Thursday, December 18, 2008

A forest of type

After twelve hours it's nearly finished: the rainforest pattern viewed from the top .

One of the things I most enjoy about letterpress is the pace, slow and deliberate. This is not the way that professional printers did it of course, because they were caught up in a chasing deadlines and money, which is why hand composing was eclipsed by linotype in the 1880s. But hand composing is my meditation, my creative process (one of them) and I like to do it slowly. Mostly I have set my own writing in fairly conventional rows of type, but sometimes I like to use the typefaces as shapes and create patterns without (textual) meaning.

The project I have started with at the Melbourne Museum of Printing is proving to be fiendishly time consuming. It's a large (40x60cm) pattern, intended to evoke the complexity, density and lushness of the rainforest edge (inside healthy mature rainforest it tends to be very open below the canopy). I am pillaging every drawer of sans serif type I can find in the Museum, mostly extracting 'O's 'S's and 'V's, with a few other letters for variety and volume. I didn't want to have any avoidable areas of white space, but I have pretty much run out of suitable type, so there are going to be a few white patches, hopefully covered up the with overprinting to come later.

I have used every size of sans serif I can find; from condensed grotesque wooden type so big that its not even numbered (well over 100pt) to a miniscule 8pt Gill. I've spent about 12 hours on it so far, and am almost ready to take the first proof. At which point, all the variations from type-high will be revealed and I will have to painstakingly go over the whole thing and build up the low type with make ready. This is inevitable whenever you use old wooden type and/or mix together different type faces.

Working in the Museum means a lot more (knowledgable) people are looking over my shoulder as I work, than I was used to at Te Kowhai. It's reassuring to know there's good advice and a helping hand when I need it.

My large patterned piece is also raising a lot of eyebrows and the most frequent comments express concern for how long it will take me to dis it after printing. The limited bench space at the Museum is littered with galleys filled with projects that visiting printers abandoned without dissing, so it is an understandable concern. Dis-tributing the type back into the 20+ drawers from whence it came will probably take as long as the composing did, but I have taken methodical notes and am psychologically prepared for it!

In the dusty chaos of the most accessible of the Museum's warehouse storerooms I found a drawer of old Jewish organisation logos and ornaments. Here they are, being set up for proofing, as soon as I can access a press.

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