Back to basics – why the old is new

Graphic designers have been bending over backwards for years, pulling all the stops in order to turn a message into communication. We’ve spent hours finding the right typeface, fussed with tiny increments in size, introduced refinements in OpenType fonts containing hundreds of ligatures, alternate characters and content-sensitive positions.
Part view of the workshop at Potsdamer Strasse 98a in Berlin

And now “letterpress” is back. Suddenly we’re happy to take a lowercase l and use it for a figure 1 because that particular typeface doesn’t have enough figures? WTF? Wood type sucks when it comes to kerning because you would have to cut away bits of the letter itself in order to achieve “perfect“ spacing. There are no half sizes, let alone fine increments in letterspacing, unless you want to spend hours inserting slivers of brass or thin paper to refine a line of type. The material defines not only how you work but also what the result will look like. If you only have a large wood type font in one size, you run out of certain characters very quickly. So you’ll pick a smaller size which will have more of each character or you’ll choose another typeface altogether. If that doesn’t help, you’ll change the message.

The typographic system of letters and spaces – horizontal and vertical ones – has been refined since Gutenberg first invented printing with movable type almost 600 years ago. The whole system is one giant grid systems that can be divided and multiplied in myriad ways. Pages will always look good as long as you work within the constraints, time being one of them. If you spend too much time tweaking the system, things will look mannered and inappropriate. Modesty is a virtue when working with well-defined but finite elements and tools.

You need to know what quads are, spaces, reglet, furniture. You learn to use a composing stick, chases, cases, hacksaws, pincers, awls, spanners, screwdrivers and heavy lifting equipment. You’ll be working with dirty rags and virgin white paper, inks, grease, machine oil and petroleum. And you’ll find out that the work isn’t done until all those materials are back in their proper places and that cleaning up can take almost as long as setting up without being any fun. Everything you touch is either very heavy or very delicate. Or both.

p98a_stege_bw Furniture and reglet, the “invisible” parts of the page

You’ll never have the right size type, never enough characters and you’ll always run out of the right size paper just a few sheets from the final print. At the weekend. Mistakes will manifest themselves in loss of materials and too much time spent in the shop. But there is nothing like setting up a forme (yes, with a silent e at the end) from bits of lead, steel, aluminium, brass and wood – a very messy sight, as these materials have all been around and aged differently – and then running a clean white sheet of paper through the press and over that colourful forme. Suddenly and quite magically, there is a message: words on paper, exactly where you wanted them.

You know what it took to compose the words into the forme, with all those bits of metal in between. (No return key here and no tabs either; the white space isn’t.) The dear reader doesn’t know, nor needs to. But she senses that this message is the result of a physical process, made with things that have been touched by many hands. The process communicates itself. It doesn’t get in the way of the message, it enhances it.

Posters, posters, posters

When we started the workshop two-and-a-half years ago, we thought we’d print a poster a month to help with the expense of running a non-commercial studio. Somehow along the way we lost the monthly rhythm. A few posters were so popular that we had to print them again, albeit with different type or layout. After all, every print run is limited to 50 posters, all numbered and signed by yours truly. So even the same statement in a different layout will always be a new run of 50 only.
Apart from filling a demand, we also have to deal with the fact that all our projects continue to cost money. We’ve had wooden type (my own HWD Artz) cut in three sizes by Hamilton Wood Type, my own FF Real was cut in 16 cic wood type by our friends Delia and Tudor Petrescu in Romania, and we just received a large amount of freshly cast Akzidenz Grotesk 60p. It was cast by Rainer Gerstenberg, the last remaining type founder in Germany. A few characters were missing from the matrices that Rainer borrowed from the type museum in Leipzig, so we had new punches cut for them. We also had punches cut for characters that weren’t included in the sets for a German font in the 1950s, like @, #, £, $ or €.
All these and many other projects cost more money then we had budgeted for, so printing and selling more posters seems a good way to not only raise some cash, but also to try out all the cool typefaces we keep finding in our cases.
So here are several posters that are available but haven’t been shown properly. Except, of course, over on spiekerstuff, where you can order them all plus all the older ones that are not sold out completely.
All these posters are printed from original wood and metal type on MetaPaper Rough 170g, usually with black and Warm Red inks. They measure 50×70cm (roughly 20×27in) and are shipped in a durable cardboard tube.

This last one may need some explanation. Martin Luther (the original German who started the Reformation, 500 years ago next year) was know for his direct language. Unlike the Pope and his minions, he didn’t speak Latin, but popular German, i. e. he didn’t mince his words. This saying is attributed to him by credible contemporary sources (the Twitters of their time). In English it can be paraphrased as: “Never a happy fart from a sad arse”. We set this inspiring motto in Fraktur (literally: broken type), which is what German was printed in until the Nazis discriminated those typefaces by overusing them for their propaganda in the 30s.

Mal auf deutsch

Wegen der großen Nachfrage sind viele Motive auf englisch. Es gibt aber gewisse Sentenzen, die man nicht übersetzen kann – was für beide Sprachen zutrifft. Dieser Spruch von Kurt Tucholsky ist so eine Wahrheit, die international gilt, aber nicht zu übersetzen ist, weil „über“ sowohl ein Adverb sein kann (in eine Stunde passen nicht über 60 Minuten), eine Präposition (das Plakat hängt über der Tür) oder ein Adjektiv (ich habe noch 2 Euro über).
Auch ohne grammatikalische Kenntnisse versteht es jeder sofort.
Das Plakat ist aus der schmalen 16cicero Fanfare gesetzt. Diese Schrift – von Louis Oppenheim 1927 für Berthold entworfen – haben wir in vielen Graden von 8 bis 42cic, leider fast nur in der breiten Version. Aus Holz und aus Plakadur.
Wie viele unserer Plakate kann man auch dieses handgedruckte Motiv im Format 50×70cm noch kaufen auf spiekerstuff.


