TYPOGRAPHY is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidently aesthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader's chief aim.
These words were typed on a keyboard that somehow got married to a television screen. When the story is finished, I push a button that says "SEND LINE" and the computer swallows the story. The story is later recalled by an editor who edits it on the screen and tells the computer what type size and width the story is to be printed in. A computer-run photosetter does the rest. The art of printing is reduced to a print-out that is pasted down on a layout sheet from which a plate is made. It's a long way from Joharn Gutenberg's invention.
Gutenberg's great achievement was to place the free-form, hand-written letter on a rectangular piece of metal that could be used over and over again. Skilled craftsmen would place a letter next to the letter to form a composition that would best convey the meaning of the text.
The art is not lost.
There are a dozen or so people in the area who keep small presses and a few fonts of type in their basements and print for the love of it. They delight in graceful and expressive letterforms, appropriate and pleasing arangement, good spacing between letters, words and lines, and fine, crisp printing. They enjoy the skill, the eye and the creatively required to turn a craft into an art.
Some of the best basement printers are currently exhibiting their work at the Washington Cathedral Rare Book Library. The show includes certificates, invitations, announcements and small folios of poetry printed as keepsakes for friends. A few items are printed on hand-made paper.
Much like pottery, cabinet making or baking your own bread, hand printing is good for the soul.
"I can't stay away from it," says Roland Hoover, a Washington basement printer who is also director of publications of the Brookings Institution.
"It is not like collecting stamps," says Hoover, who has several printing presses in his basement and has assembled a collection of exquisite old and new fonts that most large commercial firms would envy.
"Good typesetting and printing serves a useful purpose. It means giving graphic form to literary expression."
Hoover likes to quote English typographer and type designer Stanley Morison. "Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end." Like most lovers of good typography, Hoover deplores the current fad in newspapers, magazines and advertising to compress, stretch or otherwise distort inappropriate letter forms into illegibility.
Ironically, the rapid spread of computerized printing is a boon to basement printers. Commercial printing firms are forced to convert or close shop, but, at any event, to sell their old equipment at bargain prices.
"You can pick up a $5,000 proof press for under $500 now," said Hoover. "You can also find amusing arrays of fanciful Victorian wood type, which is becoming as fashionable as Victorian houses."
Ken Hammel, who makes his living producing films for the Navy, recently bought a font of Ninny and Ronaldson Roman No. l type, cut in 1796 and believed to be the first typeface cast in America. It is a classic type with much individual character, as handsome as the similar typeface cut at about the same time by F.A. Didot in Paris.
In addition to letter forms and composition, typographers say, there is a special quality about letterpress printing by hand that modern photo-offset machines just cannot match. "As a woodcut or engraving, the type 'bites' into the paper," observed John Michael, who is both a private and a commercial printer. "It's interesting that people who come to see our work always want to touch it," he said. The exhibit "Fine Printing" closes Sept. l.