The City Is My Religion — Invocation

On June 28th, 2016, I sped through the suburbs from the hospice where my husband would soon meet death. I’ve no memory of the exact location, only that it was in the vast all-cars-no-sidewalks suburban terrain I can’t stomach. Politely manicured lawns and strip malls on both sides, with no signs of live humans. I sobbed because my city-loving husband had to die there.
Maneuvering back into Chicago, I drove down Kedzie Avenue and immediately stopped at an intersection to allow a woman to cross while pulling a child’s wagon. It had a precariously balanced dresser sitting on top, with its normal occupant in the street behind it, pushing energetically as his mother heaved it through the crosswalk. I chuckled at this scene from my neighborhood. I was back where my environment glowed and all the ice creams is $200.

In the midst of end-of-life discussions involving religion to which I did not subscribe, I realized the city fulfilled that role for me. Pacing the streets, seeing my people at the shops and carrying on in an immediate, embracing environment provided the solace that many, I suppose, get from a religious life. Circumstance told me a page must be flipped to a new life chapter I wasn’t ready to read. Could I look to my first 20 years in Chicago, examine their foundational structure, then create a memoir in print to both honor the past and provide a scaffold for the future? The work of my hands is and always has been, free therapy.

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I applied for and was granted the Arthur & Lila Weinberg Fellowship at the Newberry Library, for research to develop my idea of what this project could be. The steady rhythm of searching titles, laying out one’s pencils and notes, receiving beautiful objects on little cloth futons, then getting lost for hours in what is, for the bibliophile, consecrated ground, was both a balm and a directive.

I examined the definition of a type specimen book to explore if it could function as a memoir as opposed to its more traditional role either documenting type for sale or satisfying the vanity of a printer. Because I am not a foundry or reseller of type, and because my collection is anything but stagnant, a specimen could be freed to take on the life I choose to give it. As Russell Maret recently wrote, “In the absence of new types, then, a specimen book that fails to present old types in new ways brings its own existence into question. Why bother?” I couldn’t agree more.

While perusing 100 year old specimens in the Library, I particularly enjoyed finding typos and mistakes as a reminder that a human hand built the form.

Of particular interest were these word ornaments from the Marder, Luse & Co. books, a Chicago-based foundry prior to 1900. This is because I own many of these sets but wasn’t sure how they were designed to work together.

Studying these helped flesh out what would be the first of 10 themed prints, this one focused on the definition of perseverance.

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The text for the print was pulled from diverse definitions of the word, from the dictionary itself to Curtis Mayfield and Sesame Street. The largest within it is my own; it is a nod to early morning sightings of bread trucks all over the city. This singular vision reminds me life is going on and that whatever happens that day, I can always get a hot dog at the end of it.

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All of the typefaces used for this print are generally hated by both type enthusiasts and casual armchair designers. Let’s hear it for Murray Hill and Park Avenue! How ya doing, Brush Script and Typewriter? Never enough of you, Cheltenham, old friend. Groan all you want, few typefaces have persevered liked these champs.
With this print, I established the three design tenets each subsequent print would follow:

  • Typefaces grouped by theme of my choosing

  • Historical component connecting print to specimen books, printing, etc.

  • Personal story, reflection, connection to the city of Chicago

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The second print would ultimately become the cornerstone of the project as I compiled the tools to build a church. But this would be a monument to the places that shaped me into a Chicagoan and set me on a path to collecting a ridiculous amount of metal ornaments, many of which were designed, cast and used in Chicago for decades prior to my tenure as owner.

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While at the Newberry I studied a book on Chicago-based ecclesiastical architecture for stained glass palettes. Below is the direction I went in for my church, with solid and definitive black lines functioning as the key plate. The vibrancy of images from a French type specimen also resonated as color existed in this use of metal type in a way that it does not in early Chicago type specimens.

