The written word is one of the greatest achievements of humankind. It’s a time machine that has allowed us to learn about our past and to leave a mark for the future. Stone tablets, leaves, sticks, walls, and canvases can all carry these messages, but books proved to be the best form of preserving text for centuries. Books printed hundreds of years ago can be used exactly the same way as they were used on the day they were printed. Paper might turn yellow, glue might dissolve, and ink may fade, but we can still open that book and read it today. Can your Kindle (or any other digital device) do the same?
In this digital era of temporariness, the importance of books and print in general might seem to be fading for some, but not for Thomas Gravemaker. With over 45 years of experience in print, he has been working as a book designer and typographer in Amsterdam, London, Edinburgh, and Paris. He is a professional with a great story to tell and an even greater knowledge to share. For him, letterpress is not only a mere cultural nostalgia, it is an essential part of his life, and has been for some time.
THOMAS: Letterpress is taking up a more important place in my career than it did in the past. I started off with letterpress, and moved into graphic design. Through graphic design into museum design as well as exhibition design. But all this time I missed something. I missed working with my hands, working with materials, papers, etc. Since I moved back to Amsterdam I’ve realised a dream of mine, which was to spend more time doing letterpress and also teaching a lot of people about letterpress. My return to Amsterdam happened to also be the moment that ‘letterpress’ started to become more fashionable. But that is a different kind of letterpress. Letterpress that most people now refer to is what started about ten years ago in the United States. Where people started experimenting with the photopolymer plates instead of the metal type and realised that they could make a deeper impression in softer paper. A traditional letterpress printer would never ever use his metal or wood type to make deep impressions. If you would do a print-run of 1,000 cards for instance, with metal type and you would print it too hard into the paper, the type will wear. Same thing would happen to wood type.
Letterpress being a fashionable thing is an interesting development. I’m afraid that a lot of people now that refer to letterpress don’t even know what real letterpress is all about. Real letterpress is more about touch & kiss printing, rather than forcing your type into the paper.
You bought your first letterpress in 1969 at the age of 16 and began letterpress printing. What made you interested in it at such a young age?
When I was a child I was very interested in drawing and working with paper. My father was an architect, my mother a teacher. I’ve got three sisters, two brothers. We were a family that was always doing things. My father would make fantastic little items out of wood, or do sculptures in alabaster or in marble and my mother would also weave. So we were always making things, so to say.
When I was about 16 years old, I visited a manifestation in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That was the period of the war in Vietnam and a group of Dutch artists had said, “We have to do something for the victims of the war”. They organised a weekend during which they sold their art and all the money they raised went to the Red Cross in Vietnam. There were three artists in this group who used printing equipment to make art with, which was quite unusual, and I became very interested by that. One of them actually invited me to come to their workshop, so the first opportunity I had, I went to the workshop and they showed me around. They had this small printshop in the centre of Amsterdam and they said; “If you really want to, come around a few times and see if you like it. You can always give us a hand.” So when I didn’t have school I would go there. They started letting me do small jobs first like clean the press, do this – do that, fold the paper, place/cut the paper, so, slowly but steadily they taught me a little bit.
I happened to see an advertisement in the Times newspaper of a company in London called Adana that would sell printing presses for beginners and amateurs. They had two different size of printing presses: the 5×3 inch and the 8×5 inch. With the money that I saved I was able to buy a press. These three guys saw me happy with the press so they donated me two cases of type. Not the most interesting type, but it helped me to experiment and to set off with it. And from there things took off…
I did a graphic training in a technical school before I went to Art School. But there again, in Art School, I spent a lot of time in the print department.
What was it like to be a design student at the renowned Gerrit Rietveld Academie in the 70s? Did the Academy’s conceptual and experimental approach leave a mark on you?
When I went to Rietveld in the 1970s it was still more like an arts & crafts school. They had graphics, pottery, weaving, glass blowing, silver & goldsmith departments. So it was much more a continuation of the original arts & crafts school with a modern touch added to it. You could do portrait painting there, or you could do pottery there, but I don’t know if these departments still exist nowadays. I haven’t been back to the school for many years but apparently it has become much more like a laboratory than an arts & crafts school.
