The Letterpress iPad App
Trying to preserve the craft of letterpress printing by making it into an iPad app is kind of like trying to save the art of the book by promoting the Amazon Kindle. It’s absurd. So absurd that it just might work!
Graphic designer and wood type enthusiast John Bonadies has created a “virtual letterpress environment” to be released for the iPad. He calls it LetterMpress, and you can use it to mix colors, set type as you would on a real press—meaning that the letters appear backwards in the press bed—and store your designs in digital galley trays. And yeah, you can even export these “prints” directly to your LaserJet to be copied effortlessly while you sit around admiring your perfectly manicured, ink free, fingernails. Damn you look good!
Bonadies plans to include 12 typefaces and 50 art “cuts” for the first version of LetterMpress. The way the software reproduces that good old fashioned aesthetic—uneven ink distribution, funky textures, and idiosyncratic detailing—is by manipulating scans of real wood type impressions. At a later stage, LetterMpress users will be able to get actual letterpress prints custom made from their designs by typesetters working with the growing collection at Living Letter Press, a co-op Bonadies has founded in Champaign, Illinois, which will serve as a resource for designers, artists, and students.
One of the most valuable things about letterpress printing is that it takes a community to run a press. Over the course of the last 20 or so years, a number of printer’s enclaves and small presses have helped to revive the manual art of typesetting, publishing small run artist books and writing which, without subsidy, would probably end up languishing (or benefiting from unprecedented distribution potential!) online. There is a reason why people have embraced this outdated technology and it is connected to the reasons why they choose to print what they do (usually poetry). So maybe software which takes the social life out of the process and limits the idiosyncrasy of the result doesn’t have much to do with those reasons.
This being said, the letterpress iPad app will also get a lot of people who don’t know what a peach from a pica interested in typographic printing. That’s a good thing. Technology, to use a topical reference, is both destroyer and preserver when it comes to the arts. The e-book has, in fact, served as a catalyst for book arts operations everywhere. And some small publishers have opted to take the form head on; Ugly Duckling Presse—one of the most notable producers of hand crafted poetry books—made waves when editors decided to put out electronic versions of back-listed titles.
One of the problems with e-books—and there are many—is that the form has not developed sufficiently into an art for it to allow individualism into its products. (The same was true of photography at its inception, and at one point, also of typography.) This is a fancy way of saying that most e-books and e-reading devices suck. But efforts wasted lamenting the blow these technologies deal to book culture should be directed toward new and awesome ways to reintroduce into digital media what was valuable about print media. Necessarily, this will involve a degree of translation; you can’t just turn a letterpress into a wysiwyg for touch screen; you have to approach a new model on its own terms. Writers and designers should be focusing on the potential new technology has for doing good and for making art. Publishers should think about the potential of e-publishing, which goes beyond cheapness, distribution power, portability, and other utilities Amazon seems to care about most.
There will always be a place for old forms in the new world—movable type has been around since Gutenberg. It is important that we think a little harder and try to preserve what is actually good about endangered practices rather than just carry them nominally forward into the simulacral abyss.
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