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The final form is comprised of individual layers representing buildings, homes and locales in the city. While setting this I developed the second guiding principle of this project. For each of the 10 prints, or ‘elevations,’ there would also be 10 ‘construction drawings.’ Following the memoir theme of building a life that celebrates both the public and ‘pretty’ side alongside the mundane, this would allow me to present supporting information in the form of drafting, a skill I learned in the pre-CAD days. This part of the project, which will offer all the minutiae of my research and form development, will follow the completion of the prints.

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After the black was printed, five more colors were added to build out a range of visual texture in the print.

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I printed a simple starter prospectus in order to share it with others and forward my internal dialog about what the project would be. There’s a shocking lack of organization going into it; I do not have all of the specs hammered out, don’t know exactly how it will be presented, not quite sure what each print will look like. This is scary for someone whose shop is organized with a precision that satisfies preservation librarians.
That said, when a print begins to take shape it is not unlike giving birth; I struggle to breathe, scream for an epidural, go to war with all of the little metal soldiers and when it is finished, I am exhausted, exhilarated and sad. I did not hit my initial deadline because of the emotional space needed between producing each print.

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Brick is the foundation of Chicago. In the 1920’s, brick manufacturers were turning our clay into 700 million ‘Chicago Common’ bricks a year. This continued into the 70’s when EPA regulations would drastically alter manufacturing capabilities and the demand decreased. But the ubiquitous brick is everywhere, on the backsides of buildings and as a major component of construction you can’t see. This includes the below exposed bricks at the Newberry during the renovation of the Library’s first floor. These ones were obviously not meant to be seen.

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Years ago, there was a city initiative with accompanying signage that said ‘Rebuilding Chicago’ and it was posted at every construction site. For some reason, and I could conjecture over a Chicago Handshake with fellow citizens, these were changed to ‘Building a New Chicago.’ But prior to that change, the original campaign left an imprint on my thought pattern for a print.

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I built a brick wall of type high wood scraps to serve as the backdrop for a collection of typefaces that I grouped because they best represented the kinds of handstyles I see scrawled in the alley.

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Chicago Commons fired to a range of yellows and pinks that made them unique in the world. To achieve this, I printed my wood bricks in three passes, altering which side of the wood printed and how they were inked.

I kept ‘Rebuilding Chicago’ after the signs disappeared because every time we saw one, Jo would exclaim ‘But I liked it the way it was!’ The irony of this is that my child hit on something key to construction in the city; it is largely focused on the areas of privilege that need it the least. Like our neighborhood.

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The historical component of this print is the inclusion of clues about the development of the type measuring point system we use today. Chicago’s Marder, Luse & Co. took the lead role in this standardization.

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The year mimics the way a cornerstone is engraved with the founding date of a building. And the names previously used to reference type sizes are also included, as they can appear as nonsensical to the uninitiated as graffiti writers’ tags.

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As I dive into the final four prints of the series this fall and polish my thoughts and scribbles on the three that are the subject of my next post, I am cautiously optimistic about the direction of the project. The varsity team of printers, binders, thinkers, librarians, children and weirdos I have assembled for support have a shocking capacity for confidence in me to present something that feels representative of my life thus far.

More photos can be seen here and for all the ‘epidural!’ moments, follow me on instagram.

I Have This Thing About Ships

I have this thing about ships. Often the ones that met untimely ends at the bottom of an ocean or through fire. My home library includes accounts of the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, Walter Lord’s thorough accounts of the Titanic and lists of Great Lakes shipping disasters. Maybe there’s metaphor in it, considering I’ve likened navigating loss, single parenting, health insurance and a small business to steering a ship through icebergs. Maybe it’s my passion for the work of skilled craftspersons who labor for years to create something that carries people from shore to shore, and is then lost in moments. Maybe it’s the beautiful architecture and technology of these vessels that inspires me to be a more thoughtful designer.

