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.

The Well-Traveled Metaphor

I've never been out of the country (you don't count, Canada, to a New York gal coming of age in the 90's.) When asked about this 'choice' I am forced to both consider and share that it was anything but. The lack of travel tied into paying for my education, starting a business and ultimately owning the 1920 poky-walled bungalow of my dreams, all of these things held together with spackle, paint and sheer gumption. But with the exception of the til-death-do-us-part mortgage, life is debt-free and Starshaped boasts one of the finest metal type collections in the Midwest. My true choices were good ones.

Eponymous Dard Hunter ampersand, representing East Aurora, New York

Eponymous Dard Hunter ampersand, representing East Aurora, New York

American Uncial, by Victor Hammer, printed at the Wells Book Arts Center in Aurora, New York

American Uncial, by Victor Hammer, printed at the Wells Book Arts Center in Aurora, New York

Totemic, by Jim Rimmer, representing Vancouver

Totemic, by Jim Rimmer, representing Vancouver

Given my foreign travel virginity, the irony of The Well-Traveled Ampersand series is not lost on me. My anxiety with this shortcoming often leads to insecurity and not feeling qualified to engage in conversation with exceptionally well-traveled individuals in printing circles. I am thankful for two situations that help alleviate what is likely a self-imposed stress. The first is that we live in an extremely diverse and multicultural city. The street by our home is host to many Latin and South American parades in the summer, prompting a 2-year-old Jo in 2009 to ask 'can we go to the parade this weekend?' assuming there was one every Saturday at noon. There almost always is.
The other benefit to living is Chicago is our position as travel hub for those on their way to the annual Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum Wayzgoose or Newberry Library. This brings a stream of travelers through the studio and exposes both of us to cultural differences and funny slang; Jo learned this year that 'trump' in England is code for 'fart.' This was a gift to a 10-year-old if ever there was one.

Concave Tuscan, a popular style for wood type, much of which was produced at Hamilton

Concave Tuscan, a popular style for wood type, much of which was produced at Hamilton

Prior to hitching his wagon to mine, Mr. Starshaped was indeed well-traveled and spent a year living in London. I regret we were never able to travel together and it pains me to remember his first sentence after learning he had cancer: 'You need to get a passport.' I built ampersands during his illness that prompted discussions of his time and experiences abroad as well as reconnecting with the people there he loved.

London Underground, by Edward Johnston

London Underground, by Edward Johnston

Ampersand by Vojtech Preissig, representing Prague

Ampersand by Vojtech Preissig, representing Prague

Adrian Frutiger's ampersand for the Paris airport

Adrian Frutiger's ampersand for the Paris airport

Jo and I get a lot of mileage out of our fair city. We've spent hours in front of the Chagall windows at the Art Institute, a favorite of hers as she likes us to make up stories about the imagery. And we study the Tribune Tower which boasts stone and brick from famous structures all over the world, including the pyramids; this gives new meaning to the Magnificent Mile.
In the summer of 2015 she and I traveled by car to California and then east to New York, a trip that was physically and emotionally challenging for me (more here) but presented Jo with her first opportunity to see the ocean. She fixated on this as a personal manifest destiny-style mantra and her 8-year-old exuberance was a welcome respite.

Californian, by Fred Goudy

Californian, by Fred Goudy

Over the 18 months of developing this project, I reached out to a few contemporaries, crossing my fingers they'd contribute an ampersand based on their varied travels and experiences in the world and so I could live vicariously through them. One of these was Russell Maret, who shared his Cancellaresca Milanese, the one image that breaks out of the form itself to add structures of Siena. I can't pretend to understand most of the work Russell does; what I do know is that it's visually striking and beautifully printed, and I can stare at it for hours and hours as I attempt to pick apart the brain that made it possible.

Cancellaresca Milanese by Russell Maret, to represent Siena, Italy

Cancellaresca Milanese by Russell Maret, to represent Siena, Italy

Another lucky shot was getting Mark Van Wageningen of Novo Typo on board to contribute. I've been watching his work with chromatic type, both digitally and in metal, for some time and fell in love with how well this form fit the cityscapes of Amsterdam.

Bixa Stencil by Mark Van Wageningen, to represent Amsterdam

Bixa Stencil by Mark Van Wageningen, to represent Amsterdam

Joseph Churchward's Maori was supposed to be the final ampersand as it would provide the biggest challenge to my bandsaw skills. But my quest for contributors had to be put on hold while caring for Mr. S in his final months so I jumped it ahead. It's a truly impressive ampersand, and I nailed it.

