by Carlos Antonio Piñón
April 29, 2019
In the fall of 2015, I came across a posting for a Letterpress Bookworks class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Wanting to know everything I could learn about writing and having had an interest in bookmaking, I emailed the professor teaching the class so I could enroll in the course without having taken the prerequisites, Intro to Visual Communications and Beginning Typography. At the time, I did have some experience designing books in InDesign, having recently self-published my first book, Paper Dreams & Other Collections. However, despite my lack of knowledge in Letterpress as a form and its history, I convinced the professor on the merit of my interest alone.
Understanding the risk I'd be taking by signing up for a high demand class, of which I knew little about, I charged on and began my semester excited to learn about the antique—but not obsolete—world of letterpress. The class was very special to me right from the start. From all my previous knowledge and experiments in writing, this was the first time I got down and dirty (literally) in the making of actual print, from handpicking each and every letter myself, to organizing it on the bed of the letterpress, to making that very first impression with my own two hands. The first couple of weeks, we focused purely on learning what it meant to choose a typeface and how the type of paper would both affect the meaning as much as the words themselves. Being such a layered process, we also had to learn how to use the letterpress machine as well, from setting the type, to inking as well, and eventually cleaning everything with mineral spirits and discarding waste properly.
The time in the semester had come for our very first project. Working on the prompt "Symmetry/Asymmetry", we had the freedom to pursue any combination of words. I, of course, struggled. I couldn't think of anything. Hot/cold? In/out? Up/down? The easy options felt completely uninteresting to me until I found myself thinking about the concept of "being." While I don't remember the exact inspiration, I decided to couple "being" with "emerging." While not a true opposite, I wanted to explore the concept of what it's like simply to be, and how different it is to emerge. In other words, as people, we are often changing. Whether it is good or bad, we grow as people. However, there are times when we are static, which isn't necessarily a bad thing either. Sometimes it's okay to just be. So whether we are being who we are, or we are emerging as a new person, we are still the same human being. Yeah, I also chose "being" because I liked the play on words.
For this project, the first thing I considered were the typefaces I was choosing. Though I had some back and forth, I decided to use a serif as my "symmetry" and a sans-serif as my "asymmetry." The word "being" to me felt as if it was full of body, so when it came down to it, I appreciated Goudy for its curvature, especially the bowl of the letter B and vivacious serif of the letter E. Especially in all caps, "BEING" felt so fluid and self-contained as expressed with Goudy. For the word "emerging," I chose a sans-serif because of the historical evolution to drop serifs from typefaces. With Franklin Gothic being applied to the word, I felt a sense of new from the sans-serif almost, especially from the technological advancements that make the letters more uniform and symmetrical, ironically. This is not to say that the typeface choice was meant to be cold or robotic at all; rather, Franklin Gothic is rather voluptuous with many smooth curves and sharp edges. Additionally, my choice to replace the letter "I" in emerging with a decorative hand was, in part, because we had to include an ornament, but I liked the idea that it kept the image of the body in the word, and that it would be pointing to the word "being."
Admittedly, my paper choice was less thought out. I chose BFK Rives—a staple in dependable letterpress paper—mostly because of its thickness and ability to hold form. This ended up being helpful after a trip to Mineral Point, Wisconsin influenced what form my first project would take. While in Mineral Point, our class began to talk about the historical connections between SAIC and Playboy of all things. After all, one of SAIC's previous residence halls was actually a Playboy mansion. At one point, someone pointed out how Playboy, in the past, was actually good at providing artists a space in their magazine for their art. We looked through selections, which surprisingly didn't seem like we were looking at a Playboy magazine at all, and that's when I saw one of the art pieces featured in the magazine had an intricate pop-up section. From what I remember, there wasn't any nudity involved in this particular piece (nor the others), but instead, what I took away from that moment was wanting to recreate that book form.
Once back in Chicago, I started experimenting with different ways I could fold, glue, or otherwise manipulate the paper so that when you opened the book, a piece would extend out and emerge. It was a perfect, serendipitous, if not surprising influence on my project. There was nothing more satisfying than the moment when one of my samples worked. In this book, there are actually two pieces of paper, but only one actually has any words on it. "Being" and "emerging" are actually on the same, long piece of paper with "being" having been printed on the bottom of the front side, while "emerging" having been printed in the middle of the back side. Folded into a sort of "M" shape, the middle was pasted together so it'd create one, thick layer that would emerge. Additionally, the sides along the word "emerging" would cut so that the word itself could pop-up out of the window that was cut from the second sheet of paper.
Being/Emerging was well-received during my critique. The one notable criticism that I remember is that when you open the book, the word "emerging" is very close to being centered on the page, which I didn't notice, but even if there was a way to make the word more asymmetrical, I don't think I would have done it. I, instead, preferred to think of the word as being an agent of change, which made sense that it moved while "being" was static. Surprisingly, despite its background inspiration, no one talked about the sexual undertone of the piece. Sure, I didn't create it with that in mind, but reflecting on it now four years later, I now see that it's there. Far from the wholesome intention, I think that it's okay to have the two meanings coexist. After all, what better way to respond to a prompt that asks you to marry two contraries?