One ship I adore that escaped the fate of those in my library is the SS United States, which made its record-breaking maiden voyage across the Atlantic on July 3rd, 1952. It is a stunning piece of American innovation and her architect, William Gibbs, famously touted her as unsinkable, inflammable and unmatched in speed. By design or circumstance, he was correct.
On May 31st, 1954, my grandmother set sail on the United States, destined for a few weeks with my grandfather, then stationed overseas in the Air Force. Here she is on the stern, in personal photos shared with me.

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I’m certain my grandfather’s penchant for ephemera was the impetus for saving the souvenir program and menu from this trip and I couldn’t be happier about it. The incomparable Lester Beall designed these pieces, making them important artifacts for both ship and mid-century design lovers.

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One of my own exciting finds is this postcard featuring a beautiful illustration of the ship just prior to her launch. And even better, the card was sent by a representative of Mergenthaler Linotype, whose machine was present to cast lines of type used for shipboard printing. Two of ‘my things’ on one little card!

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Below is my grandmother’s menu from her first night on the ship as a Cabin Class passenger. This is the kind of thing that would be cast on the Linotype (similar to the slug I am holding at the bottom) and then printed for that day’s meals.

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In June I had the honor of being invited to spend a week at John Horn’s Shooting Star Press in Little Rock, Arkansas, alongside other printers I greatly admire. If this is hell, I’d like to spend eternity there.

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This sounds snobby, but I’ve spent 20 years building a collection of metal type and ornament and it is extensive and designed for the kind of work I do. It’s rare for me to be in the presence of another collection that inspires me to the level of, or in this case, well beyond, that which I’ve lovingly built. John’s print shop is so well-appointed, well-organized and well-loved that I nearly fell to my knees to praise the printing gods.

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These boxes store diverse typefaces that span decades, styles and sizes and I opened every one. John has multiple systems to find, identify and label his collection, making it easy to waltz in with a plan and out with a print.

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One section of the shop is purely ornament, with little treasures painstakingly labeled and organized, sometimes even by size and style. These photos represent only a small portion of what is there.

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I had it in my head that it might be possible to create a print that would pay homage to the SS United States, in all its streamlined and luxurious glory. And printing at John’s place gave me access to a massive collection of ornaments I don’t have as well as a press that would allow me to print a sheet that’s 25” long. I started sketching potential solutions for the design on my pica paper so that I could easily find ornaments and rule that work with this typographic grid. It didn’t take long to realize the image would be more successful if I didn’t include the entire length of the ship, and instead focused on detail in a loose, illustrative style. The ship is still the fastest cruise ship ever built, so I considered ways to represent her speed.

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These images show the slow progression over two days of starting with a letterpress ‘dry dock’ in which I could piece together elements to form the ship.

The distinctive funnels have dotted brass rule trailing behind for ‘speed lines’ and I mitered the ship’s body, made from thick metal rule, and included wave-length ornaments to hint at how it cut through the ocean. While fast, it wasn’t quite fast enough to relieve my poor grandmother from 5 days of seasickness.

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My original form included small, 6 point open circles as portholes in what would be the black sides of the ship. These were nearly impossible to print correctly once on press and I scrapped the idea given the limited time I had to work with. I also added more of the wonderful clouds and changed the ornaments framing the name at the bottom to be more in keeping with its style. Major thanks to Jessica Spring for the suggestions on both of these.

Together John and I carried the giant form to the Vandercook Universal III, and here it sits, awaiting its proper lock down for ‘sea trials.’

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Usually with multicolored projects, I first pull a proof of the entire form, then mark which colors must be removed to print the first color, then replaced, with the finished color then coming out (repeat for each color.) It’s complicated. But printing this one was not unlike a reduction linoleum cut in that it would be extremely difficult, or impossible, to replace elements once they’d been removed. So I tackled the gray first, as this was the most detailed. Below is how it looked with the red, blue and black removed.

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And this is the final print, on Stonehenge white and soft white cotton paper, measuring 25x11”.

