The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 5, Number 3
Aug 1981

Omaha Conference: The Art of the Printed Book

By Judith Fortson-Jones
Conservation Specialist, Nebraska State Historical Society.

A well-organized and very interesting conference on "The Art of the Printed Book" was held April 8-11 in Omaha, as a means of focusing on issues related to fine printing presses and an opportunity to honor a man--Harry Duncan--who, through his work with the Cummington Press and Abattoir Editions, has done much to encourage outstanding workmanship and fidelity to published works.

A number of the papers dealt with historical subjects on the development of the private press, leading off with Stephen Behrendt's discussion on "The Printing and Illumination of Blake's Poetry." Using illustrations from Blake's work, Behrendt pointed out the poet's relationship to the art of the printed book through his marriage of verbal and visual elements on the page. Blake's innovative technique had influence on subsequent printers, such as William Morris, whose Kelmscott Press was discussed by William Peterson in his talk, "The Making of the Kelmscott Chaucer."

Morris's sound principles of book design, as delineated by Peterson, were evidenced by his attention to all aspects of putting together a book. He used an excellent handmade paper, and insisted upon a high-quality ink. Actually, he had considerable difficulty in finding an acceptable ink. The first that he used was inferior and caused yellow stains on the paper, making it necessary to bleach the pages in sunlight. After this brief and exasperating trial, he was able to find a better ink which was being made in Germany.

Interestingly enough, Morris railed against the flourishing of the printing industry, seeing this as leading progressively from the production of books to magazines, to newspapers, and then to the use of telephones, with the end result being the death of the book as a central cultural artifact.

Stanley Nelson, in "Typefounding: The Hand Processes," dealt with the historical development of this process, which remained essentially the same for its first four hundred years, until the invention of the casting machine replaced the hand caster practically overnight. He covered the step-by-step process of making his own type molds, and included in his presentation an opportunity for any willing person from the audience to cast type using one of those molds.

Thomas Taylor's topic, "Bookbinders at Work in America, 1880-1980," covered the progression of bindings from protective coverings to integral statements of the books' contents, involving both technique and imagination, with an emphasis on the American development of design and execution.

In "The Impact of Printed Ephemera on Book Design, 1880-1980," Frances Butler delineated the tension between presenting clear information and freeing the imagination. She sees underlying composition as being as important in this regard as the type or the illustrations used. She explored ways of moving beyond the definite by a transcendence of the definite--in this case, through use of a grid system, which lends itself to an automatic as well as a personal balance, resulting in a design, therefore, which can be very fluid.

The book, she feels, traditionally a more rigid format, should be influenced by printed ephemera, as it indeed has been. This has been particularly true of Japanese ephemera, which have affected the page as a continuum without a framed focus, thus making it a more realistic representation of life's continuity.

Sandra Kirshenbaum, in discussing the "Return of the Scholar Printer: The Coming Role of Fine Printing in American Culture," saw, in spite of current and future technological threats to the printed book as we know it, hope for a new wave of fine printing. Though books are seen by some as wasteful, energy-intensive objects, she believes this situation may foster a "survival of the fittest" in the book-making world.

Many of the other talks dealt with the work and contributions of individuals--such as Andrew Hoyem's "Rudolph Koch: Calligrapher, Type Designer and Artist of the Book"--or groups--as with "The Iowa Printers: Much More than a Corny Experience," by Michael Peich. A number of these and remaining presentations depended upon slides to the extent that they did not lend themselves well to written summary.

There were also a couple of panel discussions, and poetry readings by some of the people who have been published by Abattoir Editions. And, as with most conferences, much of the benefit was derived from discussions with other participants, and from seeing exhibits of some of the outstanding works they have produced.

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