In 1989, NHPR humanities reporter Robbie Honig profiled The Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press. This small shop in the village of Ashuelot was opened by two poets from Boston who shared a passion for letterpress printing.
“We started with making type for ourselves, for our own poetry books," said Golgonooza co-founder Julia Ferrari. "But also, making a living by making books for other people too. We didn’t want to just go out and have to work somewhere else and then come back and do our art. We felt that if we could possibly do our art at the same time, we would be learning how to get better at what we did.”
By 1989, the shop was producing artisanal books that fetched up to thousands of dollars apiece.
Keep reading after the story for my conversation with Julia. But first, from the archives this week, here’s Honig's report from the Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press in 1989.
It was in an old converted mill dormitory that Dan Carr and Julia Ferrari, married business partners, lived and worked. Surrounded by a family of printing presses and tiny typeface characters of every kind, they printed books for a handful of high-end publishers – books that sell for hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
In 1982 they fled the high rent and cramped quarters of Boston for the comparative ease of Ashuelot, N.H. – a small village just a few miles from both the Vermont and Massachusetts borders. They called their handmade type foundry business The Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press, after a poem by William Blake in which mythical creatures transform the world through art.
Ferrari worked the keyboard at Golgonooza, typing letters that Carr forged and cut by hand.
“In a way, our business here touches on that vision,” she said. “It’s two people – it’s not just the business, but it’s our lives. The outside, the garden, the cooking upstairs – everything comes together for us, and it’s shared, and it all becomes part of the art.”
With Carr’s background in literature and Ferrari’s in fine art, they began as printer and assistant, but eventually shared equally in this mom-and-pop business. There were a few cold winters before things really started humming. When this story originally ran in 1989, they were working regularly as one of only six such letterpresses in the country. They produced a handful of books per year for such publishers as The Limited Editions Club.
“That’s the effect of type,” Carr said, remarking on how the print seemed burned into the pages of one book. “It interacts with the page. It changes the surface; it changes the paper itself into a new thing. It’s sculptural.”
So is the process of cutting letters by hand. Golgonooza used a method of making type and printing unchanged since Johannes Gutenberg’s day. To aficionados of beautiful books, Gutenberg’s method has never been surpassed – not by new print technology and certainly not by the computer, which dominates the industry today.
An Expert's Opinion
Harry Duncan founded The Cummington Press, which in 1989 was the subject of a 50-year retrospective at the New York Center for the Book Arts. Duncan was considered the person most responsible for the renaissance of hand letterpress printing.
“Just look at a type specimen of computer faces,” he said. “It is a junkyard of stuff. And a designer has to choose from stuff in that junkyard. If he has the chance, as Dan Carr has done, of cutting his own punches and making his own faces, he has that terrific resistance which is involved in sculpting steel, and realizing the letter through handwork. And that’s the only way I know to get our own experience honestly into what we produce.”
Typeface reflects the era it’s created in, said Duncan. Because print can be an emblem of its time, it’s important to keep the human hand in printing.
“The alphabet has always evolved through handwork,” Duncan said. “And the facility of generating letters by the computer, or on the drafting board for that matter, simply will not make a type face which we look at and say, ‘Yes. This is the A-B-C’s for our day.’”
For his part, Carr believed his shop could go toe-to-toe with modern technology.
“For us, there’s really no difference between what we do and what the computers can do,” he said. “We can do anything they can do. For the average typesetter, the average type user, that’s not true. But we can create our own letters, we can change things. It’s slower, it’s harder, but we can do anything that they can do. And actually, the typefaces are much finer in letterpress even still because they were cut originally by a human being or a machine guided as carefully as it could be to the human standard.”
They never will invent a computer that can kern, said Carr. Kerning is the delicate carving of a piece of type that lets the capital “T” just shade the small “o”, and gives the “w” enough room for its legs.
We read the text – but we see the print. Duncan said that the human artistic sense of what is the right look for a book enhances our experience of it.
“I think it’s important for books, which are sort of the central objects of civilization, to be creative and inventive in their form,” he said.
Q & A With Golgonooza Co-Founder Julia Ferrari:
Eric Larrabee: Julia, can you walk me through some of the different techniques you use at Golgonooza?
Julia Ferrari: OK. Well, what we do here is we make books by hand. Printing with letterpress printing.
Besides printing, there is book-binding and also doing punchcutting, which actually does go back directly to what Gutenberg did, which was making the letters by hand.
EL: Could you explain a little more about punchcutting -- what exactly that entails?
JF: OK, Sure. Punchcutting is the making of a letter, the sculpting of a letter on a piece of steel. You draw the letter onto the face of the steel, the top of the steel, it’s called a punch, and you sculpt it using gravers and files to actually cut and gouge the steel. So you’re working at size. So if you’re making a 12 point letter, which is the common size in books for reading, 12, 16 point type, you’re cutting it that size.
EL: So when your shop is producing one of these individual letters at any given font size – just that process of carving the steel and creating that one letter – how long does that usually take?
JF: If you’re skilled, it takes one day to carve a letter. I am nowhere near that skilled. I am in the process of learning that skill. My partner, Dan Carr, had become very skilled at that and had cut two different typefaces. But I am following in his footsteps, or attempting to follow in his footsteps, and so I am training to continue that tradition here. So it takes me much longer than one day. I’m just stretching my wings.
[Note: Julia’s husband and co-founder, Dan Carr, passed away in 2012.]
EL: To sort of get a sense of just the time scale that you work on -- you mentioned that it could take a day or more to carve or punch cut a single letter. What’s the timeframe to set a single page or to complete one book project?
JF: Well a book project using monotype machines, or handsetting, it’s a little different for each. The casting machines -- you do about 75 lines an hour. So depending on the length of the book – there were book projects that took us months.
It’s a slow process but I think slow is a relative term, too. It’s just a process that takes its own time, doesn’t get hurried up.
EL: In the 1989 story, Robbie Honig mentioned a few “cold winters” for you and Dan before the shop really took off. What were those years like before you really started to see some success? And how were you defining success for yourselves there?
JF: We were following our vision, and that was the most important thing. It didn’t matter how we got there, just that we got there. There were months where we didn’t make much money at all, and we had to keep going. It was slow at first, but we persisted.
EL: Here’s what Dan had to say about computers in the 1989 story:
“For us, there’s really no difference between what we do and what the computers can do. We can do anything they can do.”
Does that still hold true today? How have technological advances impacted your shop, if at all?
JF: I think that still retains truth, because the difference between the computer technology and this hand technology is not that one is superior than the other. But I think the difference is that letterpress brings to each individual that works with it the knowledge that is learned through working with the hands and the body.
And letterpress became an art form, just like etching and engraving became an art form when it was no longer needed commercially. And I think that’s where letterpress stands. It’s become an art form. And it’s just as important as any of the arts, and has its own gift.
This process, this craft, kept me learning more. I never got bored, I’m still not bored. There’s always something deeper. You can always go deeper, there’s something new to learn. And that’s, I think, because it’s a hand process and you’re always taken a step further. You’re learning how to push past the resistance of the human heart and mind. I think that’s part of the challenge and why it’s rewarding.
EL: What does the future hold for Golgonooza?
JF: Well, my feeling about it is that there are young people out there that are interested in finding out more about this hand process. We live in a world where we don’t get to do things with our hands as much anymore.
I almost think of it as passing on this gift, this fire that is in me, to others. I don’t want to keep that energy for myself. I feel like it’s important to share it, because someone shared it with me at one point. And it changed my life. So I think that that’s what I would say would be my future. To leave something behind that others can carry forward.