Zen & the art of typographical arrangement

When I was in my twenties there was a vogue among publishers to say things like ‘This book will change your life!’ on their book jackets. Occasionally it was true; it once was for me.

The book was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig. When I first heard of it I thought that with that title it must be pretentious. When I read it I found that it had three rather unlikely themes: a motorcycle journey, a nervous breakdown and its recovery and a philosophical discussion with a broad background of the history of ideas.

It brought me two great revelations. One was that physical work, making things, could have value and be a source of satisfaction. The other was that machines were more than mysterious black boxes that you paid other people to look after. They responded to our attitudes and the care we took of them. At the time, 1976, I was a twenty-one year old biology undergraduate.

This exciting new outlook could have taken me in a number of directions, but looking back printing was a natural way for me to go. I was always an enthusiastic reader, and as a child I would take in strange things like the location of the offices of Penguin Books around the world, the name of the printer and inexplicable lines saying ‘Set in Monotype Baskerville’. I looked at words and letters lining up on the page, and held the paper to the light so that I could see the lines of writing sitting precisely on top of each other on the two sides.

Later, as a teenager, I had the good fortune to have as my stepfather James Boswell, artist, illustrator, designer, editor and writer. One of his jobs was the design and editing of Sainsbury’s house journal, and every now and again something called galleys would turn up, and he would spend a busy few days pasting them up.

When I was in the sixth form at school a community magazine was started in my north London suburb. I got involved. Headlines were made with Letraset and body matter typed on an IBM golf ball electric typewriter. It was all put together with Cow gum and taken to a friendly litho firm for printing.

When Pirsig came along I was primed and ready to go, although I did not realise it. I bought an Adana 8×5 from an old friend and started badly printing stationery and invitations. My knowledge of typography was negligible: looking back at old file copies I see that I either did not know or did not care about the difference between a cap O and zero. Layout and press work were pretty poor too.

A bit later a school in Tottenham gave me the remnants of their printing room: a dismantled Arab treadle platen and some type. I learnt the lay of the case sorting out the type but the Arab remained in pieces in my mother’s cellar while I spent the next few years doing other things.

I started printing seriously, for a living, at the beginning of 1985. I had done quite a lot of reading on typography by then, and did more. I had my stepfather’s sets of Typography and Alphabet and Image, his copy of Oliver Simon’s Introduction to Typography and his type specimens. I read Eric Gill, and was enthused with the idea of making good quality work for everyday use. I still am, but know now that if a living is to be made from it most customers will be well-to-do. I was impressed by the achievements of the Curwen Press when I discovered Pat Gilmour’s Artists at the Curwen.

The spirit of Pirsig lives on, I like to think, in all that we do at Hand & Eye. I have always hoped and aimed to produce the best work. Often this has meant the best that I could do rather than the best possible, and sometimes things go wrong, but there is great satisfaction when everything comes together.

The ‘we’ in the previous paragraph is because I took on staff at the beginning of 2007. The change was essential after many years as a one-man business because of one job. That was the Folio Society’s Letterpress Shakespeare.

When it started in 2006 I was renting my work space from another printer. They had a stable and relatively elderly work force, many of whom had done apprenticeships in the fifties and sixties. I learnt a lot from being around them. They still employed a compositor, and I paid for him to impose the formes for the first Folio book. I could not have met the deadlines if I did it all myself. When it was finished I calculated that what I had spent on his services would have almost paid the wages of someone working directly for me.

Finding and training an assistant proved to be easier than I expected, and Hand & Eye entered a period of transition. Our landlords were under new management and the building in King’s Cross had been sold. The original plan was that we would move to their new premises, but slowly things changed. They could not find anywhere to go to and an expensive lease renewal was looming. What was more, it was the wet summer of 2007 and the old building flooded often. The last straw was losing an afternoon’s production to buckets and mops when the Heidelberg cylinder was left under two inches of water. It was time to find our own place.

By great good fortune we got a clean, airy and newly renovated railway arch in the East End, 200 yards from my first workshop. Once we got over the inevitable upheaval of the move we found new possibilities opening up. The most important was a work experience programme. We started with students from a nearby graphic design course, and as I mentioned them on our blog applicants started to come from further afield. Each participant brings something different, and it is a pleasure and a challenge to find what suits them. One of the most pleasing aspects is that so far three of them have, at different times, come to work at Hand & Eye.

I was surprised by the low level of typographic knowledge that they often come with. It does not seem right that someone training to be a graphic designer is not taught about type, so I try to pass on a bit of what I have learnt. One of the first things they do is to read Techniques of Typography by Cal Swann to get a basic grounding, and then spend a day dissing to learn where everything goes. They then set and print six points about things like spacing and choice of typeface. What they do for the rest of their fortnight depends on the student and what is going on in the workshop at the time.

There are currently two main lines of work: the jobbing that we have always done and the book work that has come to the fore more recently. The jobbing is, I suppose, a fairly usual mix of stationery, invitations and so on. We also have a collection of wood letter which is used for posters and the supply of proofs for scanning.

In the early days most jobs were set by hand or Monotype, but the changes in technology has altered that. Now we are usually sent artwork from which zinc plates are made. In some ways it seems a shame not to use metal type and the limits it imposes, but we are commercial printers, and the customer is the one who is paying. This often includes using an impression that is heavier than we might choose. Again, I can understand that people want to be able to see that they are getting something different from us. I only do that with plates, though, as it would quickly wear out the type.

Despite the move away from metal type I find that I have been buying more of it in recent years. We do still use it, not least for our own work. We have been doing some occasional publishing in collaboration with our designer friend Brian Webb. The books are not a good way to earn a living, but they are fun to do, which is their main point. We have produced two very slim volumes in the last four years. They both started with Christopher Brown’s lino cuts, around which Holly Skeet wrote stories.

We are not unique as commercial letterpress printers in the twenty-first century, but we are one of the few. It is a strange way to make a living, and two things from my colleagues summarise why I do it. Rosa De Carlo said on seeing a volume of the Letterpress Shakespeare that she saw that it was possible to fall in love with a physical object. And Nick Gill said

‘We make words with things.’

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