Monday, November 15, 2010

biting the Apple that feeds me

OK, this is proof that letterpress stationery has hit a peak in popularity: Apple is surfing the wave.

There was a thread of discussion running through the NGA Print Symposium about the way that letterpress is marketed in the design world, now that its original purpose (printing everyday items of information) has been made obsolete. This promo ticks all the boxes:

-- the essential sideways shot of the final product so that you can see the physical difference to an offset or digital print

-- the use of creamy pastel colours, to appeal to the (mostly female) consumer base

-- the language used in the video and blurb, with all the right buzzwords:

centuries-old process
one of a kind
physically pressed
beauty seen and felt
elegantly crafted design
unique letterpress elements

The last two made me guffaw: elegantly crafted design... WTF does that mean?

And unique letterpress elements... the mere use of the word element suggests that there is more than one building block that can be chosen, which negates the word unique.

Note to universe: if it's unique, there can only be ONE of it. Something cannot be quite unique. Either it is or isn't.

There is NO WAY anything printed in multiples is unique. You can personalise it, but it will still only be unique if you only ever print one. Every time I see a site where you get to pick out pre-designed elements to put something together that is 'unique', I always think of that bit in Monty Python's Life of Brian:
Yes, we are all individuals!
I'm not.

I'm very interested in the emphasis on printing being physically noticable, as if embossing/debossing is a signifier of taste or cultural difference. A number of years ago, embossing was something tacky done to Christmas and birthday cards and then covered in glitter. There seems to be a deep need to resist the flatness of contemporary printing... or maybe the flatness of contemporary consumerism? That would explain the whole craft industry.

I cannot set myself apart from this trend; I take the sideways shots, I have been know to create deeply bitten surfaces, and occasionally I use photopolymer plate to print from. I'm also working on a line of cards to sell at exclusive venues in Canberra. I am part of this. But I've never been one to just jump in and join; I have to understand why it's happening, and to try to participate meaningfully.

Actually, the way I am different is that I'm not a design/craft studio, I'm repurposing letterpress towards printmaking rather than design, which is the other way that the equipment is surviving in Australia particularly. I don't make these exquisitely clean surfaces, because to me that would be no different to making a digital or offset print. I guess I use the ink in the way these printers use embossing plates -- to differentiate myself from contemporary commercial printing.

There is a conference in the UK about this on Friday that I would kill to be at, but I don't have the money to get there. I'm hoping to get the papers afterwards for a jolly good read. One of the reasons why I'm thinking through this stuff aloud to you is that I'm trying to write a paper on this for a printing conference in Melbourne next year. So any (constructive) discussion in comments would be most welcome :)


lucytartan said...

You've seen the Penguin Great Ideas series of books, with their fake letterpress covers, I'm sure - what do you make of them? When they first came out the design emphasis was on typography, they had a very Caxtony vibe. More recently the indented type just looks like embossing.

There was a movie a couple of years ago with Will Smith where he had a thing with a girl and showed it by fixing her garage Vandercook. I thought then that letterpress had achieved fully fledged status as a classy indie feminine thing. Somehow the lady had managed to get her press to print several pastel shades at once.

Ampersand Duck said...

Ha! That was one of the comedy touches of my talk at the Print Symposium, mentioning the moment in Seven Pounds where she pulls a full-colour print off a press in the middle of the night, without even inking up and I guffawed loudly in the cinema involuntarily.

Yes, I loved those initial Penguins. They were/are so seductive. Embossing *is* seductive, even when it's on a card covered in glitter. The problem is, when you use something a lot, it loses that seductiveness; I rarely even notice the Penguin covers now, i just read their backs. It's just going to be another design placemarker, like the animated typography everyone is doing on Youtube, or the ipod human shadow technique. Embossed cards will be so 'turn of the century' or so 'naughties' or whatever this last decade is called.

