Prof revives lost art of printing press
Professor Johanna Drucker inks her printing press as her grad-student assistant Nora Bloch looks on. Students in Drucker's new class will learn about the press and fonts this quarter. Photos by Alison Hewitt.
For Professor Johanna Drucker, a font is something you store in a drawer, changing your type size happens one character at a time and double-spacing is a lead strip you can hold in the palm of your hand.
Drucker is bringing her appreciation for what she calls "slow technology" to UCLA, using her own 1940s Vandercook flatbed printing press. The information studies professor from the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies is teaching a crop of computer-age students how to set type, roll the press and appreciate fonts.
Click to enlarge: The flat-bed Vandercook printing press, and drawer upon drawer of type in the the room devoted to the press. Scroll to end of article for photo gallery.
"There's the sheer beauty of the printed copies, and the physical satisfaction," Drucker said of her attachment to the labor-intensive printing press. "The type is heavy because it's made of lead, and you get to handle it and set it and compose it. The direct interaction is so satisfying. You use your hands and body instead of just staring at a computer screen."
UCLA used to have several printing presses, most of which have been in off-site storage for several years. Drucker is reviving the art, starting with her Fiat Lux class
this fall, to be followed by a regular series of undergraduate and graduate print labs in coming quarters.
The classes are a joint effort by two UCLA departments — Information Studies and Design | Media Arts — which are celebrating the relaunch of a printing-press program at UCLA with a reception
today (Oct. 9) at 4 p.m. on the fourth floor of the Broad Art Center, where the printing press is housed.
Willem Henri Lucas, chair of Design | Media Arts, explained that students exposed to printing press technology will gain a new level of understanding of books, layout and design, compared to students who are only familiar with a computer keyboard.
"As a lover of books, I have always been interested in the 'matter of print:' the feel of glossy smooth paper versus the raw uncoated recycled paper, the overlaying and mixing of inks, glossy inks versus matte inks, varnishes; anything that would arouse the senses," Lucas said. "Book design has drastically changed because of the web … but just as television never replaced radio, book design will never be replaced by the digital world."
The feel of the press
Click to enlarge: No backspace button here: Drucker corrects her typeset of a poem using tweezers to remove a few misplaced letters.
On a recent afternoon in Drucker's classroom, students packed into the tiny room where her printing press lives to try the experience themselves. The Vandercook is about 6 feet long, and "no heavier than a stand-up piano, certainly less than 1,000 pounds," Drucker said.
She switched on a motor that distributed the ink across rollers, and the press hummed to life. Drucker had already hand-set a poem into the press, and each student came forward to set paper onto the cylinder and turn the hefty crank that rolled the paper over the type.
"It's so beautiful," a few murmured, admiring the impression the lead characters made on the paper and the crispness of the ink. Drucker challenged the students to find occurrences where a stray letter from a different font had gotten mixed in.
"There's a wrong-font H or two in there that we need to fix," she said. The recent move of the press had jumbled the drawers of type, but because it's difficult to recognize the letters until they're printed on the paper, typesetters rely on their cubbies of letters to be precisely sorted.
"When you're picking up 12-point type, which is what we're used to reading, it looks even smaller than it prints," Drucker said. "Black ink on white paper enlarges it optically, but lead-on-lead makes it look smaller." Once the rogue letters were found, Drucker loosened the clamped "furniture" holding the type in place and pried the imposters out with tweezers.
A pile of letters
Click to enlarge: Grad student Nora Bloch sorts the slim lead characters destined to become the spaces between words.
Nora Bloch, Drucker's class assistant and a graduate student in Information Studies, is helping to sort out some of the jumble. That afternoon, she was sorting the lead that becomes the spaces between words.
Working with a printing press brings such intangibles to life, Drucker said. Letters are not available in unlimited supply, and adjusting the margins or changing a font becomes a physical process. Her class won't be producing a newsletter anytime soon, she joked.
"You place the type one letter at a time. It would take you all month!" she said. "In the old days, the composers used to have typesetting races."
Drucker likes a challenge, though; she has printed several books on her press (visit Artists' Books Online
to view some of her work, listed under her name in the "by artist" column). She once used all of her 48 drawers of type – perhaps 40,000 characters – to write a book using each letter once
. Working on a printing press, even on short poems, helps train the eye, she added.