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The details… I wanted the idea of the ship versus an exact replica and this approach to working with metal type is always the most successful. If I wanted absolute realism, I’d get out the colored pencils instead. So the lifeboats are 1/4 circles in two different weights with a little rule between them. And the funnels are squares, rectangles and rules to fill the solid color area.

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Luckily John had the perfect reverse gothic type for the name.

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The limited set of prints are now available here. I’m so pleased with the turnout, especially given the time I had. If there was a Blue Riband for typesetting, I would have run away with it.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work at Shooting Star Press and it would take another lifetime to fully take advantage of what exists there. John’s unwavering support of my work over the years gave me the confidence to build the ship of my dreams when I wasn’t sure it was a good or even possible idea. It challenged me to look at ornaments in a new way and gave me the scary ‘this could certainly fail BIG’ feeling that pushes me forward.
The SS United States still exists and currently resides in Philadelphia, though the burgeoning airline industry killed her career in the 60s. I can’t bear to post any images of the state she is currently in and her future is not secure. If my print becomes merely a memorial and the familial ephemera just memories, I’ll take that.

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The Almighty Starshaped

I heard a guy on the radio extolling the virtues of his small town, with its community and people-run businesses. It was nothing like the city, he said, which is cold and run by giant corporations. With much resistance, I did not throw the radio out my window and instead made a mental list of all the ways this guy got it wrong.
On the mile walk from home to studio, I pass elementary schools, bakeries, coffee shops & restaurants, boutiques & book stores, post offices. Buildings are being built, new sidewalks laid, people opening shops, garbage collected, children ushered across streets. I wave to friends and neighbors.

Everywhere I look I see the work of so many hands. Bricks laid both 10 and 100 years ago. Dated stamps in cement that say ‘I’m proud of this work.’ Tags on poles and tagging in the alleys. I think ‘Who did this? What is/was their situation? Did a life of dedicated craftsmanship create this or a moment stolen to record I WAS HERE'? It fascinates me in the same way the hand paintings in Argentinian caves speak to me, but in an even more immediate sense.

The streets, parks, buildings and alleys all tell different stories but are connected in one way: the people who use them every day.
I love people. Watching and listening and learning from them. I love to see how they interact with the city, from handmade signage to tagging to how they move through it, especially if that movement is facilitated by walking, biking or riding trains.

In considering the work of all these varied hands, I consider the work of my own. How do I interact with the city? How do I represent it? Does my work communicate the vibrancy and interconnected nature of those who share the streets, parks, alleys and buildings? Can I build a sketchbook that encompasses an everyday snapshot of the few miles I cover daily, with their textures and colors and eccentricities?
And that’s when the idea of The Almighty Starshaped was born.

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In the 70’s and 80’s, it was common for Chicago gangs to print their own compliment cards (have some fun with this in your head for a second) which you can enjoy in the book, The Almighty & Insane. I fell hard for these for two reasons. First, gangs printed their own cards as a way to say ‘this little piece of the city is ours and this is who WE are,’ and second, a majority of these cards feature blackletter typefaces paired with an unflinching braggadocio.
I set out to create my own almighty piece book styled after those of graffiti writers. It is a collection of vignettes inspired by my foot/bike/train travels around Chicago, a record of the sights that often go unnoticed and ignored but build the character of the city.

My goal for the book is to create an entertaining sketchbook with images built entirely from metal type and ornament. The irony and challenge is that in order to create imagery that appears to be sketched and recorded quickly, I must do some of the most complicated typesetting I’ve ever taken on.
There are 48 pages and the center section of each signature folds out to show larger images that include the title image (metal type takes on spray paint!), an homage to the train-riding experience, bike haters (sneak peek above) and the city at magic hour, looking west.

The book, entirely covered in black book cloth, will have one ‘sticker’ on the front, meant to resemble those that taggers are so fond of. I am, indeed, claiming this book.

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Here’s a look at a few of the other forms on deck to be printed. The final pages will be full of color.