Churchward Maori, by Joseph Churchward, in homage to the Maori of New Zealand

Churchward Maori, by Joseph Churchward, in homage to the Maori of New Zealand

There was a shocking lack of women designers when I first developed a list of potential ampersands. Not acceptable. It was suggested I check 'my own backyard' for talent and there's no doubt I am surrounded by it.
Nadine of Sonnenzimmer is a solid friend and comrade-in-arms in Chicago's design scene. She's always been there for me with no nonsense insight into work and a kick in the ass when it's needed. She has held me accountable to my own work and if I ever phoned it in she'd be there to let me know. As a native of Switzerland, it's impressive how quickly she developed her no-BS Chicago attitude and I love her for it. Her typographic work is anything but stale and this ampersand was the biggest challenge of the entire project.

Sonnenzimmer Manuscript by Nadine Nakanishi, representing Switzerland in grid form

Sonnenzimmer Manuscript by Nadine Nakanishi, representing Switzerland in grid form

Frances, my Frances, the cleverest turn-of-phrase woman I know, who seamlessly maneuvers between pattern and type, provided a sprawling ampersand based on her time in Vienna. How badly did we want to call it Wiener Chic? We giggled and silenced our 10-year-old selves.

Wien, by Frances MacLeod, representing Vienna

Wien, by Frances MacLeod, representing Vienna

Jenna Blazevich of Vichcraft is a beacon for feminism and owning the issues that surround empowering women and running a business. Her time studying letterforms in Rome led to Sea Change Script, and the change we hoped would come in November 2016.

Sea Change Script by Jenna Blazevich, representing Rome

Sea Change Script by Jenna Blazevich, representing Rome

I found Pooja Saxena through Alphabettes and admired her writing and type work. There is no ampersand in Devanagari script so she created a reverse stroke form that hints at the style. I found new ornaments cast at Skyline Type Foundry from Indian matrices. Tiny pigeons and kites dot the Delhi sky. This is a place to which I have longed to go for many years.

Viparit, by Pooja Saxena, representing Delhi

Viparit, by Pooja Saxena, representing Delhi

Chicago, my Chicago. The city is the constant in my life and grounds both Jo and me. Its streets and structures remain throughout all trials and the people, our village, are everywhere I turn.

Cooper Black, by Oswald Cooper, representing Chicago

Cooper Black, by Oswald Cooper, representing Chicago

I'm ever mindful that the triple crown of parenthood, homeowner and entrepreneur is an exhausting mantle to bear and we are very slowly settling into what I call our New World Order. I am hopeful that opportunities to travel and see the world will present themselves for myself and Jo. In the meantime, the passport that I rushed for a failed attempt to leave town last summer will sit at the back of the desk drawer, patiently awaiting its first stamp.
That said, there's a substantial, challenging and exhilarating project on the horizon for Starshaped that will define the studio's place, as well as my own, within the context of Chicago's past, present and future. I am looking forward to revealing more of this as 2017, already off to a jump start, progresses.

For more detailed process info on the series, please read this post. And this.
Full portfolios as well as individual prints can be purchased here.

Book of Rules

On June 30th, 2016, I lost Mr. Starshaped following a nine month battle with cancer that I attempted to process through print here and here. As we pick up the pieces and wade into our next chapter, we're grateful for the unwavering support shown us by so many.
Over the winter, unbeknownst to me, Mr. S and his psychologist, Stacy Sanford, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, documented a series of thoughts that he wanted to leave with Jo before the inevitable separated them. I discovered this when Stacy reached out at one of his appointments and gave me a copy. I was blown away; this short list included things he repeatedly expressed to Jo but couldn't write down. I knew immediately it needed a better format than a sad Word print out.

Kooks, by David Bowie, was the first song Mr. S taught to Jo and she could sing it at the age of 2. It's been a touchstone for the two of them over the years and given the weird things her parents do for a living, Jo has always loved it. Bowie mentions giving his child a 'Book of Rules... what to say to people when they pick on you.' This seemed a perfect description for Mr. S's list.
I created a simple structure that would serve as a sort of chapbook for Jo to keep close. I looked at the delightful work of W.A. Dwiggins for ornamental inspiration that would appeal to a nine year old so she could interpret the images as she liked. Everything about the simple design kept this audience of one in mind.