During the days I was there you had teachers and workshop assistants. So not only did you have somebody who taught you the art side of it, the workshops were also meant to teach you what equipment they had and how to work with it.
That was quite a plus, actually. You could come with your project, and the teacher would look at it and say, “Ah great, you could do this or that with it.. Maybe you should talk to the guy in the photography department, or the guys in the lithography department.” And then you would go to the workshops. It was quite nice.
In 1976, after finishing my studies, I started my first letterpress shop in Amsterdam (200 metres away from here), but I couldn’t make a living with it, so in the end I decided to apply for a job as a designer. So I worked as a graphic designer in magazine publishing in Amsterdam until 1984.
Next stop was London where you had the privilege to work with the legendary British book designer John Ryder at The Bodley Head. What was it like working with him?
When I moved to London, the first thing I did was to go around with my portfolio and ring on doorbells. It was quite funny, that you could just ring a bell and people would say, “Ah okay, sit down and introduce yourself”. You didn’t have to make appointments. So on a Friday afternoon you could just get up and go look for a job. I went around a few places and in the end I found a job with The Bodley Head.
On my first day the art director told me that he read in my letter that I was interested in and also doing letterpress, so he said I should meet their “retired” art director who still works for them on a freelance base and still comes in once a week. And his name is John Ryder.
“John Ryder??” – I asked – “but he must be quite old now.”
“Yes he is, but he still comes in from Richmond into Central London and he spends the day here”.
A week after I went down and knocked on the door, met John Ryder, and we started talking about letterpress. A few weeks later he said to me, “Are you free for lunch? Let’s go for lunch!” And from that moment on he regularly took me out for lunch and introduced me to quite a lot of people in the publishing and design industry in London. He was a designer of the old school, so to say, so his lunches were more like social meetings. He would get people over to our table and introduce me, “This is young Thomas. And this is Michael Harvey.” Michael Harvey was a lettering artist and type designer. So I met quite a few people. It was very stimulating to work with someone like that. We stayed friends, even after I left London.
He had beautiful handwriting, it was nearly calligraphy, and he wrote these letters. Often I would find a letter on my desk from John with something like:
How about lunch today at Pizza Express?
– Your dearest John
It was very classy! I kept a lot of them and last year I started scanning and putting them on flickr.
Not only was he a good designer, he was also a vey good writer. He wrote an enormous amount of articles and his book, Printing for Pleasure (1955) is still being referred to as “The” manual for letterpress printing.
You also worked at Thames & Hudson while living in London.
When I joined Thames & Hudson, I actually just moved from one side of the square to the other side. You’ve got a part of London, Bloomsbury, where all the publishing houses were. The Bodley Head, Thames & Hudson, Phaidon Press, they were all on the same square, and the Architects Association was next door to us, so it was the hub of publishing. You would often meet people after work in the pub.
Thames & Hudson was an experience, because it’s a family-owned company. It was founded by Walter Neurath who fled Austria before the Second World War. He is considered as being one of the first people to work with publishing in different languages. He saw the importance of publishing books with ‘plate sections’ and ‘text sections’. He would print all the plate sections in colour and the text sections would be done in letterpress, which is easy to change from one language to another. So he could sell his books in different countries. Hence the name Thames (London) & Hudson (New York) where he had offices.
When I worked there, his son Thomas, and Thomas’ sister Constance, were in charge. So my art director was Constance Kaine. You basically worked in a publishing company where nearly everybody was part of the Neurath family, so you became part of the family. The atmosphere was very good and it still is like that. We had around twenty different nationalities. You had a Greek editor, you had a Russian editor, you also had quite a few people from Cambridge and Oxford who spoke several languages as well. So if you would get a letter in from Russia, you would have an editor there who was able to translate it for you. It was quite funny. Thirteen designers we were, and one art director.
What were the most memorable projects you were involved in while working there?
My first project was an adaptation of a book that was brought in about the Russian artist Tatlin. It’s an enormous 480-page book. It was quite funny because I had to lay it all out – text sections and plate sections. I specified the book to be set in Gill Sans Serif in different weights. The manuscript was sent off to the typesetter and printer in Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe, because printing was cheaper there. About half a year later I got a call from the production department and they said “Your proofs are in.” I got the proofs and I was excited to open the parcel. I finally open it and the book had not been set in Gill Sans Serif at all. It had been set in an imitation Helvetica. It turned out that in Eastern Europe, because of the Iron Curtain, they didn’t have access to all the Western typefaces so they set it in something that resembled Gill Sans Serif.
Another time, I worked on this book about Van Gogh. One of the earlier editions of Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I designed the whole thing, and the advance copies arrived. The director receives one copy, the production department gets one and the sales department gets one too. So everybody immediately checks that there are no terrible mistakes in it before it goes out to the bookshops. The art department was divided over three or four rooms so you would have three or four tables together all sharing one telephone in the middle. So the big black telephone rings and my Art Director Connie picks it up. She passes the phone to me and says, “It’s Thomas.” Big Thomas, the boss. So he asks me, “Could you please come to my office?” So I go to his office, sit down, and he takes out the book and starts going through it, “Nice book… yes, nice cover also… a little bit Mondrian-like but still nice…”, and then he gets to the end of the book, shows me this blank page and says, “What the fuck is this!? I’m not selling blank paper! I’m selling books! Whatever happens I never want to see a blank page in my book again. Next time you put our backlist on it or something like that, but don’t waste the paper!”
Well, I thought sometimes it’s nice to have a blank page at the end of a book.
The end of the 80s came and you left London for Paris. Where did the “French Connection” come from?
My wife and I were living in London and it was a great time, it was a good period. Probably the best period in my professional life. We lived in Hammersmith, I worked in the city, and my wife worked on the other side of the city. I would spend an average of three hours every day in traffic. After a few years I really got so tired of all the traffic. You would not go out at night in town because trains would stop around 11 o’clock. So if you go to the cinema, you might miss the last train home. That kind of stuff. We felt like we needed something different, something new. I happened to see an advertisement for a job in Paris. I applied but didn’t get it at first. A few weeks later I received a letter and they offered me another job at the same company. It was a small design group in Paris working mainly for the publishers in Paris. I became what they call so nicely in French, Chef de Studio. I was responsible for part of the studio. There again, an interesting period because I had to learn French quickly. Despite the fact that the company tried to get into the English market. They had taken me on because of my English, my Dutch, and my German. They wanted to get more into the international market. I had some French at school, but when you move to France you realise that the French you learn in school doesn’t get you anywhere. Luckily I had a nice bunch of colleagues. They really helped me. They continued to speak French to me, mainly because only two of them spoke a little bit of English. And they don’t like to speak English because they are afraid to make mistakes. That’s why French people are hesitant to speak another language. They don’t want to look or sound foolish.
So it’s vanity. Interesting.
After a few years in that studio I thought, “Ok, I can probably do something like this myself”. I handed in my notice and set up a studio with Christine, my partner. From that moment on I’ve been working as an independent designer.
France is a complicated country. A country where you really have to know people and move in the right circles and be seen in the right places in order to get a lot of things done, but I happened to do one catalogue for a municipal museum. There’s a Museum of Asian Art in Paris and they put on an exhibition about Japanese tea cups and bowls. All about Japanese tea ceremony. I did the catalogue of that exhibition and the person who was in charge of it said to me, “Could you also do the signage of the exhibition? We haven’t got anybody yet and we’ve seen that you handled the catalogue very well; you know how to do the Japanese setting as well”, because there was some Japanese in it. So I started with that and it was the first time I worked for a museum in France. That set me off for other jobs in that same museum and from then on I started to work for several of the municipal museums because your name often gets mentioned at the end of the exhibition. With that in my portfolio I was able to contact the national museums as well. Slowly but steadily I was building things up, but it took me at least five or six years before I felt comfortable in Paris with work.
By this time computers made a big change in the industry. Did you keep up with it? Was there a need to?
