pressa was the result of field-testing the face on the printing press. But still, the fonts had to sell in the normal market to justify the effort that went into it. Justin Howes felt his Founder’s Caslon should ideally be printed letterpress because, as he suggested, Caslon looks best impressed into handmade paper. At one time he was even considering letterpress configuration. But the problem facing any of today’s type designers would be: how do you design a typeface for letterpress? It is not simply just a matter of thinning out the strokes a bit such as I proffer in my font-editing sequence, ink traps, supports, and the like, are really the key. But from what I can tell most designers have no knowledge of these techniques. For me, the ongoing concern for optimization is the most satisfactory answer.

On the other hand there is some activity in the field related to letterpress. I note from the recent ATypI conference proceedings that dfTYPE is producing another typeface. I’d assume they would develop it along the lines of Rialto. There are a couple of other ad hoc projects going on as well, though I am not at liberty to discuss these. But any of these fonts are going to be much more expensive than what most folks are used to paying, if they are used to paying at all. And most folks don’t buy typefaces for their technical qualities – they buy them for their look. A significant consideration, as letterpress folks tend to be a bit traditional in their tastes. Fortunately, in this regard, the current aesthetic (neo-classic) is about right. Heck, after some 27 years in the biz, I’m finally in style!

But the market is not well known for supporting high-end quality technological efforts. The Apple font format QuickDraw GX is an infamous example. Adobe’s now discontinued Multiple Master font technology is yet another. I think I have about three dozen MM fonts and as far as I know, that is about how many were produced throughout the ’90s. The other night I was looking at The Golden Master CD Apple had supplied to beta testers and I thought, my god, that was 1994, and we don’t have anything like that today. GX fonts were essentially user configurable TrueType fonts with, in some designs, capabilities for extrapolation from the mid-point of the range rather than interpolation from the extreme points as in the MM PostScript model. I suspect the subtlety of this might have had some potential for letterpress configuration.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding OpenType, I haven’t seen any technical wizardry that applies to the letterforms themselves. And yet these too are based on the TrueType structure. How OT fonts perform in programs such as InDesign is another consideration entirely. But I think type designers are at this point just looking at the expanded character set capabilities, if that. Adobe has now converted its entire line and in doing so has provided some OT typefaces that are optically optimized, but that seems to be about it. Perhaps that’s enough. On the other hand, Apple has never forgotten, forgiven, or given up on GX. I find it a bit odd and perhaps telling that the developers’ tools for GX are still stocked on their web site along with their AAT tools. One of these days, in one of the near OS revisions, surprise, surprise?

I do a lot of evangelizing among the letterpress community – that’s essentially what I’m up to with the monograph publications, the group sites, the writing, the teaching, and the web tramping. I suspect it has sold a few fonts here and there. But most folks probably just think I’ve got a stick up my butt. How do you raise the consciousness of type designers? That I don’t know. You seem to be doing a pretty good job with this. I’m just thankful and grateful that there are a few out there who do understand their heritage and the gift that has been handed down to them. And who would like to do a little more and give a little back because of that concern.

You announced last year that you will be writing and publishing a new monograph dealing partly with some of the topics you have discussed above. Can you explain what this upcoming publication will cover and say who it is intended for? In the pre-prospectus announcement you mention ‘an examination of the composition of typographers such as Saul Marks.’ What makes Marks’s approach to typography exceptional?

The working title of the forthcoming monograph is Letterpress typographic design strategies in the digital environment. This is more high-end than the previous monograph as it deals with the application of theoretical approaches to letterpress when using digital type and typographic software. I’m focusing on digital compositional and typographic design strategies specific to the requirements and restrictions of letterpress technology and operations. As such it is a sequence of deliberations rather than a typography primer. These are just some things that I felt needed to be said and presented. There will be some overlap with Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press but it is not intended as an expanded version of it by any means. I’m not exactly sure who the target audience is but from the response to the preliminary announcement I’d say it would be a healthy mix of photopolymer letterpress folks and curious digital typographers. But it is a why and how-to type of book, with a lot of the usual technical information.