Printed in an edition of 75, many have been gifted to family but a number remain and are available here. There are 12 rules, with a brief intro and colophon on the inside covers.
At the risk of adding too much of my own verbiage, I'll let Mr. S's words take it from here.

Images from July 2015 and June 2016. The appearances of my two loves may have changed but the intangible between them never did.

Sweet Home, Ornamental Chicago

Since moving to Chicago in 1994, I've been captivated by both the ornate and the everyday architectural ornament of the city and how both are at home together, as if they recognize their disparate elements and accept that it takes all types to build a city.
I've used all types of metal ornament to create structures that represent various aspects of Chicago, the city I love, warts and all. 'Mom, why are you taking pictures of that again?!' has given way to 'Mom did you get a picture of this ornament here?'

A few images captured around the Mag Mile

A few images captured around the Mag Mile

A tiny sampling of the beautiful Cultural Center

A tiny sampling of the beautiful Cultural Center

Macy's on State Street, neé Marshall Fields

Macy's on State Street, neé Marshall Fields

The Burnham Hotel in the former Reliance Building never disappoints

The Burnham Hotel in the former Reliance Building never disappoints

Not exactly at a loss for metal type to create buildings in the studio, I still itched to try my hand at designing ornaments entirely specific to Chicago and based on my photos. Thankfully the technology to create the matrices needed and the craft of casting are accessible today.

Jessie Reich, First Lady Typecaster in Space

I met Jessie in the Fall of 2014 and ever since then we've attempted to find the perfect collaborative project. At last, it's here! Jessie is full of firsts, from being the first graduate of the Book Arts Concentration at Wells College to being the first woman to attend and graduate from Skyline Type Foundry's Thompson Tech. She Really. Likes. Typecasting. In her words:

I love the grittiness and the glitz; amidst the grease and kerosene and smoke, from the freshly cast type to the mats to the machines, there is endless beauty within a working type foundry. It’s a great feeling to begin a day with an empty galley, a box of mats, a pair of tweezers, and a trusty casting machine, and end it with a sense of accomplishment supported by the production of beautiful new type, soon to be shipped off to continue the life and legacy of letterpress printing. It’s both highly satisfying and empowering work.

Whenever she has a free moment, you can find Jessie at the Bixler Letterfoundry in Skaneateles, New York. These are a few of her gorgeous photos that show exactly what she mentions above.

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Luck brought us Ed Rayher at Swamp Press to create the precious matrices. Working to develop exactly what will provide the best result is currently where we're at with the production. Learning the nuances of a new-to-me material is a challenge I love; after sketching and re-sketching a few dozen ornaments, we've whittled it down to the top contenders.
Quickly drafting these in Illustrator lost something in translation, so I've been revisiting the designs to add warmth and imperfections, the characteristics that brought me to this project in the first place. And so I am redrawing the best of the bunch to see which feel right and represent what I find to be missing from my own collection and often those of shops I've visited across the country.

Looking over various incarnations with talented design ladies

Looking over various incarnations with talented design ladies

When the correct number of ornaments is established (between 4-6), then we will work with Ed on the specifics of creating the 24-point mats for Jessie to cast. We have already begun to develop our packaging ideas and usage information, as well as deadline schedules, and will announce pre-orders on sets as soon as we are confident that all systems are go. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can grab one of these sweet postcards from Jessie at the American Typecasting Fellowship conference this coming weekend (August 11-14th) or request one from Starshaped.

I agree with Jessie when she states 'anyone involved in contemporary letterpress printing can see that its Renaissance is in full swing; with new wood and metal type still being made, new typefaces and ornaments being designed, artists making ground-breaking work that is completely innovative yet pays homage to the tradition, and an entire community built on the grounds of a like passion and the drive to move it forward.' It's a thrill to work with another lady as enthusiastic as myself about ornament and pushing the craft of letterpress. Even if the process is centuries old, adding our stamp on it and challenging other printers to create exciting work is a worthwhile endeavor.

On My Tour of the World

San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver, Siena, London, Two Rivers, Aurora, Prague, Vienna... The Well-Traveled Ampersand series has made one loop around the globe and is about to embark on a second. I'm using this layover to show a little more behind-the-scenes as to how each ampersand is created. While the process for building each is similar, the drastic differences in form means tweaking how the structural elements are cut and stabilized.

