Sometimes when I think back on all the time I’ve spent in graphic arts and related endeavors, I have to admit it’s been quite a ride.
Of course, working all through the disruption caused by the gradual digitization of design skills and typography has given me a prime seat from which to view the disruption and change that computers have brought to the creation and production of all kinds of printed products.
And that includes books.
I was reminded of this recently because James Bryant, and old friend and the proprietor of an antiquarian bookshop sent me what amounted to a “message from the past” in the form of a broadside from the 1980s.
At the time I was living and working in New York City, and one of the things I was working at was helping my friend Peter Bishop, who had started a hand printing operation, which he called Petrarch Press.
Peter had a classical orientation to his practice of the black arts (black ink, anyway). He was printing on a large, iron hand press that dated from the 18th century, and which had been brought over from England and set up in his little office in midtown Manhattan.
On this kind of press, you ink the type by hand, then you lay a piece of paper on top of the printing frame, then you close a hinged “frisket”, slide the entire assembly into the maw of the press.
At that point you pull a long handle to “impress” the type onto the paper.
When you’re finished, you take it back out, unfold a frame, and remove your sheet of paper.
Congratulations, you’ve printed one side of one piece of paper!
Yes, this is arduous work that only printing artisans and fine artists take on these days.
Design Projects for Hand Printing
I was happy to work on several design projects with Peter, and one of them was a broadside issued to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
In 1988 Peter commissioned me to design the poster and the typography, and the artist David Johnson to provide an illustration that could be printed on a hand press.
One of the challenges was to work with the metal type that Peter had available. These days, we never think of natural limitations like this, since digitized fonts have freed us from the constraints of type cabinets, transporting hundreds of pounds of type metal, and even the film originals of the phototypesetting days.
I was lucky to have the classic font Bookman available, and I put it to good use, designing every part of the broadside with Bookman only.
“A broadside is a large sheet of paper printed on one side only. Historically, broadsides were posters, announcing events or proclamations, or simply advertisements.”—Wikipedia
(This is a great exercise for all designers. I’ve often done it with books I’m designing, restricting myself to one font, almost to prove to myself that I don’t really need 900 typefaces to design a book.)
Bookman is a sturdy design that reads well at virtually any size. It creates pages with a deep “color” due to its weight and lack of great stroke contrast. There are versions of Bookman from a variety of foundries, and some type designers have produced their own versions.
What I liked about it for this project was the great color an entire block of Bookman would make. The Gettysburg Address has only 272 words. To make an impact, and to support David Johnson’s illustration, I wanted something almost architectural, a slab of strength that was also a joy to read.
Part of the challenge was to hand craft a page of type with even color and no hyphenated words, if possible. You need to keep an eye on how the spaces between words change from line to line, and the patterns they can inadvertently create.
You can judge for yourself how it turned out, the art is below. This version was printed on Fabriano Artistico, and it’s numbered 35/500 and signed by the artist. I understand James Bryant might still have a few for sale.
(You’ll notice there’s a small “deckle” edge at the bottom. This is from the paper when it was originally made in a frame, and this edge has been left uncut to show its authenticity.)
(Clicking the image will open up a full-size version of this broadside, suitable for framing.)