Walking along the Potsdamer Straße in Berlin one can’t help but notice busy building works. The street entry through to the beautiful ‘Stiftungshaus’, a red brick building from 1893 in which the letterpress workshop was established by Erik Spiekermann and his collegues, is covered in scaffolding. I was late, my well-planned trip on public transport had been interrupted by Ersatzverkehr, due to train track works.
Out of breath, knowing how much Germans love Pünktlichkeit, I entered the room through a big industrial-looking, iron-framed glass door. Jan Gassel (designer, pilot, entrepreneur amongst many other things) had invited me to a tour around the letterpress workshop. Rows of extremely heavy printing presses and neatly positioned tools lined the room. Jan explained they were collected from all parts of Germany and with lots of care, time and effort eventually placed at P98A. As he did all the technical installation work (mainly manual as these machines are over sixty years old) his knowledge of the individual presses was literally ‘impressive’. He started an old, heavy iron Heidelberg printing press, which, well-oiled of course, worked very precisely, similar to a swiss watch. Like a dance, the machine elegantly turned paper and applied ink in a rhythm accompanied by its own soundscape. Determined by the machine’s impact, the resulting print had generated a visible process (see below):
Next door, in a narrow side gallery, a beautiful collection of typefaces was arranged on shelves. The moveable letters on show were made from wood, metal and Plakadur. There was of course the well known Akzidenz Grotesk (Plakadur, led and wood), the German Fraktur typeface Bernhard Fraktur (cut in wood and released 1913 and 1926) and an unusual chromatic typeface which showed only outlines and shadows, therefore different colours within one typeface could be applied (wood). It was easy to see which wooden letters had a higher occurrence in texts than others as the darkness of the ink covering indicated the frequency of use. The ligatures were rarely used and lightly coloured, whereas the a’s and e’s were deeply black.
This workshop was a real gem for any typographer and we got lost in discussions about letters, presses, papers and books. It was certainly a much more tactile experience than anything I encounter in my daily work. There was a visible process that allows for a deep understanding and exploration, for new findings (as accidents happen) and very likely tends to push a designer’s patience. On reflection, I believe this visit allowed me to appreciate once again, how physically relaxed my job is nowadays. This is thanks to many inventions that have been developed and have come such a long way within the last century. As I left and heard the noise of the building works again, I smiled.
Huge thanks to Jan who travelled to Berlin from Hamburg to lead a private tour and meet an old friend. More info about the letterpress workshop P98A: http://www.p98a.com