The first step is choosing what ampersand to tackle and why. Does it tie in well with a region or city? Was it designed by someone I admire? Will it challenge me to set type in a new way? Is the form ridiculously incredible, and will that give me the fuel to work day and night to elevate it through the use of metal ornaments?

Russell Maret cleaning up his Cancellaresca Milanese before the pattern was made.

Russell Maret cleaning up his Cancellaresca Milanese before the pattern was made.

About half of the ampersands were chosen before beginning the series. I left the remaining open so that there would be flexibility in case something surprising presented itself, and if I found contemporary collaborators to contribute. The caliber of folks jumping in to provide a character is overwhelming and inspiring.

The pattern for Wien, by Frances MacLeod.

The pattern for Wien, by Frances MacLeod.

After the pattern is sketched out, I trace it onto wood and trim it in sections with a bandsaw to fill the galley. Some of this custom made furniture, the non-printing wood supports, is sanded and refined, then double stick taped onto the galley. If needed, I run a paper strip around all seams to smooth the joins.

Cooper Black, awaiting its destiny with metal ornaments.

Cooper Black, awaiting its destiny with metal ornaments.

Then I'm off and running! I pull together research for each ampersand, examining how to represent its region or city. Are there specific structures that are recognizable? Is there an overarching ideology that encompasses the area? Does the city offer something specific that no other city has? What ornaments in the Starshaped collection will best represent this?
Building out the structure is a bit like Tetris-meets-Operation. Like all letterpress work, the type and ornaments must be held in place firmly to print successfully. But unlike normal typesetting, the elements of each ampersand must work around curves instead of straight lines. So while I attempt to set them solidly in place, they occasionally fall over and out come the tweezers.

Filling in Californian.

Filling in Californian.

The hardest two ampersands thus far, for entirely different reasons, have been Preissig (Prague) and Cancellaresca Milanese (Siena).
For Preissig I wanted to create a little snapshot of Prague, keeping the vantage point straight while building on an extremely angled ampersand. It took days to get it right and many, many proofs of the sky area to develop the 'magical winter night' feel I wanted.

Preissig detail with tweezers, extra sorts and an etching needle for pushing down errant spaces.

Preissig detail with tweezers, extra sorts and an etching needle for pushing down errant spaces.

Late night workspace.

Late night workspace.

Every ampersand has an entirely different form; this is probably why it is such an attractive character to both type junkies and those who couldn't tell you what 'stem' and 'counter' mean. I fell hard for Russell Maret's Cancellaresca Milanese, with it's sleek and sweeping curves. Having had the fortune to discuss it together in the studio, we considered how some aspect of Siena could be included that was outside of the form itself, given it's narrow curves.

Detail of Cancellaresca Milanese.

Detail of Cancellaresca Milanese.

The final form, with many thin copper and brass spaces along the edges to help keep the curve true.

The final form, with many thin copper and brass spaces along the edges to help keep the curve true.

Since writing this post about the first four ampersands there have been these additions to the series:

Concave Tuscan

Concave Tuscan

Concave Tuscan is a chunky nod to a well-known wood typeface and represents Two Rivers, Wisconsin, home to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. I chose ornamentation that is popular in both wood and metal form and used wood type from Hamilton as well as Virgin Wood Type and Moore Wood Type to recognize today's practitioners of the craft.

Wien, by Frances MacLeod, pulls in architectural styles for which Vienna is known, including Romanesque, Baroque and Workstatte.

Wien

Wien

The most recent ampersand is Totemic by Jim Rimmer. It features bold, graphic elements indicative of the totem poles of Vancouver and was downright fun to piece together.

Totemic

Totemic

I've selected some glorious additions to the series to be printed over the coming months. While some are historical by designers no longer with us (Adrian Frutiger and Dard Hunter are on deck), a few are brand new, never-before-seen characters by women I am so pleased to have on board. Jenna Blazevich will be creating an ampersand based on her upcoming design intensive in Rome while Nadine Nakanishi, one half of Sonnenzimmer, those international design world game changers, will no doubt be drawing something unlike all ampersands ever known.

Limited sets of the entire portfolio are available at the presale price through the end of June. Individual prints are also for sale as the ampersands are created. The portfolio includes a digitally printed 12" colophon with photos of all of the type forms. All are housed in a printed sleeve.
Show a little love for the 27th letter, like my Spanish sister-in-type Eva of Familia Plomez, who came to visit this Fall.