Men of letters: Typeface looks at a dying art.

'Typeface' Makes Art of a Lost Craft

Adam Hartzell May 14, 2010

While Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica turned a font into a fascination, Justine Nagan’s documentary Typeface takes the topic of type one step further by moving into the past. Screening May 15 16 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Nagan in attendance for the first of each day’s two screenings, Typeface steps away from the computer that dominates typography settings in present day design studios and looks back at the centuries-old technique of hand-making wood type, as archived at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Along with the visual feast for graphic designers, Nagan’s film solidly explores a small town’s woes as it grapples with issues of art and industry, authenticity and globalization.

Typeface begins by alluding to the wood type museum as a pilgrimage point. The film’s makers, as well as the museum’s funders, volunteers and the small group of loyal visitors, envision it as a Mecca for all those touched by design, as well as for all those who want to touch design. One of the unique aspects of this museum is that the artifacts are not kept away from our grubby hands by window cases, velvet ropes, highly tuned alarms, or obstructive security guards. Here in the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, the texture of the artifacts is as important as the visuals, as are the smells of oils and dyes and freshly carved wood, as are the sounds of wood-shaving and the click-clacking of the Rube Goldbergian machinery that is an old letterpress. The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is a complete sensory experience.

But Typeface refuses to sit comfortably in the awe that wood type evokes for graphic designers and letterpress artists such as Purdue University professor Dennis Y. Ichiyama or the students at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book & Paper Arts, who are featured in the documentary. Typeface also looks plainly at the sad state of the craft. Greg Corrigan, the Museum Director, is the documentary’s Sisyphus, pushing up the mountains of woodblocks that have yet to be cataloged. Jim Van Lanen is the small-town Carnegie, trying to make Two Rivers a museum hub. The ice cream sundae was apparently created in Two Rivers, (although Ithaca, New York, also claims this title), and the museum dedicated to that mainstay provides major funding for the wood type museum. But Two Rivers is miles away from any major metropolis, a day trip from Minneapolis, Milwaukee, or Chicago. Chicago, in fact, is quite well known for its design industry and it would be a city better able to feed the coffers of such a museum than Two Rivers. Two Rivers is yet another small town feeling the adverse effects of globalization after many previous industries have left. As sad as this situation seems, Nagan provides nice counterbalance when discussing Hamilton’s history of having strategically destroyed its own competition in the typeface industry.

It’s the loss of the craft of creating wood type that gives the film its somber tone. An old timer here or there volunteers at the factory to demonstrate the skills they developed there. But the museum can’t afford to pay apprentices to carry on the traditions. The documentary displays Two Rivers as the kind of place that would crush the soul of a young hip designer with her own ideas. There isn’t much to draw in graphic designers who might prefer bigger, more urbane environments.

Those individuals trying to carry on the wood-type letterpress tradition are cogs in the larger wheel of the DIY movement that has been fueling copyshop zine, urban knitting, subscriptions to ReadyMade magazine, and participation in Maker Faires. The designers and artists interviewed in Typeface do not shun computer-based type facing, they simply find something in the aesthetics of wood-type letterpress that one cannot experience in the ether, a muscular choreography now lost.

Chicago-based Kartemquin films is most famous for its iconic Hoop Dreams, but Typeface shows us that they have continued to create compelling documentaries with their own unique form of craftsmanship.

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