Hot type: Letterpress printing goes glam?

By Elizabeth Kiem

"He has a new book out," people say, meaning that an author has written a new work that has been mass printed, bound, and stocked on shelves in bookstores throughout the country. Rarely do we consider that anyone other than the author has a claim to the finished product.

Debra Fabrizzi wants to change that. The artist-in-residence at Virginia Arts of the Book has put together a fan magazine for the "stars" of bookmaking.

She says she wants to turn each printer into "a highly desirable teen dream." How? With interviews as well as "steamy action pinups."

Consider, for example, this steaming inquiry: "What is your favorite color to print on a black background?" Oh, joy.

Letterpress printing began in Europe in the 14th century and was used up until the 1970's in a modernized form for newspaper proofs and other media. Contemporary letterpress printers ply the trade for its creative possibilities. Even with antiquated machinery and standardized typeface, they strive for innovation. When the printing overshadows the text, a book is born-­ and a letterpress idol achieves "pin-up" status.

"Language is still in the realm of the conceptual," says Fabrizzi, who, with degrees in both literature and printmaking, is well versed in all contexts of her medium. "There's no way to become physically in contact with language and words and letter forms outside the letterpress print shop," she says.

When working with individual one-inch high characters cast in lead, it's easy to understand how basic printing can resemble sculpture to dedicated printers. But Fabrizzi looks askance at artists who take their work too seriously.

Her first book was a collection of "language experiments" printed on white paper. Like a conceptual artist, she had a trick up her sleeve. She asked viewers to wear white gloves before turning the pages, and the gloves were smeared with black ink.

"People who expect you to read their books with white gloves, like it was out of special collections... that's weird," she explains. "My idea of books is that they are an intimate experience, and to create a barrier in order to get closer to the object you made was odd to me."

Fabrizzi will be teaching a course on bookmaking for the UVA summer session in her studio at the McGuffey Art Center and is planning a series of events during next year's Festival of the Book.

Fabrizzi acknowledges that her project, titled "Rollerrrinnkk," may have a small following. But if the hot printers she's featuring– including Max Koch, Dikko Faust, and Inge Bruggeman– suddenly become household names, they may have Fabrizzi to thank.

And, by the way, Fabrizzi's favorite color to print on black? It's black.