I often hear the rhythm of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago in my head as I wander the city streets… Shoveling, Wrecking, Planning, Building, Breaking, Rebuilding… and think no one has ever gotten it as right as that. I want to add to this visual with Thinking, Designing, Addressing, Including and of course, Printing. Where would Chicago be without that?

Go here to order the book. I owe high fives to Craig Jobson of Lark Sparrow Press, one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had. He encouraged everyone to always look around and be a part of the community, because design inspiration is everywhere.

Party with the Girls of Starshaped

Many lunch dates with a particularly good friend end with 'book store?' and we wander over to Ravenswood Used Books to see what awaits us. One fruitful trip resulted in many books, one of which covered German graphics and included this image:

Progressive German Graphics 1900-1937,  Leslie Cabarga

Progressive German Graphics 1900-1937, Leslie Cabarga

Immediately drawn to these as having been created with metal type and rule, I thought, I could do this... but can I make them... cool? Relevant? Reflective of my experiences as a woman vs. an idealized image created by men? Can I do it with just the modular type in the studio to keep the strong contrast and bold imagery? Does everyone ask themselves a million questions before starting a project?

When I moved to Chicago, the city felt like both a warm hug and a kick in the skirt, declaring, 'what are YOU bringing that will make me even more interesting, more diverse in expression and thought and experience?' I was quickly enamored of a number of subcultures in which girls drafted their own personas based on a shared passion for style, fashion, music and writing. They were built on the past while adding something new... a tweak on the clothing, bands diverging from the originals, working in the vernacular of the street. I adored the attitude of the rude girls, mod girls, b-girls and straight-edge girls that didn't necessarily fall in line with the punk crowd. This was the perfect line up of girls to create that directly reflected my experiences, and so the research began.

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Creating angles seems like an easy enough task with metal type but not if they veer from 45º or if each image contains more than one set of angles. I attempted basic starter sketches of each girl on grid paper to look for common angles and to begin seeing how the simplest metal sorts could fill the space. I had to be mindful of what areas would be 'black' and what would be 'white,' leaving this a little up in the air as I had a sense these ladies needed to be printed on black paper.

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Rude Girl, with her clean, black & white sweater paired with pencil skirt, grooving to ska and rocksteady, came first. This classic image is already so graphic it felt like an easy place to start; it helped establish the use of white/negative space as part of the design itself.

Mod Girl, that icon of 60's style so classic it persists today, was a natural follow up to Rude Girl. Her mascara and pop art dress were built to a steady soundtrack of Northern Soul and English Mods.

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Good Girl, a variation on Straightedge Girls, preferred the scrappy sounds of garage bands and gospel soul to punk rock. She offered more opportunities to rock a uniform while staying true to her ideology. Also, it was really fun to build that skirt.

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B-Girl brought it home with the most challenging form. How do you capture such incredible movement in one print? What iconic pose gives you the attitude of these breakdancing ladies without killing the energy? I went with this one to show the strength, all while rockin' the cap and Adidas.

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Printer's Devil Jo and I often have what we call Dance Parties in the studio, where we turn up the tunes and let it all out. This is a good exercise after school that loosens us up to get through a few more hours at the studio. So it seemed natural to brand a series based on girls and music as such.

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It also felt important to include song lyrics with the prints to ground them on their respective dance floors. Our pals at Jump Up Records suggested the Bodysnatchers for our Rude Girl and no one is ruder than these ladies. Mod Girl got a little Paul Weller because she's a girl that can scare Paul Weller. Good Girl pulled out her Alex Chilton/Big Star albums, knowing he can write about uniforms with reverence and not creepiness. MC Lyte lays it down on the cardboard harder than anyone else could for our B-Girl.

Rounding out the images, I added some subtle black-on-black ornaments for each girl for that little somethin' somethin'.

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The paper, Curious Matter, is made from potato starch and has a very tactile, space age feel to it. The silver ink pops and the black is so subtle it's difficult to photograph.

These ladies definitely presented as a series and I planned to bind them as such, in a sleeve resembling that of an LP. The first page functions as colophon/liner notes. It's printed on shimmering, silver paper in all Cooper Black because nothing says Dance Party like Cooper Black.

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Jo graciously brought the attitude to photograph the final product.

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Half of the edition of 50 was bound and finished at Penland School of Crafts in my downtime from teaching there this Fall. When in Rome, bind like real bookbinders do.

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I might not be able to get coffee and pie at Don's in Rogers Park with the mod/ska kids anymore, and I might not get to as many clubs for music as I did 20 years ago, but I'm surrounded by girls in the city who are taking the term 'girl' and owning it, removing the negative connotations that come from downplaying their cultural role and denying them status as full-fledged women. I see styles evolving from the above to give new meaning to navigating fashion, music and attitude, building confidence along the way.
To support the next generation of ass-kicking girls, 20% of the sales of Dance Party is going direct to She Crew, an organization that Jo and I can't love enough. The innovative and tireless youth of Chicago show us all that our future is savvy, smart and stylish.

Residing in the Ornament

In September 2016, I had the pleasure of listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda in conversation with Chicago theater critic, Chris Jones. While discussing his collaborators, he emphatically stated, 'Find the people who can make your work better.' The comment struck me as it gets to the heart of collaboration; your own work is validated and strengthened by honoring the work of your collaborators.

I've been fortunate to call Geri at Virgin Wood Type a friend for some time. While the craft of making wood type in the 21st century is not one pursued by many, there is little doubt in my mind that Geri's acute attention to the details of the process and commitment to creating the finest quality wood type is unmatched. The unfortunate fact that our personal lives share many sad roadblocks has brought us even closer and the friendship only wanted a project to highlight our creative strengths.

I started drawing ornaments that would stray from The Chicago Collection in all its rigid architectural influence but retain the subconscious effects of prairie-style design on my work. These ornaments would be organic in form but cut to mirror each other, giving the user the opportunity to create symmetry, if desired.

The semi-final round of choices

The semi-final round of choices

From here I chose six designs that would be cut as reflecting pairs. Then Geri and I decided to create two collections that would contain four sets each of three designs, meaning printers could get one or both sets to mix and match. Here are the final patterns, notes for cutting and a sneak peek of the pantograph cutting, courtesy of Matt Rieck:

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They are so beautifully made that it was only right they be named for two very different Chicagoans I admire: Ida Terkel and Lucy Parsons.

Another goal of the project was to create something outside of the traditional vernacular of wood type ornament. Sure, we all love the stars, rules, pointers and manicules, but what if wood type ornaments could reflect the aesthetics of a time period in which its production was declining? What if these ornaments could help printers push their design work in new directions and interpret existing type collections in different ways? I was certainly anxious to try, and so began a specimen book to put them through the ringer. It started with simply combining four of the same ornament together to create larger designs and progressed to multi-color, overlapping pages.

I felt color would best serve these ornaments and went for it with a full-on rainbow, albeit it one woven through an Arts & Crafts sensibility.

All of the designs held a certain charm for me, but it wasn't until printing that I fell head over heels. The final version of these ornaments added two somewhat unexpected layers: the living nature of the wood itself and the skilled hands that cut and trimmed each one. Some may consider this a residual loss through production; I will fiercely defend this as a rooting the designs required in order to thrive on the page.

The final books are bound and available here in a limited edition of 65. The ornaments themselves are made to order via Virgin Wood Type, alongside a stunning roster of beautiful wood type faces that pair perfectly with them (Craftsman Gothic, Preissig and Rugged.) I cannot wait to see how they are interpreted by other designers and grow beyond the initial sketches. Louis Sullivan said 'the building's identity resided in the ornament.' At face value, this is a guiding principle of my most self-fulfilling work. As metaphor, the buildings I raise are given their true identity when layered with the kind of collaborators who make my work better.