No discussion of craft and design would be complete without mention of “the Master-craftsman” – William Morris.
Inspiring the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th/early 20th century, his genius spread to all fields, including household fabrics, wallpapers and furniture, stained glass and tapestry, poetry, translation and novels, political activism and reform… and also making books! He set up The Kelmscott Press in 1891, designing his own typefaces, making the paper and printing the works by hand. Its most famous creation was the sumptuous The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones. Fiona MacCarthy’s biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time is a pretty fulsome account of this inimitable character, and I’d recommend pilgrimage to Kelmscott Manor too.
Yet I also wanted to showcase some examples of masters in today’s world, with a particular focus on bookmaking and book design. Like Morris, their skills and interests extend far beyond what’s mentioned in this piece, but here are three who offer illuminating glimpses into the worlds of typesetting, papermaking and letterpress printing.
In planning a book the first questions are: who is going to read this, and under what circumstances?
Eric Gill, An Essay on Typography
Such consideration of reader and context is where Gerry Cambridge starts his pamphlet, The Printed Snow [On Typesetting Poetry], which came out in May this year celebrating ten years of HappenStance Press.
Typography is the craft or skill of choosing an appropriate typeface for a particular text, then arranging the layout in the most sympathetic and, in general, undistracting way to allow the reader pleasurable access to what has been written.
– Gerry Cambridge, The Printed Snow [On Typesetting Poetry]
“Undistracting” is a key word; he alludes to Beatrice Warde’s essay ‘The Crystal Goblet’, which compares the helpful transparency of “a clear glass as opposed to a golden goblet to drink wine from”. Amusingly, Morris in his aims (see image at beginning of this piece) also would seem to support this premise, stating that books “should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye” – and yet, his words are set within a hypnotically florid border opposite a rich and dramatic Burne-Jones illustration. I defy anyone not to be dazzled.
As this demonstrates, it is as much about the maker herself; a thrill in making decisions that express one’s personal taste. Cambridge calls this the “aspiration to design”, that is, “to make order and harmony out of chaos”. What follows are the rewarding processes undertaken to make those designs a reality. It’s a mixture of amassing a huge wealth of knowledge, keenly learning ‘the ways of one’s materials’, but also following instincts as an individual. Cambridge puts these all to practice in his publication The Dark Horse, which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year.
Cambridge reminds us of the “complex hinterlands” of typefaces beyond word-processing programs: each with its own history, associations and “quirks”. His comparison of a “type-nerd” to a bird-watcher seems curiously apt – for twitchers in the making, I recommend Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, which offers an entertaining overview of some of the more familiar typefaces. One of my favourites is Baskerville, designed by John Baskerville in Birmingham, 1757. Using it apparently increases the chances of your reader agreeing with your statement by 1.5% (Comic Sans, unsurprisingly, has the opposite effect). I’ll keep this in mind when writing my thesis!
The Printed Snow usefully outlines some of the main challenges when typesetting, highlights common errors, and gives excellent suggestions for further reading and exploration, introducing some key typhophiles. The writing itself glimmers with lyricism, most notably, the overarching metaphor of ‘printed snow’: “the page as snow field; the type the spirit-footprints of our presence there”.
And let us not forget what is also present: the design itself, of course. Typeset in Trinité 2 Roman Condensed & Italic Condensed, lithographically printed by The Dolphin Press, with aubergine-coloured fly-leaves, each page number attended by a snowflake – it’s a triumph. And to really spoil us, each pamphlet is accompanied by a letterpress-printed card with one of Cambridge’s poems that continues the theme:
A sheet of paper. A sheet of good handmade paper – limpid, pleasant to touch, as natural as bread and with a soul and a voice. Only a few understand paper. It is cherished, sought after and remembered as a lost love by even less than a few.
Carloa Magnani, Ricordanze di un cartaio, quoted in Matrix 33 Spring 2015
Making paper is only part of what Sarah Kelly does. Her work explores all aspects of ‘the page’, including how it both presents and participates in text. In her words, “they perform each other”. No crystal transparency here: the surface is distinctly brought to the fore as a physical, irrefutable and active part of each work.
Kelly trained in the UK (Two Rivers Paper) and Argentina (Taller Silvia Turbiner and El Molino del Manzana) and works with a variety of materials, pulps and inks. A spirit of spontaneity and play infuses each project, appropriate for the changeable instability of her organic materials. This challenges the conception of a designer bound to follow a rigid stratagem, e.g. the meticulous planning requisite for typesetting. Making is experience, an ongoing expression that can lead to radical results. Or in Arts and Crafts designer Ernest Gimson’s words, “doing is designing”.
This was no better epitomised than in Study in Liquid Texts, a live installation at Toast Gallery in Manchester, which involved writing in pulp: “the text becomes its own page, it is surface enough.” Looked at another way, the page is able to write itself: a transformation from passive plane to active subject, given a voice of its own at last. Such ideas of materiality and embodied communication are tremendously exciting; Kelly’s work revolutionises how we view the materials we use, be they paper and ink or the language we speak.
Deep in the Cotswold countryside in the village of Whittington lies an unassuming gardener’s cottage which houses the wonderful Whittington Press. Set up by John and Rosalind Randle in 1971, it prints beautiful editions or belles lettres, all involving some element of illustration and following the highest standards of quality and design.
A highlight is the periodical Matrix, a review for printers and bibliophiles. Each issue brims with articles on a variety of subjects: the most recent, Matrix 33, includes the journeying of an Adana press on the back of a bicycle, linocuts and wood-engravings depicting flaps and hinges, an account of a publishing bookseller’s tribulations, and a fold out map of Lake Pepin. There are book reviews, anecdotes and memories, an array of typefaces and techniques, and, most excitingly, a series of pop-up extras and tip-ins to wholly engage the lucky reader, offering the kind of fun I had reading The Jolly Postman as a child. The periodical is a masterpiece of printing, full of warmth, humour and delightful eccentricities.
John Randle caught the printing bug aged fourteen through hands-on experience of his school’s printing press, where for two terms they worked on an edition of Siegfried Sasson’s poems – later presented to the man himself. The machines he has gathered over the years – several saved from the scrapheap – are artefacts in their own right, each with a definite purpose and an endearing earnestness as they launch into life. My favourite is the two-armed Heidelberg Windmill that can be left to work happily on its own, cart-wheeling away.
A process that requires both ‘head’ (editorial) and ‘hands’ (printing), there’s also a refreshing freedom to pursue projects beyond passing fads or dictates of the market. The Press’ first book, and bestseller, was Richard Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press (re-issued by and available from Hesperus Press) giving an insider’s account of working for the Woolfs and illustrated with charming line drawings. Other titles that caught my eye among the teeming shelves were: A Visit to William Morris by Helen Thomas with wood-engravings by Hellmuth Weissenborn, Ernest Dowson’s A Bouquet with pochoir illustrations by Miriam Macgregor, and Fine Papers at the Oxford University Press including forty examples of handmade papers – a glorious history of English papermaking. Currently Randle is working on a book about Venice incorporating John Craig woodprints.
There’s not much back stock – it all gets sold pretty sharpish to eager aficionados, a third to America – but the full archive is held at the University of Minnesota, where half a ton of paper comprised solely of accounts and correspondence (the woeful weight that brings flights of ‘design aspiration’ back down to earth with a bump). Every first Saturday of September, the village of Whittington hosts a Summer Show at which the Press exhibits its treasures. I cannot recommend a visit highly enough.
You can see Lavinia’s photo slideshow of the Whittington Press on our Facebook page.