Proprietary type design has been an integral part of the private press movement since its inception. In an effort to realize their vision of the ideal book, early private press printers designed or commissioned typefaces that conveyed their personal aesthetic more accurately than the types that were available from commercial foundries. Drawing inspiration from this practice, the commercial type foundries of the early twentieth century introduced a wide range of legible and handsome text faces. As the printing trades shifted away from letterpress in the second half of the twentieth century, the technology of type production shifted with it, leaving very few options for proprietary metal type production. To print letterpress with metal type in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century meant, with few exceptions, printing from commercial types that were produced in the early twentieth century. Despite the persuasive advertising claims of certain foundries, early twentieth century typefaces derive their forms from the art historical moment in which they were produced; lovely as some of them may be, they are peculiarly of their time and not of ours. In order to make new private press books in the twenty-first century we need to have new typefaces.
When I began drawing letterforms in 1996, I did so in a state of typographic panic. I had been printing letterpress for seven years and I suddenly found that I could no longer print words—the typefaces that were available to me simply did not convey how I felt about the texts I wanted to print. They were general and I craved specificity. My first efforts at letter design were primitive but they signaled a definitive break from using commercial typefaces in my books. At the time, I imagined that I would be printing from my own typefaces within a year or two. Instead, I spent twelve years drawing, looking, and redrawing before making my first typeface with which I could set running text. Out of necessity, I have since designed my typefaces on the computer and printed them from photo-polymer plates. It was not until 2011, when I first met Micah Currier and Dan Morris of the Dale Guild Type Foundry, that printing from my own metal type became a realistic proposition.
Why Metal Type?
There are many debates about what letterpress printing actually is. Is it simply a process of relief printmaking in which any raised surface—a polymer plate, for instance—is inked and pressed into paper? Or is the essence of letterpress inextricably bound up in the setting of individual pieces of type into words and pages which are then inked and pressed into paper? I find these discussions tedious because they do not address my main concern in printing: the graphic image of the text page. For me the issue is simple: using commercial metal type requires me to surrender the principal graphic content of my work—the typographic page—to another designer’s vision. This runs contrary to my every motivation in making books. I would rather print my own typefaces from polymer plates. If, however, I can use my own metal type I would not hesitate to choose it over a polymer plate. Although polymer plates have been crucial to the progress of my work there is an essential experiential difference between setting type on a computer and setting it by hand. Here is a video in which I discuss this difference. You’ll need to put the volume on high to hear it. It was taken during a discussion with Gaylord Schanilec and Jane Siegel at the Center for Book Arts, NYC.