The technical concerns that I elaborate on are, however, based on developed theory regarding the essential organic nature of letterforms and the consequences of their mechanical transformation into physical form. I don’t deal with the historical aspects of that except as background. Though I could perhaps go on about some of that a bit more here.

The considerations of early-to-mid-twentieth century typographic apostles such as Tschichold are certainly still the basis for ‘correct’ mechanical compositional strategies as we know them today and as any and every type primer reiterates. However, the governing precepts of legibility and readability (i.e. concern for the reader) which are often bandied about may be wrongly appropriated. These in and of themselves are not Renaissance ideals – the supposed rationale for the traditional approach to typographic composition, if not traditional typography itself. (I understand ‘readership,’ as a concern, to be of mid nineteenth-century origin.) Nevertheless, this would be the ‘stylistic’ practice of a typographer-printer such as Marks and those of us who follow in his and others’ paths. How much does this style itself relate to fine letterpress printing? In the sense that letterpress is the foundation technology, and that mechanical technologies have specific limitations, perhaps a great deal.

Saul Marks is an interesting example for me in that his typographic repertoire is largely revealed through the intricacies of his Monotype composition. He set up his own unique typesetting regiment through the modification of his mat cases. He used substitution to get to typographic refinements that today are easily accomplished (though rarely practiced) with digital software. Size and weight ranking, transpositions, positional adjustment, etc., were the primary tactics. For instance, if the 12 point period visually appeared a bit obtrusive on the printed page – often a technical consideration, not merely an aesthetic choice – he pulled the matrix and substituted that with an 11 period, sometimes from another typeface if that served the purpose. Interestingly, he would have had to buy 11/12 matrices specifically for this purpose. In addition, capitals were routinely reduced, small caps slightly increased. The usual text figures, small cap treatments, etc., were used but with some interesting touches. And he was very conscientious and consistent about it all. With notable exception, I have rarely seen this kind of attention to detail in the work of other fine printers. Nor a similar pre-digital configuration automated to deliver it as such. One hesitates to hold hands with those from another era, but I wonder what he would think about the direction digital typography is taking.

That his and much other twentieth century fine typography and printing was based on the interpreted aesthetic of the Aldine work is not insignificant. Aldus is, after all, the prevailing model – the beginning and the end. So, yes, I’m saying there is a given. And yes, on the surface it is just stylistic appropriation. But it is not without some foundation. The relatively short-lived gothico-roman typefaces of incunabula (most notably from Sweynheym and Pannartz at Subiaco to Jenson in Venice) are more revealing of the rationale, perhaps more so than that of the earlier Mainz work (though I hesitate to discount from this Schöffer’s incredible textura – the well-spring). The shift in the type road, however, is quite vivid and profound during this transitional period to Aldus. The limitations of the material-based form were clearly perceived and masterly subverted in deference to the organic forms of the practiced eye and hand – but not subordinated to them. And I think this is important. This, to me, is where typography originates, even though this is also why it deviates.

Should the tenets of early typography be an underlying consideration in manipulating digital type to print appropriately when used for letterpress printing? I’m not sure we really have much of anything else to base it on. And why is this ‘better’? To maintain that one does studio letterpress or fine printing for pleasure or craft or other form of personal gain or to drag out the usual esoteric pap or self-serving hype in justification simply begs further question.

Some two hundred plus years following the European development of printing with movable type, Joseph Moxon, the author of the first thorough manual on printing, had no clue as to the organic origins of metal ‘letters.’ He thought instead that ancient masters had developed them from geometric constructs. And by Moxon’s time the singular beauty and typographic nuance of early printing was long lost, and would remain so for another two hundred plus years. Until the light cast by Emery Walker’s slide lantern lecture. Or so the myth goes.

Posted January 17, 2003 at new-series.org

Update: Andy Crewdson's new-series is now defunct but commentary on this interview can be found at Speak Up.