Saturday saw the close of the fifth annual Leeds Print Festival, a celebration of the importance of print in contemporary design culture.
Following a week of exhibitions and workshops that explored traditional and contemporary print processes, the festival saved the best for last: a trio of talks from The Designers Republic founder Ian Anderson, film journalist Danny Leigh and letterpress legend Alan Kitching.
Anderson (shown below) started the day with an A to Z run-through of his favourite projects, touching on the way tDR’s approach to print has changed through the years: from the naiveté of early and expensive record sleeves (“we didn’t really know what CMYK was, we just used Pantone pens and paper”), through making the listener an accomplice in the printing of Aphex Twin’s Syro (“that matt white sleeve is supposed to get dirty, supposed to end up with fingerprints”).
The tDR co-founder also addressed the limitations of today’s perfected processes (“Screen-printing is too good now – it used to be messy; so many chances for it to go wrong. I love the idea of the ghost in the machine, happy accidents and all that, but the machines are too good now. The print looks exactly like the digital file”).
Anderson is full of interesting stories (on nudity at Gatecrasher; on the history of the Coke bottle; on the superiority of Freehand), but mostly lets the work speak for itself – “I don’t want to describe my process. If I talk about it, it’s like talking about a dream … it goes.”
Following this, Danny Leigh (aka Him Off Film 2016, shown below) gave a potted history of the art of the film poster. He began with examples from the early days of cinema, showing posters for Edison’s Vitascope and Murnau’s Nosferatu, and worked his way through the classics (“Here, of course, is Saul Bass.”) and the illustrated peculiarities of Polish posters.
But Leigh’s talk really came alive when he talked about his relationship with print, reminiscing about the prevalence of film, music and sport posters that adorned the ubiquitous boarded-up shops of early-80s London.
As a child he was seduced by static, wheat-pasted images of films he wouldn’t see until many years later, like Rumble Fish, Brazil and Repo Man: “I fell in love with film posters before I fell in love with film”.
Discussing the poster for David Lynch’s Eraserhead – just the title and the mad-haired gaze of Jack Nance in stark black and white – Leigh touched upon the democratic magic of print during this post-punk, DIY-aesthetic era: “The poster was the currency of the movie. Most importantly, it was easily photocopiable. It became homemade posters and flyers and t-shirts.”
Closing the day, and the festival, Alan Kitching (below) gave a straightforward walkthrough of his career and methods – peppered with plugs for his new monograph. To this audience of digital-natives, it provided a fascinating insight into unfamiliar off-screen processes of design as a craft.
Kitching clearly relishes the challenges of working within the confines of his medium, and the creativity that stems from those constraints. He talked of being forced to change his approach halfway through a design simply because he’s run out of characters in a particular font. “I’m a great believer of only using your own things. If I haven’t got it, I can’t do it.”
Despite the obvious physical undertaking, patience and skill required for printing with letterpress, the one thing that is obvious from listening to Kitching talk is that the process is only secondary to the idea, and he has had a career of many, many ideas.
He sees print as the continuation of one of the oldest human traditions. “In the beginning was the word,” he pauses one of many pauses, “… well, we all know that’s wrong. In the beginning was the image. On a wall. In a cave.”
It’s unfortunate that, given the subject of the festival, there is a noticeable absence of actual print to accompany Leigh and Kitching’s talks (Anderson has brought all manner of tDR goodies to show off).
As is the PowerPointed norm these days, we only see it projected; simulacra robbed of colour and scale and presence. As Anderson points out, “digital has one finish: shiny and hard”. Images on walls indeed.
Still, print isn’t dead, it’s just downstairs. Accompanying the festival was an exhibition in the Gallery at Munro House, featuring print work from regional, national and international artists and designers.
Plus there was a veritable cornucopia of printly goods for sale in the neighbouring Colours May Vary. There was a lot of beautiful work to take in, and take home, at the end of a great day.
Three speakers, approaching print from very different angles – it was a fine end to a fine fixture in the design calendar. Roll on Leeds Print Festival, year six.
Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a graphic designer based in York and regular CR columnist. He tweets from @gray. More of his work is at danielgray.com. The Leeds Print Festival site is leedsprintfestival.com. LPF animation and posters, below, designed by Something More.