A few months before I left London, before I handed in my notice at Thames & Hudson, one of my colleagues and I saw the first Macintosh computer and we said, “Wow! This is it. This is going to be it!” We spoke to our art director about it and she said, “Oh, it sounds interesting, but I don’t know how we can use this in our department, because we are an art department. Make me a report with the cost of these machines in it and I will see if it feasible to get some of them.” But that never happened, because all the typesetting was going outside. You know the printers had their typesetting equipment – you would just specify the manuscript, go to the printers, and he would lay out the pages. When I moved to Paris I ended up working in a company where we were (again quite numerous) eleven designers and didn’t have any computers. We had typesetting companies that would do the typesetting for us. They would deliver films and we had two people in the company who would do all the film stripping, then put all the montage on the pages. We had a darkroom with the reproduction camera in it and all the films were made in-house. So it was still very manual.
This was at the end of the 80s..
Yes, end of the 80s. It was only when I started off on my own that the same ex-colleague from London called me one day and said, “I’ve got one of those Macintosh computers and it’s brilliant! You should get one as well!” I said, “Good idea!” He said he knows someone who is selling his because he already wants to buy a newer model, and asked me if I was interested in buying it. I said, “Fine, buy it”. He actually drove over from London and in the back of the car he brought the Macintosh. My first Macintosh. They were very expensive and they were these tiny little things with one floppy disk in them.
He arrived on a Friday evening. We had a good meal, a good talk, and on Saturday morning he said, “Right, let’s have a look at it now.” The first Macintosh was extremely complicated in the beginning because nobody knew exactly how to take it from there. There was very little software, the storage capacities were limited, you couldn’t do images, and I had to find companies that would be able to do the output from it. You know, you could print something on your very bad printer but if you wanted quality stuff you had to find output bureaus. You would go there, take your floppy in and hand it to a guy wearing a white lab coat who would make your films. Took some time before that really set in.
Some customers were willing to use it, others weren’t. I worked with companies like Flammarion – one of the largest publishing companies in France – who still had printers that did all the film output for them. They made computed plate, and they had their in-house designers, but they didn’t do typesetting as such. I had a customer in Paris who would say, “No, we are not equipped for that. We don’t do things like that.” So you still got a type manuscript and you had to find someone to key it all in.
But I also had a customer in the South of France, in Bordeaux, who to my great surprise said to me, “Thomas! This is it! We have to invest in this equipment because it would make life easier for both of us. You work in Paris, I’m in Bordeaux. You don’t have to come over every time to discuss things, we can work at distance, we bought a modem so we could communicate.” This modem was a very funny “little” item on your desk; you would have your normal telephone, on which you dial the number in Bordeaux. Somebody would pick up there and you tell them, “I’ve got something to transmit to you.” So you put your receiver on the modem and the person on the other side had to do the same and this is how the signal would go through. So for about an hour you would have this “eeeeeeeee…eeeeeeeeee…eee” noise going on. Little bit like the old fax machines.
All of this was before the internet.
When I moved to France I got a telephone line in and they offered me something called Minitel. Mintiel was the French Telecom Company’s forerunner of the internet. It’s a very interesting invention. Along with your normal phone, you received a small screen with a keyboard attached to it, that would allow you to book train tickets, theatre tickets, make purchases online and all that, through a standard telephone line. It was seriously the forerunner of the internet, but because the French Government never saw the appeal of this, they didn’t develop it further and it died. It was their invention but they never exported it. Every household in France you would find, next to the telephone, the Minitel. They continued to offer the service until recently, 2012, because even very remote areas of France were well-equipped with telephone lines and farmers, for instance, would order all their supplies via Minitel. It was half teletext, half internet.
Your partner, Christine Scot, is Scottish. Is it because of her roots that you also lived in Edinburgh?
We wanted to take a little bit more time for ourselves and we thought Scotland would be the right place to move to. We moved from Paris to Edinburgh, but after a few years there we realised that we are not ready for this yet. We still want to do so many things and we don’t want to retire to a quiet village or anything like that. I still worked a lot for my customers in Paris and we thought we could just actually move back to Paris and continue to work there. So that’s what we did – we moved back from Edinburgh to Paris.
