New North Press bravely invited Crafts magazine to attend one of their workshops. Over two days they introduce the processes and then help you create your own work, from start to finish. You might start with childish memories of potato printing, but you'll find yourself at the end with ink on your hands and a new found respect for this traditional and compelling practice.
It’s a lovely day in East London and the sun is streaming in through the windows at New North Press. We’ve been given our introductions by printer, conservator and boss Graham Bignell (he’s crouching down, find out more about him here and here) with help from his glamorous assistant Richard Ardagh (he’s standing up, and he makes work like this). Graham set up New North Press in 1986 and, along with his conservation business, he takes up a floor in an East London building. Here’s the letterpress bit of the studio – we’re totally spoilt with several big Albion presses, some little desktop ones and drawers and drawers and drawers of type.
Our challenge which we chose to accept was to collaborate on a poster for the Olympics but without using any of the words or symbols reserved for the games’ commercial partners (i.e. ‘Olympics,’ ‘Olympian’, ‘2012’ – yep they get to have the whole year – ‘London’ – and yep, they get the entire city – ‘silver’, ‘gold’ etc).
After a think and a cuppa we got our hands on some type. Here’s Richard giving us some guidelines. Main point to remember is that it’s all backwards. Oh, and keep a firm grip on all the bits, one wrong move and gravity will reduce your hard work to a ‘printer’s pie’ – i.e. a headache-y jumble of type at your feet.
On the walls there are inspiring examples, some from today’s teachers and others a little more archaic. A personal favourite is a long poster with the following headline: ‘De La Mano Pretigitateur, Ambidextrous Comedian is Coming!’ Here’s a detail of it.
Who wouldn’t want to see ‘The Magic Omelet’?
To work we go, rifling through Graham’s incredible collection of type. There’s an order here – but it’s only known by Graham.
We can go from the classics, here’s some Futura…
… to the new. This is part of a set created by students at Chelsea College of Art & Design with New North Press (I’m keeping my sticky mitts off it, of course)
Here’s an attempt at the first line of our poster which will read: ‘Coe & Co. Presents’. It’s safe to say I’ve never been so thrilled by an ampersand.
I also get to do the line that simply declares ‘Whiff-Whaff’. So having got all the type in place, everything lined up and all gaps plugged we need to have a quick check how it’s looking.
Hmm. Well the ‘Coe & Co.’ line is great but my ‘Whiff-Whaff’ line is almost illegible and the bits that we can make out suggest it says ‘Mhiff Mhaff’, but backwards.
Time for some tea. Over lunch Graham tells some tales, like the time he extracted an 18th century scroll from an impossibly sealed bottle using ultrasonics or the time he worked on a poster rumoured to have been behind Lincoln when he was shot. Richard tells us that when Graham got his first Albion press decades ago, he slept next to it in his bedroom.
Excuses are made for the existence of the Donny Osmond mug.
Feeling focused we head back to our trays of type. We correct and perfect our lines. And start to realise that it’s the gaps, the white spaces that can be the most complicated. We lay out all our individual sections and start thinking about the whole poster.
Feeling patriotic we’ve selected some red and blue as well as flashes of gold to go with the black.
The lines are arranged onto the press, the big press. You can tell from Graham and Richard’s demeanour, it’s getting serious now.
Doesn’t it look gorgeous! Quoins, kind of expanding wedges, are used around the edges to keep all the pieces tautly in place, in this picture the key is still in one of the quoins. Word of the day: quoin.
Medals all round, we did it! Well done everyone.
For a sobering comparison here’s one that Graham and Richard made earlier. It was the poster for Reverting to Type a group show of letterpress they organised in the gallery below the studio in December 2010. Wow.
On the second day of the workshop, everybody gets a chance to use their new found skills to make solo work. I wonder how long that poster took to make…well, a girl can dream.
For more information on New North Press and their workshops head over to: