Publishing Timeline: 3. The Renaissance Press and Beyond

by Joel Friedlander on November 10, 2009 · 2 comments

This is the third in a series describing my Publishing Timeline; the events, experiences and occupations that have somehow shaped my business life up until today.

In the pressroom at Renaissance Press

In the pressroom at Renaissance Press

It was around this time, in the mid 1970s, that I started my first business, Godspeed Graphics. Through the group I connected to the wonderful art director Don Birrell at the Nut Tree and he started giving me work.

Soon I was making business trips down to printers in Sacramento, finding the typical small business kinds of work. Government agencies, identity programs for smaller corporations, business forms, we did everything. Eventually my friend Michael, a terrific artist and sculptor, began helping out.

This was my first real business venture. I started to learn how to talk to people I wanted to do business with. I learned about the forms used and the way people expected to be approached, how they wanted you to appear. It had to do with understanding why they hired a graphic designer in the first place.

But my interest in fine printing, driven in part by the emphasis within the group on refined impressions of all kinds, kept growing.

The Birth of a Handpress

As I learned more about the history of printing and the fine presses of the past, I also researched the modern rebirth of the book arts, starting in the late nineteenth century with William Morris’ Kelmscott Press and later, the Doves press. Along with a friend I started trying to render a modern version of Nicholas Jenson’s fifteenth-century original, considered by many to be the most beautiful roman face in the history of printing.

Curators at the Huntington Library made books available for studying these typefaces, and it was a tremendous thrill to be sitting with a book printed by one of these early masters, the actual paper they had pressed the type into and peeled off the forms. I decided to build a hand printing shop to produce modern equivalents to these classic and neoclassic models.

That’s when I met Ernie Lindner, a collector of printing equipment with a showroom of sorts in downtown Los Angeles. We both had a keen appreciation for the typesetting machines of that era, the Linotype and the Monotype. Ernie had the largest collection of vintage Linotype machines outside of Linotype, I suppose.

Linotype Love

Even though these linecasters, with their incredible, nineteenth-century, Rube Goldberesque technology were still in use, their days were numbered. The advent of offset printing in the 1950s and 1960s combined with the new technology of “cold type” that was based in photographic imaging rather than smacking lead against paper, had doomed them.

These machines fascinated me. As a boy I would watch my father as his hands glided over the huge keyboard, barely tapping the keys. As the machine looming above him clanked and whirred, brass matts—individual letter molds—slid down chutes and were assembled with spacebar wedges into a line.

When enough type had been set to almost fill the line, he threw the lever in front of him and the whole assembly was shot up to another chute and over to where a pot bubbled with hot lead. A bar pushed the tapered bottom of the space bars up until the words were forced apart to the outsides of the line length, and it was locked in position.

The silver liquid was shot into the molds, making a slug, or one line of type, exactly type high, which fell into the tray awaiting it. This tray, a galley, when filled would be proofed on a flatbed proof press and another page begun. It was all quite mesmerizing and wonderful and scary at the same time, just the thing for little boys.

Ernie understood where I was coming from, and agreed to help. With the finances of the group behind me, I was ready to get to work.

Searching for Big Iron

Ernie had contacts around the world on the lookout for authentic iron handpresses, and we soon found ourselves in a little village in Cornwall talking to two brothers, the sons of a printer, who had a press for us to look at. We trudged up the dark wooden stairs to an open pressroom with high-beamed ceilings. There stood a beautiful Albion handpress, beautiful to me at any rate. The brothers were only too happy to get rid of it.

Albion Handpress

Albion Handpress

As Edward, the older brother, told us, all the time they were growing up they had had to print posters for their father on the press, and had grown to hate it. What they saw as an instrument of their captive labor, I saw as the foundation of a handpress rooted in the traditions of the past.

The Renaissance Press

Back in California I built a pressroom in the garage of a little house out in the woods at the group’s compound, brought in a Chandler & Price treadle press from the New York School of Printing, courtesy of my father, who was teaching there, and a cooperative custodian. We bought typecases, had African granite cut for the composing table tops, acquired all the accoutrements of letterpress printing and started turning out a weekly journal with type flown in from Holland and Arches watercolor paper for stock.

There was something very satisfying about operating the press. I still had the design studio for Godspeed Graphics in a space within a double wide trailer sitting in a leafy glen of oaks and manzanitas elsewhere on the property. The rest of the day was spent in the pressroom, where the smells of ink, paper, and press wash—solvent used for cleaning the presses, the rollers and the printing forms—lent an intoxicating aura to the whole scene.

Stacks of beautiful, toothy paper were gradually transformed into four-page signatures, then assembled into booklets each week. A color reproduction of some artwork from classical European history was tipped by hand onto the front covers. Our print runs were perhaps 100 copies.

To learn how to set the type, make up forms, get them ready for press and actually get a decent image, I had invited my father to run a workshop for my staff of three to learn the basics. He flew out from New York and showed us the ropes. It was a moment with a strange symmetry for me, watching Roy transfer some of his vast knowledge of letterpress printing to the attentive students in this immaculate press room so far from anything he knew.

Back to Reality, Back to New York, Into Publishing

Eventually I had to find my way back to real life, and left California for New York and dove back into the world of business. After a brief stint at a commercail printer in midtown, I landed a job that would influence the rest of my career in publishing. And that’s where I’ll start off in the next installment.

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