Lots of new posters

We got a little behind with posting new posters on the website. Over at spiekerstuff you can see them all.
In the Berlin workshop we recently put up a lot of them by the spiral staircase because all the other walls are already covered.

Wall of posters

Better printd than not


This looks like a clever typographic pun. It may well be so, but as often with real type, necessity was the mother of invention. When I sketch a poster to be printed, I normally make sure I have enough characters of that particular font. In large sizes like this one (20 cicero or 20 line), there are only a handful of each character in the case. As you can see below, Akzidenz Grotesk Halbfett only provides 4 lower case letters “e”. We could have inserted an e from the Bold weight or one from another font. Instead, we decided to just leave it. Just lazy, not creative. Makes us look cleverer than we are!

As always, the poster is printed on MetaPaper Rough Warm White 170 gsm in Black and Pantone Warm Red ink. From original wood type on our Korrex Frankfurt, 50×70 cm.

The 50 posters each are num­bered and signed by Erik Spiek­er­mann. We ship every­where and you can pay by Pay­Pal. Price is the same in these cur­rencies: £, $, €; always 98, includ­ing tax (where applic­a­ble) and ship­ping, wrapped in a solid card­board tube. Please go to spiekerstuff to order. You can also check out the other prints there as well as the metal housenumbers I designed a few years ago. Some of them are still available from spiekerstuff.

1924 Johannisberger Schnellpresse (stop-cylinder press)

Ths press hadn’t been used for 30 years. We had to make or find many parts to get it going again. Good job that there are still some people left who know how these amazing machines work! We had new rollers cast (they’re 130cm or 58 inches wide!) and managed to get paper in that giant size. We’ll be printing the first poster next week, following the layout shown below, but from original wood and metal type. At this size, even 24pt Block looks minute next to the 32 cicero (approx 35 line) Fanfare. The cooperation between our galerie p98a and Ralf, Reinhard and Daniel from Die Lettertypen promises to be a lot of fun in the future.

BTW: we’ll take commissions!

Diese Druckmaschine war mehr als 30 Jahre nicht in Betrieb. Etliche Teile mussten neu angefertigt und andere beschafft werden. Gut, dass es noch einige Fachleute gibt, die wissen, wie so eine Maschine funktioniert. Acht neue Walzen (immerhin 130cm breit) sind frisch gegossen und wir haben auch Papier in diesem riesigen Format besorgt. Das erste Plakat wird nächste Woche gedruckt, nach diesem Entwurf, aber von den originalen Holz- und Bleischriften. Auf diesem Format sieht die Block in 24p neben der Fanfare in 32 cicero recht klein aus.

Diese Kooperation zwischen unserer galerie p98a und Ralf, Reinhard und Daniel von Die Lettertypen wird uns noch viel Freude machen.

Wir nehmen auch Aufträge an!

Our latest poster, freshly printed

This quote by Jean-Luc Godard has always intrigued me. The discussion about style versus content is as old as the profession of graphic design, and he puts it into perspective.

This is a longish quote which uses quite a few characters (8 lower case e and 5 o – all we have in that size), so we couldn’t resort to our larger Akzidenz Grotesk, but had to go to 12 cicero instead.

As always, the poster is printed on MetaPaper Rough Warm White 160 gsm in Black and Pantone Warm Red ink. From original wood and metal type on our Korrex Frankfurt, 50×70 cm.

The 50 posters each are num­bered and signed by Erik Spiek­er­mann. We ship every­where and you can pay by Pay­Pal. Price is the same in these cur­rencies: £, $, €; always 98, includ­ing tax (where applic­a­ble) and ship­ping, wrapped in a solid card­board tube. Please go to spiekerstuff to order. You can also check out the other prints there as well as the metal housenumbers I designed a few years ago. Some of them are still available from spiekerstuff.

Letterpress workshops at P98a

One of the joys of running a letterpress studio is to share the experience with others. At galerie p98a we regularly set up workshop sessions for a group of individuals or an entire team. We’ve had design teams here for a team-building exercise, for a day of reprieve from sitting in front of their screens or simply for the fun of getting their hands dirty.

You’ll find a list of planned workshops on spiekerstuff. That page links to Eventbrite, from where you can reserve a workshop and find out about the financials.

Designers from Construct London at P98a

Designers from Construct London at P98a

Giant old press back in operation

Our friends at Lettertypen in Berlin have quite a few old presses, all of them operational. The biggest one of them is Johannisberger Schnellpresse from 1924. It prints sheets up to A0 format, 88×126cm (i. e. 35″×50″), with manual feed but automatic delivery. See here for a list of other equipment our combined workshops have: SchriftDruckPapier (in German).

After a long search, he recently found a few missing parts and last week Daniel ran the first sheets through the press. Watch it here:

3-letter words project

We printed 60 small posters with one word in each of them; all in English and with just three letters. These words are now up on the wall in the shop on Potsdamer Strasse 98, outside our letterpress workshop.
The idea is that you’d pick up as many of these words as you like and make a sentence with them. You hang the boards on the wall opposite and we take a photo. That’s it.
If you like, you can also crank out a poster on our small proofing press as proof of you having been there.
We’ll start this Friday, September 18, at around 16:00 and will also be there Saturday and Sunday afternoons.