Printer's pie

'Printer's Pie' - a jumble of spilled type.

I took my graphic design degree for all the wrong reasons - I barely knew what it was, but I was in one of THOSE relationships where at the time you would walk down the street with a sock on your head singing 'la-la-la I'm a banana', just to please someone who's main concern was where the next pint and smoke was coming from, especially if I were paying for it. And he wanted to move to Newcastle because he had once played drums at a pub there and thought he 'might' like it there. And if I didn't go, (I had been about to apply to Central St Martin's in London) he was going to leave me - again. For the hundreth time in two years...*

So instead of the fine art or illustration BA I had aimed for, I found myself confronted with projects about leaflet design and biscuit packaging with the odd illustration brief thrown in. I hated it. I loathed it. And then I found the type room. It was in the early 1990's when the print and design industries were changing over from hot metal to Apple Macs, and all over the country trays of old lead type were literally being skipped, and melted down for scrap. Tales of colleges clearing out entire studios, and students in tears scrabbling in dump bins to salvage what they could.

But my college, in a city with a proud tradition of industry, made a point of keeping its type room, complete with vintage presses and oily smellng inks. Before any student was allowed on one of the tiny, precious new Macintoshes, we had, at the very least, learned the basics of typesetting, leading and spacing using the old composing sticks and chases, getting our hands dirty and kerning by using slivers of lead, not tapping a keyboard. Something clicked, and running my hands over a page and feeling the indentations in the soft paper, I knew I had found some small comfort in this strange, cold world of design.

I entered a magical kingdom and learned to discern the tiny differences between a dozen serif founts, where Gills Sans was the acknowledged king of typefaces and discovered that less is often more; ornate is tempting, but simplicity is tasteful. Later, when I had got to grips with computer typesetting, I would learn to love Quark Xpress for the same reasons; books. My gargantuan, bottomless obsession with all things bibliographic. I had done a little book binding in my foundation art year, using my own pictures and stories, and if I hadn't been walking down the street with a sock on my head (as it were) I would probably have developed this and who knows, I might even have had a decent career from the word go instead of crawling up the cold and treacherous mountain slope of freelance illustration. However. One of the biggest wrenches when I graduated was leaving the type room. I sniffed its dear, oleaginous air one last time, and waved bye-bye to that part of my life. By then I had an understanding of what design was, and doing that hated course turned into the most useful of learning curves.

Now I am glad that I have a decent grasp of layout, typesetting and composition, and it has shaped the way I illustrate. But I always dreamed that one day I would have my own type room and make my own little art books. It was always just that - a dream. Money and space - God, the space! I can barely fit in my studio to paint, let alone accommodate the paraphernalia that comes with the average printing set-up. And I realised also that I was in danger of spreading myself too thinly with all the techniques I was interested in. So reluctantly I packed away my lino cuts, my sewing machine, my needlepoint, my collage. I stuck to painting, which I was never that good at, but I had set out to be a children's illustrator and the rest seemed just a distraction. I knuckled down and devoted myself to being a half way decent painter. It took longer than I imagined. But in the last year I've been hankering to do a bit of printing again. I even picked up this old nipping press from eBay last year - the poor thing has been gathering dust while I waited for a spare moment.

And I think - I think - I finally have the discipline to juggle a few techniques at once. In between starting some new paintings and getting the new set of Red Flannel Elephant cards set up, I've been buying up tiny bits of decorative type, and even a whole minute set of Gills Sans. I cannot tell you - and only another type nerd would understand - the excitement this little block of letters gives me; EBay has become dangerous territory.

Next time the pennies flow in I am hoping to get an Adana desk top printer - Lord knows where it's going to go. (Who needs a bathroom anyway?) Ideas are filling my head for stationary sets and note cards. With a fresh pile of lino and inks, and a virgin roller just begging to be inked up, I am finally returning to my old love, albeit in a Lilliputian fashion. It's going to be good to get ink on my fingers again.

This week's horoscope for Cancer - I hope I can live up to it.

This time represents the culmination of your efforts to expand the domain of your activities. There is more and more that you want to do, and you resent anything that narrows your freedom and limits your scope of action. The challenge of this influence is to be conscious enough of yourself and of what you are doing so that you can plan intelligently and work effectively with enlightened self-interest as opposed to pure selfishness. As long as you stay within your own limitations - that is, your inherent limitations as a human being and the limitations of your situation or circumstances - you should be extremely successful. The sense of timing of your actions may leave others amazed and sure that you are lucky. But really you have succeeded because you have a complete understanding of the situation.

from Astrodienst horoscopes, the best I have found on the net - if you like that kind of thing.

*(it's OK, I dumped the rat a few months later and started walking out with my Andy, so in the end it was all for the best).


natural attrill said...

Hi G,
I think those little blocks are beautiful.
Have fun.

Joanna said...

