Last year I had the great fortune to meet Christoper Fritton at the World Maker Faire New York. His letterpress posters of landmark New York buildings stopped me dead in my tracks. They were printed using only dingbats and are simply stunning. I’ve done a tiny bit of letterpress myself (and my grandfather was a printer for most of his adult life) so I knew how much work went into these amazing pieces of art.
Chatting with Chris, I discovered he is the Studio Director at the Western New York Book Arts Center. Fritton is also a poet, printer, and fine artist and has been making (and writing) his own books for years. He currently oversees the studio space at WNYBAC, works as an in-house printer/designer for Mohawk Press, and teaches letterpress and printmaking. Since 2007, he has been the Organizer of the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, a regional event that brings together zinesters, small presses, letterpressers, book artists, and other cultural workers and enthusiasts.
Those posters stuck with me all year. When I was planning for this year’s event, I wanted to do another commemorative poster for our makers who exhibit at Maker Faire. I reached out to Chris and he agreed we could do something really special.
I know it sort of ruins the surprise, but I can’t help but share some progress shots.
Working with Chris, we thought it would be great to take the dingbat buildings idea and make our robot mascot in the same flavor. Christopher has found hundreds of antique copper cuts of machinery and tools that will form our robot. We wanted to use only type that he had (so no custom polymer plates to exactly reproduce our logo, we wanted “found” type). Chris worked with the Zenger Group, a local NY print shop who kindly donated the paper!
Here are a few progress shots of how Chris is making the posters. (For you fellow letterpress type nerds, let the dingbat drooling begin.)
MAKE: What is your background, and how did you get into letterpress and book making?
Fritton: I was always interested in writing and bookmaking; from the time I was very young I was cutting and pasting together skate and punk zines – those primarily pictorial and aesthetically chaotic labors of love eventually evolved into handmade books that contained my own writing. I reveled in the idea of steering a text from the time it was conceived until the time it manifested itself in physical form – and I was always looking for a way to improve the resultant work. My discovery of letterpress printing and bookbinding as a craft was directly tied to my desire to improve the quality of my own books – but then it became so much more. In 2006, my friend Richard Kegler founded the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative – a group of like-minded individuals dedicated to printing and book arts. He was keen on the idea of having a center where the members of the Collaborative could share equipment and ideas, a headquarters modeled on an institution like the Minnesota Center for the Book. In 2008, Rich bankrolled the purchase of a building in downtown Buffalo and began converting it into the Western New York Book Arts Center. I began volunteering, showing up every day to help demolish and renovate the building, organize the studio, and navigate the precarious waters involved in becoming a sustainable non-profit. Rich and I spent years working on the project, and our positions at the institution were self-made, for the most part. The Center had certain needs, and we did our best to match our skill sets to those needs – I have a penchant for organizing, so maintaining the Studio space, designing, and printing became my primary focus. Rich has since gone back to his true love, typography; he owns and runs P22 type foundry where he designs and produces digital typefaces.
MAKE: What does the Western New York Book Arts Center (WNYBAC) actually do? Fritton: WNYBAC is now a 501 c 3 educational non-profit, and we teach workshops in letterpress, bookbinding, screen printing, paper making, and book arts. We have an Open Studio model where artist-members can come use the space and share the equipment for a small fee. We also have a vibrant earned income model – we produce gig posters for bands, handmade cards, art prints, and more recently, a series of architecture prints that feature landmark buildings from around downtown Buffalo.
MAKE: What was the idea behind the NY architecture set? Fritton: The architecture prints are a unique repurposing of antique metal type, wood type, and printers’ ornaments – thousands of individual pieces are arranged in forms for printing, and each color is printed one at a time using a different form, meaning a five-color print requires five separate forms printed at separate times, all perfectly registered to one another. This series has been really successful because it’s visually striking, but also because it’s a novel amalgamation of traditional typesetting and progressive design. We’re using elements of letterpress in a way that very few people imagine. It’s also been a great form of outreach, because we often partner with non-profits and other institutions that are working tirelessly to refurbish historical Buffalo buildings.
MAKE: What are some of your favorite pieces you have worked on? Fritton: I have a few favorite pieces – technically accomplished, I really love the Buffalo Central Terminal architecture print – it required hairline registration on 3 concentric circles (the clock), and the manipulation of type and spacing to create two arches and a keystoned segment of the building, all of which are exceedingly difficult. Another favorite, just for its unique nature, my Wu Tang Clan gig poster.I can verify that it is the only letterpressed Wu Tang Clan gig poster ever made.
Recently, just for fun, we did a Montreal gig poster. 7 colors, in the round, using a completely random assortment of antique copper cuts. The result really exemplifies the nature of the band – colorful, playful, like an eclectic disco ball of imagery and sound.
Fritton: WNYBAC has been an integral part of the revitalization of downtown Buffalo – we’re committed to the fact that making art together brings people together, and establishes vital and lasting communities. We’re really excited about being able to partner with the World Maker Faire – part of the international community – bringing digital and analog technology together – proving that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and when given the opportunity, the unique attributes of both serve to foster greater creativity and inventiveness.
Various work from WNYBAC: