Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Just The Right Type

Of course it’s all computers and desktop publishing nowadays. Before the years at The Esteemed School of Art, back during my Foundation Year back in the Westcountry, one typography project involved Letterpress Printing with monotype hot metal typesetting.

It was certainly more time consuming and remarkably fiddly, sorting through the typefaces and building up the different lines of text, but there was something incredibly satisfying by the time we reached the printing stage later that week. Watching BBC4’s magnificent Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press - The Machine That Made Us reminded me how much fun it had actually been.

Most documentaries of the last few years have had an annoying habit of wasting time on irrelevant dramatic reconstructions. In this instance, the sole reconstruction was of a working press based on a Dürer illustration, which was as close to Gutenberg’s original design as possible, and Fry’s snaps of German wine presses. As well as giving a hand with the building, as well as creating metal characters and making his own linen-based paper to print upon rather than use vellum, Fry set about investigating the life of Johannes Gutenberg.

Born in Mainz, on the bank of the Rhine - which Fry described as “the silicon valley of medieval Europe” – it turned out the inventor’s real family name was literally translated as “goose flesh.” Visiting the local church, Fry looked at where Gutenberg had most probably been baptized and described it as a “7,000 point font.”

Typography jokes are never the funniest. The technician in our print room didn’t see the funny side when one of my fellow students pulled a drawer of type out, thinking it was on runners. It wasn’t; and sailed out of chest and landed on the floor where the tiny metal letters, spaces and punctuation marks went everywhere.

Things were much happier in the documentary. The excitement was palpable once it came to reprinting a bible page and the looks of delight on everyone’s faces when the pages came out of the press were just delightful.


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