Mr Smith's Letterpress Workshop
Mr Smith – letterpress
Mr Smith's workshop is halfway up a cobbled mews near to Kennington tube station in south-east London. We haven't met before, but as I walk past his open door we seem to recognise each other straight away. He's enthusiastic and friendly.
Inside the whole place is crammed to the ceiling with cases of type, all methodically arranged and stored, upper case and lower. On a bench a large amount of used type is waiting to be laboriously returned to its correct place. 'Often I spend one or two days a week just sorting type and putting it away, ' Mr Smith tells me, 'in the trade it's called “distributing”.' Letterpress is a meticulous process; each tiny letter, punctuation mark, or space, having to be composed by hand. 'It's about building, it's architectural,' he says as he physically moves type around within a frame. Anything up to the size '72pt' (one inch) is cast in lead; anything larger is carved from wood. 'You can still get all the lead type as long as it's Monotype,' he says, 'there are six companies still making it.' Wooden type on the other hand can only sourced from dealers and collectors, thus there is a distinct difference in quality between lead type (which is crisp) and wood, which has the patina of age.
It takes me a while to work out exactly what Mr Smith is doing. At first it seems that he's a bloke with some old printing presses and a workshop full of type, painstakingly spending hours, days even, doing what could be done in five minutes on a computer. But this would be to miss the point, because actually none of this could be done on a computer. Mr Smith is composing type in a very hands-on three-dimensional way. 'I'm not a commercial printer,' he says, 'my philosophy has come from using the process as a way of making good design. It's discipline versus creativity.' Everything is published under the 'imprint' (or trade name) Smith's Rules. This is an approach carefully worked out by Mr Smith to 'explore visual ideas in response to design dogma, typographic prescription, letterpress process and material restrictions.'
I've brought with me an old copper printing plate from the Gordon Russell Museum. It's slightly larger than a postcard and shows a view of part of the Gordon Russell workshops years ago. It's a photographic image with the half-tones created by tiny dots. 'Yes, I can print that,' says Mr Smith, 'let's do it now!' He inks up the roller of the smaller of his two Vandercook presses, switches it on, and the rollers begin to spin. The plate sits on the bed of the press, held firmly in place. He puts in the paper – some thin newsprint 'I love the colour of newsprint, I can't bear white' - winds a handle and the rollers move across. On the fourth proof, after minor adjustments to the packing on the press, we have a perfect print.
In his studio next door, Mr Smith shows me his latest prints. 'I'm making a lot of things about the things I find interesting,' he says. He explains how the choice of paper is important to him, and also the inks. Editions of prints are carefully stacked, ready to be signed. Of the participants in this Real Craft exhibition, Mr Smith is perhaps the closest to working as an artist. 'Craft is in the thinking,' he says, 'and thinking is part of the craft. This is the redefinition of a process as a form to celebrate ideas – there's some real craft in some of this.'
Mr Smith has designed the 'Real Craft' logo used on the cover of this catalogue.