About five, six years ago I noticed a lot of changes in the cultural sector in France. The first budget cuts were announced. Government bodies would announce cuts here, cuts there. My main clients, the Parisian Museums and the National Museums, were being transformed into independently working companies. They had to become profitable companies. Before that they had a budget from the ministry or from the town hall and they had to show the books of course, but they didn’t have to make profit. It was basically cultural. The first announcement was made by the National Museums. They joined up with the Louvre and they became a company. From that point they really needed to look at all the budgets and costs. They were the first ones to tell the designers that you don’t get a job like that anymore. Now you have to bid for a job. First of all you had to apply as a designer or designer group to be on their list. For every exhibition or catalogue they would select three or four designers or groups and these people were asked to come with a financial proposal. They were not looking at the creative. They look at the prices, compare them to each other, pick someone, and then say, “Ok, you can have the job, but can you adjust your price?” That was the first sign for me that things were changing seriously. A year later the Lord Mayor of Paris said that the Municipal Museums of Paris will have to become independent. Every museum would get an annual budget but they have to find their own financing. From that moment on it went the same way. I thought, “Am I going to go on like this? Do I want to be in a permanent competition with people who are maybe better equipped than I am when it comes to staff and equipment?” – because you also had to give a list of what you have, how many people you employ, you had to show them proof that you paid your taxes, that you had your social insurance paid, that your staff was insured, etcetera, etcetera. That was about a 64-page list that you had to fill out and then you had to get statements from your tax inspector, and from your accountants… I said to my wife, “No, I don’t want to go on like this.” It was a good time for a change so we decided to move back to Amsterdam and do the thing we want to do.
After spending about thirty years abroad, you came back to your hometown of Amsterdam. One would think to retire, but you are far from it. You have your design studio and you also opened up Letterpress Amsterdam – your own workshop – in 2012. What does your schedule look like? What are you working on?
I completely stopped working with the museums in France. I still work for my customer in Bordeaux. He is the owner of the largest independent bookshop in France, Mollat. It’s situated at the centre of Bordeaux and it occupies about 16 buildings. It’s enormous. I’ve been working with him for almost thirty years now. I already have three projects booked with him for this year. I also still work for several publishing houses in Paris. I mainly work on books that are published in English, because of my knowledge of rules and regulations for typesetting in the English language. Very occasionally I still work for Thames&Hudson as a freelancer. I also have a customer all the way in the North of Scotland, a small publishing house called Sandstone Press and it really is quite nice. It’s owned by somebody who was an engineer all his life and decided to publish. He set up a publishing company about ten years ago. He is doing quite a lot of regional stuff and doing quite well actually. He is a nice customer.
How do you split your time between handmade and digital?
I would say 60% of my time is design work on the computer, and 40% printing and teaching letterpress.
What would be the ideal percentage?
Fifty-fifty. This year you might see this happen as I recently decided to stop teaching elsewhere in Amsterdam. For the past two years I’ve been teaching at a graphic studio (GWA) in the east of the city. I think it’s the right time for me now to concentrate on my own print studio. Teach from there and do my graphic work.
What do you think about the new generation of designers?
I’m very admirative of young designers, but I have noticed that when I speak to them, they have very little knowledge of the practical aspects of their profession. A lot of people that leave art school nowadays know everything about concept and marketing but very little about the physical aspects of getting their ideas produced. They may have heard of silkscreen printing or digital printing but when you talk for a little while and listen to them you think, “Hey, but you haven’t got an idea of how a book you want to design will be produced”. They might have ideas about the paper but it doesn’t really go further than that. I also noticed that some of them are keen to know more about working with type. The whole “letterpress fashion” has made people aware of the fact that there are other methods than digital printing or offset printing.
So where does this problem begin you think? Is it the educational system or a lack of interest from their side?
I think if you feed them the information, they will take it. I think it’s the educational system that has changed. Just like my old school Riteveld, which is not an arts & crafts school anymore like it used to be. It’s more like a conceptual laboratory where people are stimulated to design concepts, and to market their concepts. But there is a limit to what you can come up with. I’m afraid that some of the art schools turn out students with a diploma that will find themselves in situations where they won’t have the answers to be able to produce their work. I reckon that a few more practical skills would be useful and helpful. Why not give them the opportunity once a week to do a workshop in lithography, or silkscreen printing?
