Pressing boundaries at Meshwork

Visiting Meshwork Press, we learned first-hand how to set type and operate a platen press. My classmates and I printed a composition of scattered stars, the experience of which demonstrated a relationship between printing and text—how the art and technique of letterpress influences the words (or, in this case, stars) on the page and vice versa.

Typesetting a non-linear page becomes much more complicated than setting text in lines. A disorderly array of furniture holds the type pieces in a scattered arrangement (photo by Oli Grogan).

In letterpress, the text becomes a tangible object—pieces of type with weight and volume, bits wood and lead that have to be aligned, supported, constructed. My classmates and I experimented with creating non-linear arrangements of type—much more complicated than setting rows of text, as I learned. The letterpress process is more suited to linear typesetting, printing neat lines rather than random scatterings of typefaces. Because of the difficulty of setting non-linear pages, we allowed our composition to change, shuffling type around almost as willingly as the furniture that supported it in the chase.

A similar interaction between text and object can be found in commercial letterpress printing, too. When the typesetter redistributes type, he does so by spelling out words or syllables. The process by which the typesetter replaces type in the drawer is almost like reading the text (see the instructional video below) (“Learning Typesetting”). The objects of letterpress printing and their purposed construction can conflict with the text, as in our project at Meshwork, and the text can aid printing technique; in either case, the text takes on a physical nature, which informs the printer’s use of the text.

This instructional video from the 1950s demonstrates the techniques taught for commercial typesetting. The printer in this video uses a slightly different process than we did at Meshwork, but the relationship between the physical type and the text is still evident (“Learning Typesetting”).

According to 20th century writer Anaïs Nin, the physical process of constructing a page of type also allows printers to write more effectively. Letterpress printers touch, literally weigh each word of their text; the tangibility of letterpress printing allows for scrutiny of a text, examining each word’s contribution (Nin). Our own composition at Meshwork we had the opportunity to revise and rearrange (we were more concerned with getting the type locked in the chase than with the aesthetics of the result, but we had ample time with the “text” to scrutinize it for revision); for the sake of ease we removed a few bits of type and still created a nice smattering-of-stars print. Even printing from copy, as in the instructional video, I imagine the typesetter is forced to examine the text so minutely that he becomes aware of clumsy or efficient writing. Printers like Nin and Haylee Ebersole of Meshwork Press can act on such senses, cutting unnecessary words and revising right up to the time a page is printed.

       When a printer sets type by hand, letter by letter, she has to weigh every word and consider every decision of spacing in a constant battle of physical problem solving. The result is something “concrete, definable, touchable” (Nin). I got to experience that creative engineering at Meshwork, as we wrestled with the limits of typesetting by exploring non-linear “texts.” And when we were through, we had what Nin referred to as a physical victory: a printed page.

One of the results of our typesetting adventure at Meshwork Press (photo by Oli Grogan).

Works Cited

“Learning Typesetting.” YouTube, uploaded by William Alexander, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVvbWdXRMQs. Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.

Nin, Anaïs. The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

3 thoughts on “Pressing boundaries at Meshwork”

  1. You make a great point concerning the efficiency in using straight lines as opposed to sparsely spaced patterns. Part of what makes letter press so interesting is that we no longer wish to use it as means of printing prose or poetry. We are much more interested in using it for art. However, the use of patterns cannot be absent from earlier use because we were using old typeset. It would be interesting to see decades old art which used letterpress and how they accomplished the task as opposed to us who are complete ammeters. (Not to say that there is a “right” way to do letterpress in so far as the task is accomplished. I am only suggesting that there are more efficient skills we have not acquired.)

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  2. I’m amazed at how you managed to set your chase with the non linear design setup–it looks like it was such a difficult thing to manage. I think it shows just how one can push the boundaries of letterpress to create something so unique and interesting.

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  3. I love how you found letterpress to be a form of “creative engineering” because it really is, in a sense with the problems that have to be solved to get something to work, and, if you fail, the whole thing falls apart. It’s a neat way to think about the relationship between art and mathematics.

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