Betterpress: the fine print about fine printing
by Costanza Ognibeni
Right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Rome’s Piazzale della Radio, between ‘rione’ Ostiense and the popular Marconi area, there is a small enchanted place where present and past do not entertain a deleterious relationship, but merge in harmony and create a new present, made possible by the rediscovery of the finest human skills, aided by the best tools that cutting-edge technology can provide.
Betterpress opened in an old butcher shop. It is a crown jewel of fine printing, and a museum of typography where vintage machines have found their new home, surrounded by large drawers full of type – the movable type used in Gutenberg’s time for a technique that has become known as letterpress printing.
After a few pleasant hours in the company of two of the founders, Francesca Colonia and Giulia Nicolai, we can attest that what they do at Betterpress is much more than just a job.
Less quantity, top quality: these four words could sum up your philosophy. What is the reality of that?
Betterpress focuses on fine printing, and thus embraces the field of micro-publishing. We do not source materials made for long print runs, and we concentrate our energy on projects with a very limited print run because we like to focus on quality. We see quality as an aspect of the end result, but also of the productive process leading to it: the care and dedication we put in this job are a “corner of happiness” where we rediscover our relationship with machines, but most importantly with other people. In fact, all of our projects require collaboration, both in defining the initial concept and in developing it. Just like you need more than two hands to operate a piece of big heavy machinery, you need to merge more than one idea to think and create something beautiful for a special occasion.
How did you get the idea of giving a re-interpretation of the past through modern eyes?
We were in deep need of a truly creative endeavor – and by “creative” we don’t mean creating something out of thin air: we believe that every creation is the result of a transformation that starts from something that already exists, which is processed through modern knowledge, with a pinch of imagination, and gains a new identity. We wanted to apply this principle to reality, and that is how Betterpress was born.
Thanks to modern technology, a machine that was designed a century ago for a single purpose can be used today in a completely different way, while still maintaining the same mechanisms. One hundred years ago, these were the fastest and most innovative printing machines available, and were meant for long print runs. Today there are more effective technologies on the market to print large numbers of copies, but these machines can be reinvented and used for a new purpose: to work at a slower pace – a pace that allows one to think.
You combine the warmth of relationships and human touch with the cold individualism of digital technology. What is your motivation?
We want to “do” something, also to improve in other areas where that activity is not required directly. It’s like learning a new alphabet that allows you to be more confident in everything else: being aware that the objects around us exists because there was a “before”, and knowing firsthand what that stage is like, is an additional tool for knowledge, allowing us to work better.
Technology now often offers paper-less and ink-less solutions to avoid ecological issues. What alternative solutions do you suggest in this sense?
What we make can be seen and touched: paper and ink are fundamental ingredients to us, which we work by hand or with manual machinery that requires only our own physical and intellectual energy. We make limited print runs: we steer clear of large quantities or mass products, and are closer to the world of crafts and unique pieces.
Our equipment does not need electricity and does not pollute; we are always looking for non-toxic materials, and substitute everything we can with less harmful alternatives: we use oils (citronella oil, petroleum jelly, etc.) instead of solvents; we chose new inks with fewer toxic agents – both for people and for the environment – over old-generation products; we recycle and make paper for printing, and so on.
Where did you find your equipment?
It was not easy: these machines and type are nowhere to be found in art stores or old abandoned factories. We roamed the streets in Rome and beyond: wherever we saw a printing press that had an old feel to it we walked in, introduced ourselves, and explained our project. Some printers had old drawers full of type and let us have them. Finding the letterpress machines was even more complicated – to an almost incredible degree: they could be anywhere. Some had been left under the rain in the back of abandoned stores, others were in someone’s basement… We had to spend a lot of time with the owners before we could trust each other: it was not easy to explain what we wanted to do with what in many cases had been the tool of a stressful and trying job. Most of the people we met had used these same machines for long print runs, while we wanted to use them for a kind of game – a very serious one. But once they understood our intentions, they were usually quite happy to see a piece of their past come back to life in a new place, where the same procedures they carried out every day are implemented for a completely different purpose.
These machines allow you to print with movable type, engraving, and block printing. How do these last two work?
Letterpress printing (also known as movable type printing) and block printing are relief techniques, while engraving is an intaglio technique.
In relief printing, ink is spread on the type or matrix with a roll, only on the protruding surface. Printing is executed with typographic machines that print always at a certain height and without applying real pressure.
In intaglio printing, such as engraving, the process follows the opposite logic: the matrix – usually made of metal – is incised and inked so as to have ink penetrate into the sunken areas. Printing requires the use of a printing press that can apply enough pressure to transfer the ink from the incisions to the paper: the latter is slowly run through two heavy rollers so it comes into contact with the ink, and in the end shows the same image that was initially engraved on the matrix.