Lee said...

i F***ING love your blog. thanks for the little lifts.
from central new york...

ronnie said...

morning duckie

hmmmmm yet again this conversation reminds me of the parallels between calligraphy's popularity peak (late 1980s/ early 90s) and the rise of letterpress (late noughties).... I remember commenting previously how calligraphy was THE craft to emerge in response to the rise the desktop publishing revolution... I'm wondering if letterpress (and company) are THE craft now that interweb communication rules.... as most of our notes are now intangible digi-bites, I think it's quite natural that we want something to tactile to touch as a counter-balance....

and just as I noticed the public's fancy turn from calligraphy to other new sexy crafts (scrapbooking anyone?) I'm equally convinced that letterpress will have its brief moment in the popular spotlight, (complete with pseudo letterpress looking design), then the bubble will burst - the pseudo players will move onto something new (macrame anyone?) and the REAL afficionados will carry on the tradition. just as happened in calligraph....

but hey this is something I could rabbit on and on and on about for a very loooooooong time (we'll have to get together one time with a bottle of red....)

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Full of interest and admiration but with nothing intelligent to add, I just have to tell you that the wv here is 'indizede'.

melanieporras said...

heyyy check out my blog will ya?--->

100% said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Zarquon said...

This r relevnt 2 ur intrsts: Boing Boing

Sara Bowen said...

oh dear oh dear. Bloody Apple; is there anything they DON'T want to get into? Fab news that you are a Blog of Note! Not that I needed Blogger to tell me so, thank you. Congratulations - now I can chuckle about the more obscure comments as well as your fab content! Sara

Ampersand Duck said...

Zarquon, you sound so spammy, you dag, but of course it's a BRILLIANT link and I thank you for it.

Same to you, Ronnie, for your insightful comment. It's great to have such a pertinent case study ;)

Yairs, Rhubarb. The odd comments are pretty funny. I'm just wondering how much DID get caught by the spambotkiller. Must go and look.

Katherine said...

I've been one of your lurkers for a while now, and am finally breaking my silence thanks to this awesome post. Thank you!

I get what you're saying. I, too, prefer the messy, the bold, the whatever-needs-to-happen-to-just-get-it-out-there. I'd choose lead or wood type over the "clean perfection" of photopolymer any day (although I'll use it when I'm gifting wedding invitations or CD artwork to friends--I know it has its benefits).

What I love about printing is its roots: It's a communication device. It's a way to mass-produce a message. It's about informing people. I'm open to its evolution as a design medium, but feel most inspired by its past.

Right on.

Rachel said...

hi! I wanna invite all the guys to come to my blog and have fun. Kisses!

Ampersand Duck said...

Katherine: hi, thanks for delurking, you're most welcome. Great comment! Yes, I use polymer too when I need to, and I'm very capable of using letterpress super-neatly (like in my books), but that connection with the roots is a real buzz, isn't it?

Rachel: Sigh.

Pav: anything you add is intelligent. You've seen the other recent additions :)

Ampersand Duck said...

Melanie, I know you'll hate me for this (and I know you might never come back to check this, you're probably sprainting the interwebs), but you will grow out of it. I hope.

Plus -- be careful how much you hotlink your images. You're in danger of being pulled up by some heavy copyright dudes.

Unknown said...

wow I love your blog; this is so great. A history lesson for all to enjoy; thanks!
you are free to see my french vintage school poster and map on my blog...thanks

Finder said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Catherine said...

I agree with earlier comments about wanting something tactile in the digital age. I've had a 'stationery fetish' since I was a child, and there's just something wonderful about proper textured paper and ink you can see and touch. It changes words from something you just absorb mentally into something you experience with all your senses.

Richard said...

Very interesting. If Apple is onto it it must be big!

I want to pick up one point you make though, about things that are printed in multiples can never be unique. I Would have to disagree with this, given that with letterpress, and other manual printing techniques there are always going to be subtle variations between each print. Perhaps more so with things like woodblock/lino than letterpress though for sure.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with what you're getting at, I think - that Apple is trying to pass off it's mass-produced replica letterpress as the real deal, but I don't think it can be said that multiple prints from say a woodblock are not unique.

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