Photographs The Counter Press
As a publication that celebrates, among other things, mid-century typography, we’ve long talked about producing our own piece of typographic artwork. The opportunity finally arose in May 2015, when we met David Marshall and Elizabeth Ellis of The Counter Press, a London design duo who use an authentic 1960s press to create beautifully tactile letterpress prints.
We were keen to try the letterpress technique – it is of course authentic to the mid-century period and, fittingly for a magazine, provides a medium that celebrates the aestheticism of the written word. This isn’t a day-job for David and Elizabeth though; the pair work as free-lance designers and The Counter Press provides a refreshingly screen-free alternative to that world. David tells me “Letterpress is our analogue escape. We use only traditional wood and hot metal type, painstakingly setting each composition before printing on antique presses. For us the physical act of designing and printing with traditional moveable type is what we love to do: that is the skill, craft and beauty of letterpress”. This labour-of-love-approach appealed – after all, this ethos is not so far from our own here at MidCentury!
This was the moment, we all agreed, to produce a limited edition letterpress print, and what better wording to use on it than a quote from Modernist legend Le Corbusier? So we took one of our favourites, ‘A house is a machine for living in’, as inspiration for its design. We didn’t want to create a mid-century pastiche though, rather a piece of artwork that nodded to the Modernist grid that forms the basis of the magazine design itself. The Counter Press achieved this beautifully – influenced by Le Corbusier’s architectural structures, they used the back of the wood type to add texture and pattern to the background. The effect is one of a warm grey concrete grid, the subtlety of which is quite unexpected. The Le Corbusier quote was overlaid onto this in a dark metallic grey and a flash of red added at the end, a colour associated with Le Corbusier’s architectural panels.
On visiting the Counter Press studio, I was able to see the stunning collection of wooden type blocks for myself – drawers upon drawers of neat rows of type lovingly collected over years, sourced through eBay and visits to old printing works. The collection needs to be extensive – this is physical type after all. Each letter is an individual entity, its size and font style cannot be changed with the click of a mouse.
I watch David and Elizabeth hand set the letters onto the press and it’s a painstaking process. If there aren’t enough letters in the same font and size for the phrase or word that is to be printed, then gaps are left and the paper is run through the press a second time. The letter spacing has to be micro-millimeter perfect for this to work and, as I watch the pair adjusting the blocks, I come to appreciate the intricacy of the process. David carefully stacks fine sheets of card beneath some of the letters – he explains that he has to do this because some of the blocks are so worn that they sit marginally beneath the others, preventing the ink from printing evenly on the paper.
And finally, after hours of preparation, it was time to put ink to paper. A colour was selected and dabbed onto the press. The handle at the side of the press was slowly turned so that the heavy rollers spread the ink evenly onto the type blocks. The paper was then fed in and the handle turned until the rollers had travelled the length of the printing plate, guiding the paper over the typeface. David sums up the effect achieved, “the three-dimensional type is actually pressed into the paper, and this gives a very tactile finish”. The result is simply stunning, well worth the wait!
Watch the printing process in action via the short film clip below…
To see other work by The Counter Press, click here
There’s more on mid-century typeface on the Fonts In Use blog
Read our article Mid century typeface: a reflection of Modern architecture