Recently one of my colleagues and I had nine students from the Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI). They had a “half-day turbo course”. Between nine in the morning and one in the afternoon we worked with them with two different techniques. Two hours of typesetting and printing, and two hours of linocutting and printing. These students were training to be in fashion branding. I didn’t have a clue what fashion branding was, so I asked them, “Basically.. What do you do?”, and they explained to me that they would work mainly with InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and they would do anything and everything to brand fashion on paper. So they would design posters, magazines, etcetera. One of them was busy designing a whole series of publications, and they’ve got cases with companies like G-Star RAW and all that. So they didn’t design any fashion, they would design for fashion. It’s a quite interesting concept because in the past the Fashion Institute never had anything like that. It was very refreshing, and sometimes funny, to work with them and talk to them because they had this idea that, “Ah yes, we are doing graphics, we are using InDesign so we can do this, and we can do that..”, but then I said, “Yea but with wood or metal type you can’t overlap letters. You’ve got the material that is in the way.” So after two hours they had an idea of what type was all about. I was quite severe with them. I gave them three typefaces and told them they had to do something with those. They were restricted to what they can use but had some very good results and a lot of enthusiasm. The problem is that these few hours are very little. That’s why I had the three typefaces prepared, and I said to them, “I’m not going to talk about any historical background, or technical. You have these three typefaces. Make something.”
While many would still say that letterpress is one of the resurrected crafts of retro-nostalgia, it seems like contemporary letterpress can still innovate.
Right now a lot of people are investing in old equipment. They fix them up and take new materials to work on the old equipment. There are people in London who have been printing type with a 3D printer. There are also people who use computer-controlled millers to create new typefaces in wood, but you can also create them in other materials. My wife’s family constructs very specialised robots. My brother-in-law and his son have got a fantastic computer-controlled milling machine and I’m going to do a test with making type on that machine. There is a lot going on now. A lot of people are looking into different ways of making type and printing. There are people in Switzerland working with laser cutting in wood. There are also people who developed computer programs that can steer the 1930s Monotype hot type casting machines. So you connect your computer to the old Monotype machine with this interface and it starts spouting out metal type from your digital design.
It’s not only the techniques that go from analogue to digital, to analogue again. There is also this misconception of digital media killing print, when the paper industry is actually booming right now.
The larger paper mills in the Western world are more or less obliged to harvest, and to cut trees in forests that are managed. There is hardly any paper manufacturer now that would chop up a forest that isn’t managed. Finland, one of the largest exporters of paper pulp, needs trees, so when they cut they also plant. They actually developed trees that grow at a faster pace than ordinary trees, in order to be able to harvest every so-many years. They developed a pine tree that grows at double speed. It’s a logical step, otherwise they would be out of business (and trees). Contrary to what everybody thought, we produce and consume more paper than ever before. People said computers will make paper obsolete..
It’s just like when the first bank cards came out, or when online banking started, many thought that paper bills will disappear by the early 2000s. What they didn’t consider is that people like tactile sensations, and they love paper. Just look at the new banknotes of Norway designed by Snøhetta! They are beautiful.
We had some very nice bank notes here in the Netherlands as well – the Dutch guilder. Now we have these flimsy euros that don’t look like anything.
What’s your type?
In metal I quite like the Garamond from the Stempel Type Foundry in Germany. There are a lot of different versions of Garamond you can find, but the one Stempel developed is very nice and I’ve got quite a bit of it. I also like the Folio, very similar to the Helvetica but it’s got just a little bit more. In metal, those are my two favourite typefaces. When it comes to digital typefaces, as a workhorse I use Minion a lot. It’s one of the first type designs that is very versatile with a very extended range of characters in it. For several years I worked for the Institut de France and I did very technical publications for them and I needed a lot of accented letters and diakritisch. Minion was one of the first typefaces that had all that in it.
The Dutch Type Designer Bram de Does did a typeface called Lexicon, which I also quite like. It’s a very elegant face, originally designed for a dictionary, hence the name Lexicon. It’s nowadays used for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper. It’s entirely set in Lexicon, strangely enough.
You worked with Japanese type before. Did you experiment with other scripts like Arabic or Cyrillic?
I’ve never done any Arabic typesetting, but I’ve done some Armenian, Japanese, and Chinese, but it was very sparsely used. For instance, a text in French and there would be one expression in Japanese, and I would be able to find a matching typeface to go with it.
