Updated: Dec 21, 2020
There is so much meaning wrapped up in a logo - it is the distillation of the brand - and yet it's usually done at a distance, by a designer, on a computer.
Analogue methods, the act of physically making a mark on paper, carry immense symbolism. There is something ceremonial and magic about choosing the letters, rollering on the ink and literally ‘making a good impression’ (letterpress printing is where that turn of phrase came from). It can be done by the owner of a business, guided by a designer rather than defined by one. Intention, as well as ink, can be impressed upon the paper.
In August this year, we spent two days at the The Letterpress Collective, a project run by Nick Hand and Ellen Bills. The Collective was set up to celebrate artists, makers and craftspeople. Nick and Ellen work on a varied range of commissions and will often make collaborative works featuring a cross section of mediums from illustration and printing to photography and audio.
Their studio is home to a huge range of donated and collected lead and wooden typeface as well as numerous printing presses that date back to the early 19th century. Each piece has a story and Nick and Ellen can recall the many characters that have kindly handed over the tools of their trade as they retired or closed their printing studios. Always with meaning and often political in it’s comment, a recent work commemorated The Queen Square riot in 1831, an event that followed the rejection by the House of Lords of a bill to give the vote to working men. Another is a letterpress-printed poster that reads Move slow and mend things and was a direct challenge to the phrase Move fast and break things used by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
Nick’s own personal work has taken him on journeys spanning over a thousand miles, cycling on a custom made bike fitted with a printing press. His recent book Conversations from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, documents the conversations he had with craftspeople he visited on route; individuals that have given their life and time to their craft.
The Letterpress Collective’s home is in Centrespace, just off Corn Street, Bristol. Their studio is one of the most unique places we have ever been, it has a feel of part working space part museum. Print trays and presses fill the room and the walls are hung with past works that tell a story of previous collaborations. Ellen is busy printing a new label for Wilding Cider, a natural cider made in Somerset while Nick talks to us about the beauty and depth that comes with the process of letterpress printing.
We’ve come to print the name of our collective, and have set out to choose a typeface. We wanted to print our name with real wood and ink, to ground it physically and to take the time to consider how it looks on paper. As we open and close print trays, and handle hand-carved woodblock letters, Nick ponders on the marks found on these letters and the idea that each one has had many lives, a place in words we will never know: some may have been political pamphlets, others posters for long forgotten events. This sense of a physical manifestation of the passage of time makes our process feel both meditative and thoughtful.
We chose Gill Sans Bold, Stephenson Blake Grot condensed and Gill Sans Regular - all wood types. Nick set about teaching us how the press worked and the process of centring and spacing the typeface. We took turns inking up the letters and turning the weighted handle that draws the roller and paper over our letters.
A few hours later there are a multitude of earthly banners hanging up to dry on pegs that are made from old marbles and wood with a mechanism that gently holds the paper in place.
Already there is a clear favourite, a Gill Sans regular wood type. Nick tell us that it first appeared on a publisher/bookshop fascia off Park Street in Bristol in 1926 and was based on the London Underground font designed by Edward Johnston. This font was one of the original forms of the typeface and is true to Eric Gill's original design. The type was made by Monotype and became the standard typeface for British Rail and also Penguin Books in the 1940s and 50s. While it has become a classic font, the original that we printed with is rarely seen these days.
The printing is imperfect with a grain that reminds us of the moon and two finger prints on the letter A. There are scratches in the old wooden blocks that have appeared as little shadows on the E, but to us this is absolutely perfect.
We invite those of you with new businesses, or ones that need a renewed sense of purpose and direction, to come with us on a journey. First, through our visioning process, to find your essence - what it is you care most about and how you would like to change the world (because we all do, intentionally or otherwise) - and then spending time with us, planning the mark you would like to make on paper and in the world.