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Russell Maret’s Character Traits

Russell Maret is a book artist and letter designer working in New York City. He began printing in San Francisco as a teenager before apprenticing with Peter Koch in Berkeley and Firefly Press in Somerville, Massachusetts. He set up his own press at the Center for Book Arts, New York in 1993 and has been printing and publishing ever since. In 1996 Russell began teaching himself to design letterforms, leading to a twelve year study of letterforms before he completed his first typeface in 2008. In 2009 Russell was awarded the Rome Prize in Design from the American Academy in Rome. In 2011, he began working to convert some of his type designs into new metal typefaces for letterpress. Since then he has produced four metal typefaces and four suites of metal ornaments. He is a Master Lecturer in the MFA Book Arts & Printmaking Department of University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the current North American Chair of the Fine Press Book Association. He has been the printer in residence of the Press in Tuscany Alley, San Francisco (1990); Artist in Residence at the Center for Book Arts, NYC (1996); Printer in Residence at the Bodleian Libraries Bibliographical Press, Oxford (2017); and a trustee of the American Printing History Association. Russell’s books and manuscripts are in public and private collections throughout the world.

Finishing Character Traits
By Russell Maret

My newest book, Character Traits, draws inspiration from the tradition of writing manuals and calligraphic model books, in which various lettering styles are displayed in short, epigrammatic texts. The title was chosen to evoke the two primary motivations of the book: to explore the traits of alphabetical characters that are digitally native and thus free from the technological limitations of typographic lettering (ie. metal type), and to do so in a series of texts that are chosen because they illuminate various human character traits. The book consists of three components: a bound essay, a portfolio of unbound plates, and, for the deluxe edition, a volume of color studies. The essay explores the various technological, artistic, and conceptual ideas behind the project, while the plates take the essay as a jumping off point from which to explore the ideas contained in it without being slavishly illustrative.

Ostensibly I finished Character Traits in early January of this year, but the question of when a book is finished is difficult to answer, and the answer differs from book to book. Sometimes I feel like I’ve finished a book before I even start printing—so much has gone into the concept, content, and design that the printing itself feels like an afterthought. Other times, the printing is so engaging that the finish line is the final crank of the press. Both of these sensations typically lead to disappointment because, of course, in neither case is the book actually finished. In the first instance the printing tends to feel like an endless slog, and in both scenarios there is still the binding to contend with. All of the individual designs and pages that have developed in semi-isolation need to be stitched together, literally or figuratively, into some kind of navigable structure. 

For the last few years I have been trying to better align my feeling of finishing a book with the actual finishing of it. In 2014 I completed printing Interstices & Intersections, a book that took nine months to print, meaning the last crank of the press came nine months after I finished the writing, drawing, and layout. By the time the last sheet came off the press I felt like a finely tuned Xerox machine. It was an exhausting experience that was often frustratingly boring. I came away from the book determined to change my process, to try to make sure that I remained creatively engaged throughout the entire arc of my next large-scale book. 

From the outset, I knew Character Traits would be a difficult book to produce, and I knew I would need help printing it. My irregular assistant, Nancy Loeber, was willing to work two days a week, which provided me with my initial production structure: I suggested that rather than two out of every five days, we work two out of every five weeks, giving us three weeks off in which Nancy could produce her own work and I could write, draw, and proof material for our next printing session. The hope was that this would keep the conceptual and practical aspects of the book on an equal footing until the last print was pulled. Additionally, the three components of the book promised to keep the production interesting—we’d print the color studies, then the 2,400 intaglio prints, then the essay. Throughout the process, I worked closely with the bookbinder Amy Borezo to insure that the binding was part of the initial creative work rather than something tacked on at the end.

Another way I try to keep myself engaged in my work is to involve a new technique or material in each new book. With Character Traits, I took this practice a step further and decided to print it in an entirely different medium. The central argument of the book is that digitally drawn letterforms are technologically distinct from typographic ones, and therefore should be freed from the presumptions of the typographic page. In considering this idea it occurred to me that it would be wrong to print the lettering samples letterpress—if the letterforms are not typographic they should not be printed typographically. Instead, I chose to print them intaglio, a process that also alludes to the 19thcentury writing manuals that inspired the formal structure of the book. 

Prior to Character Traits I had only ever printed two small intaglio plates, each in an edition of 55 copies. Character Traits would involve printing twenty-five plates in editions of 95. Whereas the two earlier plates were composed of similar line widths and ink coverage, the plates in Character Traits would be much more diverse—involving thicker and thinner lines than I had printed before, as well as dots, gradients, and halftones. In order to prove to myself that what was in my head was attainable in print, I spent a lot of time proofing and experimenting in the year before editioning. 

1799 Character Traits


1799 Character Traits


1799 Character Traits

The learning process was less like a curve and more like a Sisyphean hill. Every day of proofing exposed how little I understood about the process, and everything I did learn seemed to involve pain—from physical pain caused by a too-low inking and wiping table, to intellectual pain at realizing what my “interesting ideas” actually involved. For instance, I originally envisioned many of the plates being printed in two colors, using a simultaneous process in which the intaglio and relief surfaces of the plates are inked in contrasting colors and printed in a single pass through the press. I had invested a lot in the idea of these two-color prints and I was determined to make them work. The problem was not that they didn’t work—so long as the dots or lines were not too close together, they printed beautifully. But it had not occurred to me that in order to keep the relief and intaglio colors from contaminating one another, the plates would need to be cleaned with solvent and brush, and dried, between each print. This doubled or tripled the time necessary to pull a print. I had already printed the two-color studies that would accompany the deluxe copies, so I had to print some of the plates in two colors. Eventually I decided to include three two-color prints in the standard copies of the book, and many more in the deluxe copies, resulting in two editions of the same book in which the content is actually quite different.

But these kinds of problems are an understood part of how I choose to go about making books. The goal is to learn by doing, a process that often involves diving headlong into something for which I am thoroughly unprepared. I can’t locate exactly what it is that I hope to learn, other than wanting each new book to provide ideas or techniques to explore in the next book. Beyond the content, though, the hope is also to find ways to more effectively align my work with my life, and to remain present in the process. The printing schedule of Character Traits helped with this, but the printing took so long that the three parts of the book in many ways feel like different projects. We printed the color studies fourteen months before the essay. By the time we finished the intaglio prints, some of them had been printed a year earlier. It is hard to unify these disparate elements in my mind, when some seem so fresh and others so distant, until they are bound and I have lived with them for a while.

So the question of when Character Traits was finished, or if it is finished yet, is still difficult to answer. The sheets are now with the binder, provoking a disorienting space-time suspension: I am done but the book is not. In a few weeks or months I will receive boxes of books that I barely recognize. Something will have transpired in their time away, a final break between my interior world and this new object that is no longer entirely (or with some books even vaguely) mine. When books come back from the binder they feel like echoes from an earlier time of life, and it can sometimes take years to get reacquainted with then. Which is fine in the end as I’m already on to the next thing, trying to figure out how to apply what I’ve learned while making Character Traits.

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