You also offer binding services, which are often underestimated by non-experts. What is the motivation behind your commitment to what appears to be a marginal activity?
We don’t see binding as a marginal activity, but as an integral and conclusive part of our work process, even in high-end micro-publishing and fine printing. In a way, it’s a common thread connecting and enhancing the value of our printing – whatever technique we use – and creates a dialog between the images we print and the final object they are destined to, such as a book. There are images and concepts that would make no sense if they were presented on loose leaves, and instead are joined and presented effectively once bound together. To make an example, binding allowed us to recover a series of printing and ink tests that were about to be thrown away because they were hardly presentable on their own. We used them to create beautiful covers.
There are many different types of binding, depending on the printed material and the type of paper used, as well as on the impact, meaning and even use of the end product: you can read or look at a book, but also interact with it. Binding thread is what holds together the book both in conceptual and in physical terms. It is what makes a book a real object.
You share your precious know-how through workshops. How do you set them up?
Workshops are the most fascinating and at the same time dangerous thing that has ever happened to us: we offer intensive one-day programs, usually during the weekend. They include a quick introduction to printing techniques, and a second phase in which we create an artisanal product with participants. The “danger” is that these workshops are advertised online through our Facebook page and via our mailing list, so we never know how many people will show up! It’s like planning an important dinner counting on guests to help you cook… without even knowing who they are! But the most fascinating thing is how everyone clicks right away: graphic designers, illustrators, designers, people who have a knowledge about or passion for printing, and people who are simply curious about it… Nobody knows each other, and every time there is a different chemistry, but it always runs deep.
In what fields is artisanal printing particularly useful?
Without a doubt, in any field that has to do with visual communication.
We don’t really like to talk about fields, because artisanal printing is like a world of its own, where the printed subject is always considered within a relationship, or in contact with someone else: sometimes it’s a beautiful poster for a book presentation, in which the material is printed for the audience the author relates to; other times it’s a high-quality poster for the opening of an art gallery, aimed at potential guests; others yet, we have worked on special copies of graduation dissertations, dedicated to someone special. Even simple gifts can be a means of communications: for example, someone once asked us to print a sentence that was particularly dear to the person he loved.
Whatever the case, our efforts are geared towards fine publishing, with fine printing and craftsmanship as its pivotal elements.
Is a print made with an old machine higher quality than one made with digital technology?
It’s definitely more elaborate, and therefore has higher value. It would be silly to use artisanal techniques to print a book in mass-market quantities. It would be like trying to write by hand a mass email! We are talking about two parallel methods that don’t intersect, because the process is fundamentally different: in digital technology you chose colors, fonts and every other option from preset palettes; printing by hand in a workshop, you have to choose everything “live”.
How does digital technology come into the equation?
It makes our job a lot easier! For example, we are creating digital samplers (“specimens”) of our fonts, on which we note in which drawer they are located.
Moreover, technology allows us to digitalize fonts: so we can quickly put a layout together and get an idea of what the end result will look like. That way we have a lot more time for the actual job, which used to be eaten up by manual tests.
Fonts are the different types of letters that can be used to write words. They turn the alphabet into shapes, images: could you make art out of letters and words?
Absolutely: every font has an identity, and turn words into different images. Each line, each shape, is not only the expression of a letter or of its content, but a graphic sign in its own right, which can create images in combination with other letters or words. For example, the letters that spell the word ‘imago’ can be set in different fonts and different sizes to resemble the different stages of development from chrysalis to adult butterfly – which in zoology is called “imago”!
Of course, we are not the first to make art with words: ideograms – words made up of images with a specific meaning – have been used in Eastern cultures for centuries.
What are we losing in this Age of Multitasking, when everything is mass-produced just to speed up the process and to increase quantity?
Thought, relationships, and our ability to communicate. We often start doing something with one end in mind, but then – as we do it, with the necessary calm and dedication – often realize there is much more to it; aspects we had not considered before, and new unexpected perspectives.
Artisanal printing opens the door to that, and more: it allows for a serial process, but without the flat and sterile sameness of digital printing.
So in the end, we could say that Betterpress is not just a job, but an actual philosophy, suggesting a different approach to life. Some say that art is always a little political. Do you think your activity has anything political?
When Picasso painted “Guernica”, he did not realize he was doing something political – yet that must be the most political painting ever made. You can be political without even knowing it: by living through what you do – with feeling, vibrancy, passion, and energy – and by sharing it with others. In our opinion, this is a very political thing to do.