It took me along while to like the print room, I could not understand the need to reproduce anything, some how it all felt clinical. I then discovered collographs and was never happier, inking up and printing. We had a lovely man come and teach us some type setting at college. He had worked a life time with all the little letters. His hands told the tail of the lead. Even with his crooked fingers he could move the letters like no tomorow. All the time type is interesting me more and more, just like the print room. I miss the print room so much. I have tried to do some drypoint on a wierd excuse for a little press and its not really working very well at the moment. I'm very glad you dumped the rat. My very own rat brought me back to painting, it funny what good things come out of bad situations. Looking forward to seeing your cards

natural attrill said...

Hi Gretel,
I recently found an old oxo tin full of old stamps and ink on the moors near where i live, they were only someones adresses, but still quite exciting to find!

Amy C. Moreno said...

OOoh! You've got such a wonderful collection. I've been yearning to get into that too. I came pretty close to bidding on some metal type and design things on ebay recently, but figured I needed to control myself (I've got too many things on hold as it is) But I plan to do it someday. Have fun! Can't wait to see the designs you come up with.

Lisa Oceandreamer Swifka said...

I used to be an interpreter for the deaf in a trade school. I would accompany the student to their classes and one of them did graphic arts. I was always fascinated by type setting. In fact they did my wedding invitations (which were like a renaissance flyer). Anyway, I think it's wonderful you are going back to your root and that I can sense how excited you are...and I for one can't wait to see the results.

Anonymous said...

Good heavens...this was so interesting. I sat looking at that little set in your hand for ages.

Cathy said...

Lovely post, Gretel. I studied graphic design in the days when you left college with a Letraset catalogue, and specialist typesetting companies could earn an honest penny.

Even so, I met old designers who had been 'cold metal' trained, and they regarded it as a privilege; I guess it used to be a craft skill in a totally different way to now.

Anonymous said...

oh yes, fellow type nerd here. When ever I think of the old type room at the art college that I went to, I come over all wistful, and I so remember that awful wrench when I left college and the type room behind, the thought that it could have all been melted down is dreadful. The print room had a similar effect on me too, those lithograph stones ohhh.

Unknown said...

glad you are rediscovering it - I am a self confessed type anorak as you know - always have been - maybe we can do swapsies?
keep in touch
Graham Peake

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, gretel. you have no idea how this tugs at me! I too did graphics locally instead of illustration 'down south' because of misplaced affections, later dumped. I,too fell in love with real printing, there was an albion press in the college and at the printers I worked at for years. I have some block engravings I was given, including a photo-engraving of the church where some of my ancestors were buried. I had a minature press in my bedroom, but had to sell it. :-(. I developed a passion for wood engraving and still have my leather pad, burins and a few blocks. I will get back into it one day. You have 'woken the beast' again! :-))

Gretel said...

I'm glad to have reawoken a few hidden printers, it's about time for a type/woodblock revival I think!

Graham, I thought of you when I wrote this, when I've built my collection up we will indeed do swapsies. :)

Daisy Lupin said...

Love the beautiful little pieces of typeface. I must admit I always admired the trays the little blocks were kept in. When I was at art college, way before you, there only was the print room and the wonder of letraset! Though I only came across those in my foundation year. I did fine art much beacause my other half was,and in later years wished I had done theatrical costume and set design. An interesting post.

Matt Phelan said...

Really great post, Gretel! I could almost smell the ink...

Maya said...

Getting printing block fever just looking at your photos Gretel- what a great selection you have!



Soozcat said...

My dad was a pre-computers-trained graphic designer (the smell of rubber cement still makes me think of home). I often wonder what he'd make of home computers--I know he'd love the ease of composition that comes with them, and I suspect he'd also be somewhat annoyed with these young punk kids who don't know manual layout from squat. :)

Your entry is fascinating; printing seems like the perfect intersection of writing and design. And the Gills Sans block is beautiful.

Rats have their place, I think. They give you greater appreciation for the good guys, for one thing.

Sarah said...

Adana...I had one, used to print anti nuke cards on it, get the metal blocks made up from drawings, ah those were the days, seems so many millions of years ago. Lovely post you old cancerian you.

Anonymous said...

I've kept coming back and reading this post all week - haven't had the chance to comment sooner as I kept getting dragged off by one of the kids before I had a chance! I am so glad you wrote this post as it was wonderful to read and revisit my own experiences at college. I too did a graphic design course back in the early 90's when typesetting was still a physical rather than a virtual process. Setting metal type is very satisfying. I loved the way that you never new quite how it was going to look until the first sheet came off the press - there was a kind of mystery and magic to the whole patient, smelly, grimy-fingernailed process.

Making A Mark said...

Lovely post. I'm a font nerd rather than a type nerd - does anybody do conversion courses?

Miss Erica said...

I can't wait to see what you do!


Anonymous said...

In April's issue of Country Living magazine (US edition), there's an article entitled Letterpress Makes a Comeback. Here are a couple of links of businesses highlighted...
www.hammerpress.net and www.yeehawindustries.com

lettuce said...

this is a great post - and look at all the other typo-nerds!!! I love those printing blocks. The closest I have is a type-set box on the wall, full of little bits and pieces. I so look forward to seeing what you produce.

And oleaginous is such a fab word.