Self-made men

Gavin Lucas meets Tom Boulton and Theo Wang of sort: the Society of Revisionist Typographers, self-styled “printers of letterpress and silkscreen and purveyors of typographic design”

The Society of Revisionist Typographers, sort for short, is the name under which Tom Boulton and Theo Wang produce a plethora of printed ephemera using their letterpress machines. The duo met, rather appropriately, at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication) where they were both studying on the typographic module of a graphic design degree. “Around that time, about seven years ago, stylistically things were very much not geared towards the handmade,” recalls Wang. “As we came to the end of our degrees ­– Tom was doing editorial typography and I was doing experimental typography – both of us had produced bits of print and bookmaking. We’d both ended up making actual objects rather than just designing work for print.”

On leaving college, the pair did their first project together using handpresses. “It hurt,” recalls Boulton. “Two colours, 500 prints – it was the equivalent of 1000 push ups! The pages took ages to dry too because they’re really inky so you have to find space to lay them out flat all over your house to dry. But actually we loved the whole process and it made us think, ‘hey we can do this – we can do the design and we can do all the printing and production as well’.”

However, the pair decided that they couldn’t do every job on a small handpress so immediately invested the money earned for this job in the purchase of their first letterpress, also beginning their now impressive collection of printing blocks and wood and lead type.

“To be honest, our collection of printing machinery and type began out of curiosity more than anything else,” says Wang. “We’ve both got print in our families,” he continues, “Tom grew up with a letterpress in the garage.” “It was my dad’s hobby,” Boulton affirms. “And my mother’s cousins were in print so we got a load of type from them really early on,” adds Wang.

The duo now have three functional letterpress machines, one in the Bloomsbury studio Wang is based in, situated in Cockpit Arts (a hub of studios full of designer-makers that include milliners, jewellery designers, book binders and more) and two in a studio run by Boulton in Bognor Regis. However, getting the presses up and running has been more than merely a printing challenge.

“We didn’t buy this letterpress in this state,” explains Boulton of the press in the Bloomsbury studio. “It was broken down to its individual pieces, each of which was covered in rust when we found it in a barn on a farm. The two chaps we picked it up from had inherited it from their dad, although it had originally belonged to their grandfather who’d died before he’d had a chance to rebuild it. They didn’t know how to rebuild it and were keen to get rid of it. So we bought it for a great price, restored it, rebuilt it and got it working again.”

Actually Boulton makes this sound very easy but when you factor that most of the pieces of the press are cast iron (the fly wheel alone is almost too heavy for one man to lift) and also the fact that there is no instruction manual available to refer to, the pair’s restoration of this and their other two foot-powered, hand-fed Victorian letterpress machines is all the more impressive.

“We’ve had to learn over the years, really through trial and error,” says Wang of their skills as printers and press operators. “But through working with these machines, pretty much on a daily basis, doing a variety of different projects, we’ve been learning from scratch and acquiring knowledge. Now that we’ve had all that practice we’re both really confident and comfortable with the limitations of the presses that we’ve got and, more importantly, we’re confident that we know how to get the best out of them.”

It is in the last 18 months or so that the duo have made the shift from mucking about with machinery and experimenting with printing techniques in their spare time, to making a living out of the knowledge, expertise and considerable skills they’ve been garnering. They now spend their
time designing, developing, making and marketing a range of sort products from greetings cards and typographic posters through to boxed stationery sets. The pair take on commissions for design jobs that they can apply their particular letterpress aesthetic to – including creating business cards and graphic identities, and they also do a particularly nice line in letterpress wedding invitations to order. SORT has also been working with graphic designer Teresa Monachino on the production of her latest book, Around The World with the Bodoni Family, in which each letter of the typeface is used to illustrate somewhere in the world. The pair are currently printing the book in a limited edition of just 40 copies.

“The bottom line,” says Wang, “is that, both as a design style and also as a way of producing things, we really enjoy print and printing and we’re producing our work in order to get it out there in the hope that we can keep on doing it.”

“We want to make stuff that people will want to keep,” adds Boulton. “That’s why we did the boxes for the stationery sets. Even after the stationery has been used, there’s something for the owner to keep and it continues to have a function. I’ve heard from someone who now uses a stationery set box to keep her jewellery in and that’s really nice for us to hear because we make these things with the intention that they will be kept rather than disposed of.”n

sortdesign.com

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