How does typography effect your daily life? Can a badly set type ruin your day?
No, not really. When you grow older you grow milder as well. (chuckles)
But you still pick up on things. You post a lot of interesting photos of street signs on your flickr.
I like going around places and discovering fantastic little things. Nowadays we have a lot of signs on the street but I don’t think there’s been an improvement. Now you walk any high-street of the world, and you see the same signs. I find it poor. The shop-fitters come in from one country and make all the shops look identical in other countries as well. A lot of places are losing their national identity a little bit because of this.
Last year I went on a business meeting to a small island off the coast of France called Île de Ré. It’s a very nice island. When I walked through the main street of the small town I saw these hand-painted signs. It’s nice to still see those around. If you go to the countryside of Ireland, you will still find a lot of beautiful hand-painted signs on pubs and shopfronts.
So yes, I’m still aware of typography around me, but I don’t get nightmares, or lay sleepless in my bed at night because of it. (laughs)
I visited Thomas at his workshop a few times before we had this conversation, but never noticed that the place has a hidden emporium of treasures. The long and narrow workshop has a door at the back which just seems to lead to a smaller room, but when you walk through it you find yourself in a long corridor (which leads to another one, and another one) filled with books, costumes, old machines, bicycles, and practically anything else you can imagine. The property is owned by an old Dutch family, and it’s currently being used by the “theatre people” – as Thomas refers to them – as storage.
VANDERCOOK UNIVERSAL I. PROOF PRESS
I found this Vandercook proof-press in France. This is the press I use most. One of my friends tipped me off that a printer in the city of Paris was selling type and I went to have a look. It was a commercial print shop that went bankrupt, and the new owner was selling some of the old equipment to make space for new digital machines. He had an enormous amount of interesting French typefaces but they had been used for 40-50 years so they were all quite worn. I wasn’t interested in buying those but I asked him if he would sell other things from the workshop. While I was talking to him I spotted this press in the corner, under a stack of boxes and cans of oil. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to sell it so he spoke to the foreman of the shop and asked me what I would offer. I offered him 1,100 euros for the press and some pieces of furniture. He agreed to the price if I pay it in cash, so I paid him 30% right there and told him I will pay the rest when I come to pick them up. Because I got such an incredible deal, I was worried he would realise it, and sell it to someone else before I can come and take them, so without being suspicious I told him I can take some smaller items with me right now. So I took the most important bits of it which is the inking system. Without the inking system nobody would buy it.
It’s from the 1960s. I know exactly when it was built and where it was delivered, because the company that built them closed down, but all the archives and spare parts were taken over by someone in the United States so you can still find spare parts for it. This machine was sold from the American manufacturer to a French type foundry called Deberny & Peignot, one of the most important type foundries in France. And they sold it to a printer in Paris, so basically I’m the second owner.
ARAB TREADLE PLATEN PRESS
I owned this Platen Press up until 1984 and sold it to someone in Amsterdam when I moved to London. When I returned to Amsterdam two years ago, I received a call from him. He retired but still had my Platen Press, and he asked me if I wanted to buy it back since I’m back in business. So I bought my own press back. It’s an English press from the 1930s, and it’s called ARAB. They were producing these presses up until the 1960s, and there are still quite a few of them around. There are still several of them in India in daily use. They print daily newspapers and magazines on it.
I’ve got a small range of typefaces, but I try to have the best quality. I try to buy brand new type rather than second or third hand. I try to keep my collection fairly small. Some of my colleagues have hundreds of typefaces, and I always ask them, “Where are you going to keep all of this?” Metal type, unlike digital fonts, is heavy, and takes up space. When I worked in Germany for a week last summer, I received 12 kg of type as a payment. It’s worth 80 euros per kilo, so it’s not cheap. It’s worth this much because making type is expensive, and slow. It’s an alloy of led, tin, and antimony.
The property spans over (under) five buildings. You enter the workshop from the street of Singel which is one of the larger canals in Amsterdam. It used to encircle the city in the Middle Ages. The city wall used to be here, so parts of this property would be inside the city and parts of it outside.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GYULA DEAK