The power of the (letter) press

Letterpress

Students set type on a letterpress from the 1960s.

Three traditional letterpresses recently took up residence in the basement studio of the Morgan Building, home to Penn’s undergraduate fine arts program.

Two of the presses are from the 1960s and one is from the mid 19th century, and except for the electricity that powers one of the rollers on the 20th-century presses, the entire printing process is done by hand.

It’s a far cry from digital design, says David Comberg, a lecturer in the Undergraduate Fine Arts Department, and a valuable tool to teach students the concept of visual abstraction. “The students seem to feel an ownership … the feeling of ‘I made this,’” he says. “It’s physical, it’s social [because] the students work together. There is a kind of relationship with the machine.”

To produce a printed sheet, students place raised letter blocks made of wood or lead on a flat printing plate and then feed each piece of paper into the press by hand, cranking them through two inked rollers.

Comberg purchased the presses from a Toronto-based dealer who refurbishes old equipment and acquired the type from Pratt University in New York City. Penn Design’s goal is not to replace digital techniques with older printing methods, but to encourage students to stretch their understanding of graphic design and typography. “We don’t envision the letterpress as a professional tool,” says Comberg, “and we’re not interested in ‘fine printing’ or period simulation.” Rather, he says, the studio is one of several design resources available to students.

The appeal of the printing studio doesn’t begin and end with design students. Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English and faculty director of Kelly Writers House, says KWH planners had long intended to put a letterpress on the premises. That never came to fruition, so membres of the KWH volunteer planning committee were eager to help with this project.
Their idea is to produce hand-printed broadsheets of visiting poets’ work. Each year, the House also intends to print a chapbook by a member of the planning committee. These will be published under the name of 15th Room Press—a nod to the 14-room Victorian home of Writers House.

Writing, says Filreis, “is an art, but it is not often very material and physical.” The press slows the process down, encouraging writers to think carefully about each word they set on the press, he says. “I myself in high school was trained in a print shop. That experience probably contributed more [than any other] to my decision to become an English professor.”
Michael Ryan, director of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, plans to use the presses in class as part of discussions of Penn’s extensive book arts collection. He also hopes to host exhibits of student work that pertain to book arts. “To have this along with historical examples here in the collection is a wonderful thing,” says Ryan.

Penn Design and the Institute of Contemporary Art, meanwhile, hope to produce a work in honor of Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday, according to Julie Saecker Schneider, director of Undergraduate Fine Arts. “You really can’t expect students to be a leader in their field if they don’t understand the history of their field,” says Schneider.


Originally published on December 8, 2005