April 14, 2014

The letterpress fetish reaches its logical conclusion



Over the past few years, letterpress printing has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. Even the most mundane postcards and keepsakes now bear the signature deep impression of metal type, and these days it goes without saying that one’s wedding invitations must be letterpressed in at least two colors. I’ve been bracing for the inevitable backlash—for one thing, historic practitioners of the craft would be horrified by that embossed quality everyone’s crazy about, since it signifies that too much pressure was used in printing, and excess wear given to the metal type—but I can’t say I’m not enjoying it while it lasts.

A newly-completed project from the Folio Society is sure to mark the saturation point on letterpress printing’s undulating curve of shifting expectations. Eight years in the making, the complete Letterpress Shakespeare is exactly what it sounds like and has all the hallmarks of a print fetishist’s ultimate fantasy. To wit:

The text has been printed in 16-point Baskerville, with type set in hot metal and impressed on thick, mould-made paper. […]

The case sides for the first volumes were hand marbled by Ann Muir. She was succeeded by Jemma Lewis, who has completed the series. To create the effect, droplets of oil are floated on a solution of caragheen moss and combed into patterns. Since each pattern is different, each book is unique. […]

The quality of the print and the thickness of the paper meant the presses had to run slowly, with frequent adjustments to ensure evenness of inking and impression. Printing just one of the plays involved eight hours of work a day for six weeks. When the printing was complete the type was melted down, the setting never to be used again. […]

Each book is half-bound in goatskin from the Sahel region of Nigeria. The leather is tanned in Northamptonshire and then sent to Lachenmaier bindery in Germany. Like many other stages in the production, the binding is executed by hand. […]

Each volume is individually numbered, titled in 22-carat gold leaf and presented in a buckram-bound solander box. [all emphasis mine]

In case you haven’t yet reached completion, there are YouTube videos profiling the artisans responsible for the typesetting and marbling, which, as a reminder, were done by hand.

Of course, this kind of luxury experience will set you back: the plays are $545 apiece, with a complete set weighing in at $21,335. If that’s out of your budget, fear not—the complete Penguin Classics are still available for an affordable $16,400.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.