The first thing you notice about the Jonathan Edwards press room is the smell. The scent of metal, ink and citrus cleaning spray combine to give the room an industrial, yet homey odor. This subterranean room in the basement of the college is in a constant state of comfortable disorder: The organizational system consists mostly of handwritten labels on scrap paper and the bowl of lost-and-found type only seems to grow, yet there’s still sense that everything is in its proper place. Away from natural sunlight and the chattering of campus life, the press room feels quite like a cave with the temperature always hovering between cozy and oppressive. The setup itself is gleefully analog. Nineteenth-century printing presses and dozens of cases of type are an invitation to slow down, to spend time creating and playing. For Richard Rose, it doesn’t get much better than this.
As the master printer of the JE press, Rose is charged with passing the tradition of letterpress printing at Yale onto students. His goal as a professor and fellow of Jonathan Edwards College is to give students the opportunity to experience this unique art form which combines both technical craft and artistic vision. “There are so many things on campus competing for the students’ attention,” Rose said, “and it’s important to me that people recognize how special this is.”
For Rose, the chance to operate a press is a dream come true. He grew up with a love of drawing and visual thinking which led him to pursue a degree in architecture and design, although even as a grad student he was unsure of what discipline was the best artistic fit. While pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Rose had the chance to take a course in letterpress printing which would establish a lifelong love of the craft. “There’s something about the tactile quality that really attracted me right away,” he explained. “Just the physical quality of the type and the impression on beautiful paper was something that I connected with very quickly.”
Letterpress printing is an arduous task. Words must be strung together backward from individual letter blocks. Each line has to be evenly spaced and locked together so the type will stay in place while on the press. Printers will sometimes spend hours adjusting and readjusting the type so each letter prints evenly, filling up the recycling bin with drafts as they go. The inks must be mixed to achieve to the perfect hue and images produced by hand carved stamps. When a design calls for multiple colors, the different elements must be printed separately, requiring a painstaking level of precision to ensure that everything fits together. Oh, and there’s also no spellcheck.
It takes an almost masochistic degree of perfectionism to be a printer, but Rose fell in love with the process and all its exacting details. “There a kind of quality that being in the press room has,” he explained with a smile. “There’s something evocative about using these sorts of obsolete materials. It has a kind of mystery. I think some people are happy to have just a little taste of what this is like, but for other people, like me, it just sort of takes hold.”
After working as a graphic designer and professor on the West Coast, Rose found a home at the printing presses of Yale when his wife accepted a position at the Yale Center for British Art in 2002. At that point, the JE press was in a period of disuse, so he pitched an idea for a residential college seminar focused on letterpress printing and was thrilled by the enthusiastic response. For over a decade, “Art of the Printed Word” has been offered as a first-year and residential college seminar which teaches students how to operate the JE press while exposing them to the rich historical archive of printed materials housed in Yale’s collections.
As students in the seminar work on the production of broadside posters, Rose is on hand to help with everything from creative brainstorming to technical troubleshooting. With a pen and a pair of reading glasses stowed in the front pocket of his plaid shirt that’s neatly tucked into light wash jeans, Rose looks the part of an L.L. Bean catalog model. His typically mellow demeanor becomes infected with excitement as he talks through design ideas with students. Rose’s love of teaching rivals his passion for printing, and he enjoys watching students immerse themselves in the art form for the first time. “In college I had a lot of really great teachers who inspired me,” he recalled. “There’s a kind of relationship you have with students that’s very exciting and interesting, and it’s wonderful to be at Yale where students are so great.”
Rose has noticed an increased student interest in printing over recent years, a dramatic shift from the days when it looked like letterpress would cease to exist outside of history books. “Everyone was just so excited about the first personal computers, and there was this push towards all things digital,” he said of his first years of teaching after graduate school. “People would just leave presses out on loading docks because no one wanted them.” However, Rose has noted a recent revival of this 600-year-old art form even among young people who grew up surrounded by screens. “The printed word has a kind of authority, and there’s excitement to setting type and putting it in an old press, printing and then making this physical thing. I just don’t think you get that kind of feeling from the screen,” he added.
Rose has always drawn inspiration from the historical contexts of printing, a centuries-old tradition that has long been a part of Yale’s past. The Jonathan Edwards print shop was founded in 1936, and many other colleges operated their own presses throughout the 20th century. Today, only two remain: The one located in Jonathan Edwards and another shared by Pierson and Davenport. Rose explained that he’s “come to really appreciate how central this is to Jonathan Edwards College and its history. It’s really very tied to not only the college but to Yale and to the libraries and to printing as a scholarly and creative activity.” The walls of the JE basement are lined with decades worth of event flyers and invitations that were printed on the press, chronicling both the history of letterpress at Yale and that of the university itself. Some student printers have even gone on to pursue successful careers in letterpress or graphic design. Noted artists Lance Hidy ’68 and Leonard Baskin both were exposed to letterpress as Yale College students.
Rose admits that most of his students will leave Yale with career plans that are unrelated to letterpress, however he hopes the experience of creating and designing will have an impact nonetheless. “My students have come from every imaginable discipline,” he said. “I’ve had students in biochemistry, literature, architecture, engineering, and it’s an absolute delight to see how everybody’s interests sort of make sense in printing.” Even if his students aren’t setting type for a living, Rose has an appreciation for the skills that can be learned through printing. “You develop a sort of visual intelligence that will serve you in many, many ways,” he noted, adding that printing gives students “the attention to detail, the sense of making something and having constraints to work within, and the ability of being able to bounce off those constraints and work creatively” that are applicable to nearly all fields of work.
For those who do fall in love with letterpress the same way he did back in grad school, Rose stresses that a printer’s education is never truly complete. “I think that’s one of my favorite things about printing,” he said. “I just always seem to be learning something new.”
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org .