Click to enlarge: Piles of letters, ideally sorted neatly into their proper cubbyholes, wait to become words.
"It teaches you how to write when you run out of letters," she joked. "More seriously, it makes you really pay attention to the text. I've let poet friends use the press, and they become really aware of how physically shaped language is. How the letters look is part of the meaning — changing something to a smaller, italicized font gives it a different effect. With computers, that's no longer such a revelation, but it used to be a huge novelty, and something that only printers really knew."
Traditional tools, new applications
Drucker is of a different mold than other printers, though, many of whom are too traditional for her. "I'm more avant-garde," she said. But what's the difference between avant-garde and traditional when both styles eschew modern technology in favor of using a 70-year-old machine?
"Traditional is trying to create the look of 15th century Italian humanist books," Drucker explained. "But we live in the 21st century. I'm interested in coming up with new layouts, new language," and she's not afraid to experiment, as with her 48-drawers-of-type book.
UCLA once housed much older presses, called hand presses, purchased by the former School of Library Service's first faculty member, Andrew Horn. The Horn Press Printing Chappel
was formed, a club for students interested in the old-fashioned process.
Click to enlarge: Drucker coaches her students through their first press run.
In 1989, the presses were moved to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library near downtown Los Angeles, along with their extensive type collection. The presses are too heavy to bring back to the new building of the Library School's successor, Information Studies, but Drucker isn't interested in the Horn presses as much as she's interested in the Horn type collection, which she now has packed into her printing lab.
"My type collection is a little miscellaneous," she said. "The Horn collection is very nice, with a lot of long runs in classic type formations in multiple point sizes." After all, if she needs an extra letter or wants to go up to 14-point type, she can't just use a drop-down menu.
The time is ripe for the return of the printing press, Drucker said.
"The preciousness of books is starting to sink in," she mused. "Now that we have things like the Kindle and other e-readers, people are thinking about the importance and value of the printed book versus the virtual book."
Click to enlarge: Professor Johanna Drucker in her press lab, with drawers of fonts behind her.
Click to enlarge: The Walt Whitman poem to be handed out at the Horn Press reception.
Click to enlarge: A full view of Drucker's 1940s-era flat-bed Vandercook printing press.
Click to enlarge: Drucker dabs ink onto the press.
Click to enlarge: Drucker holds the paper in place as she rolls the printing cylinder over the type of the poem she set in place.
Click to enlarge: Student Nora Bloch turns the hand crank, rolls the paper over the type, and grabs the finished poem.
Click to enlarge: The type of the poem next to the resulting print. The first print is usually just a draft, which Drucker uses to make sure all the characters are in the right place and the right font. No spell-check here.
Click to enlarge: The diagram guiding typesetters where to find and keep each character. Drucker has serveral drawers, each with a different size or style of font.
Click to enlarge: In Drucker's world, a font doesn't come in a drop-down menu. It comes in a drawer.
Click to enlarge: Students in the press lab explore the drawers of fonts.
Click to enlarge: In the print lab, there's no spacebar. Spaces are kept in muffin tins and coffee cans.
Click to enlarge: Bloch sorts different font-sizes of lead, holding the spaces between words in the palm of her hand.
Click to enlarge: Drucker carefully removes a "wrong-font" letter from her poem, being careful not to harm the soft lead characters.
Click to enlarge: Drucker replaces a rogue H with the right character, slipping it into the poem.
Click to enlarge: Drucker displays a pair of letter, showing how small even a readable 12-point-font character can be when you're holding just one letter at a time.
Click to enlarge: Because the letters are so small, Drucker counts on them being in the right cubby. If they get jumbled, it's easy not to notice until after she's already placed them and run a print.
Click to enlarge: The poem set in place on the press. Only the silver part in the middle contains characters and spaces; the blocks of wood and metal surrounding it are the "furniture" that keep the individual characters pressed tightly together.
Click to enlarge: Drucker loosens the furniture so she can pull out a couple of misplaced letters. Trying to pry them out without loosening the setting would likely damage the characters.
Click to enlarge: Not all the characters are plain. Here, one of Drucker's drawers of decorative fonts.