A recent tour around the historic fine printing and bookmaking facility Arion Press reveals the outstanding art and dedication behind superb craftsmanship of typecasting, letterpress printing, and hand bookbinding. A visit to Arion Press is a MUST. Photos by Mira Musank.
If you live in San Francisco for a while, especially if you’re a fine printing lover, chances are you’ve heard about Arion Press. The National Trust of Historic Preservation deemed the historic fine printing and bookmaking facility an “irreplaceable cultural treasure” and it is definitely a must-visit destination all design lovers. For a long time, I have wanted to visit and join one of its weekly public tours, which happen every Thursday at 3:30 pm. The time constraint was a big hurdle, plus I later found out the “5 people minimum” for tour RSVP otherwise it’s canceled for that week. So even though I have heard about this wonderful historic destination for at least 4 years, it’s only recently I finally got the chance to visit and join its public tour session.
In essence, this Park Presidio facility is operated not just by one institution, but three:
1. Arion Press – the publisher of limited edition books in the US
2. M & H Type – the typefoundry producing lead-alloy type for hand and mechanical compositions daily (the oldest and largest in the US, and one of the few remaining in the world)
3. Grabhorn Institute – the nonprofit organization that sponsors the weekly public tours and is dedicated to preserve the press and typefoundry
Here in this facility, the whole process of bookmaking is done from start to finish; from assembling letter types, making artwork, printing, to binding. Basically, the dozen (or so) employees did almost all but making paper themselves. The driving force behind this excellent preservation of fine printing and bookmaking is Andrew Hoyem. He’s the founder, publisher, and an accomplished poet! To get a quick but effective idea about Mr. Hoyem, Arion Press and M & H Type, I highly recommend seeing this 7-minute video “Turning Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ into a work of art” from PBS!
From here onward, I will share my experience during the Thursday public tour; hopefully you will feel inclined to visit Arion Press whenever you’re in the city and your schedule permits!
The Arion Press’ tour guide that day was Thomas Gladysz, who wasted no time in showing us how unique and precious this facility is by comparing two copies of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The big one is produced by Arion Press; it is printed on special handcrafted paper using Gaudy typeface, some pages have whale-shaped watermarks on the corners (can you see it on the 2nd photo below?). Only 275 copies were produced, and one copy is worth about $12K nowadays. The smaller one is uh, less impressive and widely available at book stores for a fraction of the cost.
Arion Press normally produced three books per year. For its 100th publication, it has chosen to publish Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s a reproduction of the 1st edition, printed on dampened handmade paper, bound with wooden boards with oak veneer and green goatskin spine.
There were more books to admire on the lobby and hallway leading to the gallery, such as this magnificent Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks (text by Diana Ketcham). The book tells a story of Jefferson’s five years in France (1784 – 1989) with letters in typeface used in Jefferson’s time, showcasing 46 photographs by Michael Kenna and vintage Paris maps.
And don’t forget this HUGE 50-pound, 2-volume bible that took two years to print! Only 400 copies were produced for this rare book; it’s the last bible printed using letter pressed metal type. Any takers?
The gallery showcased more works Arion Press has published recently, and it’s quite exciting to see more books that have clearly transcended the ordinary meaning of “books.” With the normalization of cheap prints and e-books, I hope this art of fine printing continues on for many years to come. That being said, if you love the art of bookmaking, then all the more reason for you to come visit this place and join the Thursday tour!
Book I | Book II
I especially love how visually striking this accordion-fold book by Kiki Smith is. Those hair photos? She put her hair down on a copy machine in order to produce those 16 photo-lithographic prints!
And have you seen a poem book that’s circular? This presentation by artist Alex Katz is so creative and captivating, no wonder it’s framed and displayed at the far wall of the gallery.
The room divider at the center of the gallery apparently showcased Kara Walker’s latest work.
Before we went downstairs to see how magic is made, we briefly admired this cool Columbian handpress that contained a page of Don Quixote passage.
The Composing Room and Pressroom
Downstairs is where the hard work being performed. We saw big printers, racks of typecases (many of them rare since they’re no longer produced), beautiful papers…basically a whole lot of bookmaking history staring us right in the face!
Printer Blake Riley was doing some multi-tasking: explaining the whole printing process and cleaning up the big cylinder press machine, I wandered around the room trying to take pictures of anything that caught my eyes in the room.
Typecaster Brian Ferrett did a hand composition demonstration for us. Basically, he set up type forms letter by letter onto steel tables before locking them up. It’s not as easy as it sounds; there were a lot of hand pressing, turning, pounding, checking, and re-checking. Rinse and repeat.
We wandered some more around the Pressroom to take more pictures, as well as encountering a platen press loaded with a page of Leaves of Grass, racks full of typecases, and artwork stamps so exquisite that I want to have one made for me!
If we think the pressroom has a lot of typecases stored in racks, we were wrong. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, Thomas said as he led us walking to the end of a hallway filled with shelves and shelves of typecases. The typefoundry is where those typecases are made with hot metal pieces. It’s rather hard to hear words coming out from Thomas as he struggled to triumph over the typefoundry noise (someone was in the middle of making a brand new typecase). Regardless, seeing the metal slugs and Monotype keyboard was so fascinating. The typeface for Rolling Stones magazine was made here in the M & H Type!
The last place we visited was the Bindery, where Sarah Songer and Rochelle Youk demonstrated the bookbinding process for Leaves of Grass, in particular. The pages were grouped and handsewn by hand before finally bound with wooden boards and green goatskin spine.
But not all Arion Press books are finished with by hand stitching though, it’s more common to do them with the HUGE sewing machine. As we’re leaving the bindery, I saw a picture of a cat. Its effectiveness in chasing actual rodent creatures is questionable, but I don’t think they have anything to worry about :)
We walked back upstairs, passing more wooden racks of typecases along the way. Upstairs, Blake gleefully showed us a splendid antique paper with an elaborate watermark. As I admired that rare paper and glanced around the room, I can only give my most heartfelt respect for these people. Along with Andrew Hoyem, they keep this precious art and history of bookmaking going strong! These so-called “books” are so much more than that; they’re works of art that are simply timeless.
If you are interested in purchasing these works of art from Arion Press, check out their catalog as well as their upcoming publications. My personal wishlist is Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail by Ansel Adams. What’s yours?
I hope next time when I come to visit Arion Press / M & H Type / Grabhorn Institute in the future (with friends preferably), it’s still going strong. It’s a great way to educate oneself of rare high quality books and cultivate one’s knowledge of history of human cultures as they tell us stories, page by page, letter by letter. I certainly will never think of the word “book” the same way again…not after seeing Moby Dick and touring this precious bookmaking facility. I feel so inspired, and I hope you will to, after you visit this place.
Thank you for reading; until next time,
Photos by Mira Musank.