John Bonadies remembers well the heady early days of the digital revolution, when designers, himself included, enthusiastically discarded their outmoded tools of drafting and production, and replaced them with shiny new Macs. Creaky old letterpresses were dismantled, cases of lead and wooden type sold for scrap. Some 550 years after Gutenberg, it looked like movable type, the invention that changed history, was obsolete.
Leap ahead 25 years, and Bonadies is fostering a typesetting revival — in a digital context. He invented LetterMpress, an iPad app (and now for Mac desktop) that brings the look and feel of typesetting by hand into the digital age.
Though the app looks backward for inspiration, nostalgia was not what motivated Bonadies. He came up with the idea encountering a prototype of the iPad. The iPad’s novel interface, that glide of fingers across the screen to move and open files, enlarge or shrink images, reminded him of something. In his undergraduate days, he’d taken a course using a letterpress at Indiana University. His brain made an intuitive leap, a spark of connection: iPad = Letterpress. Thus, an app was born.
As Bonadies says:
Actually, a letterpress and an iPad operate similarly when it comes to manipulating objects in a composition. Just like placing blocks of wood type on a surface, you drag the type images across the iPad, and then move them around to create your design. This is why [I thought] the iPad would make an ideal platform for people to experience the creative aspects of letterpress and typography.”
The experience is virtual, of course. But LetterMpress never pretends to be the real thing. The app is not so much replication or simulation as re-interpretation, a revival in the sense that it breathes new life into an outmoded technology. This digital translation aims to give those who might never have access to an actual letterpress the chance to have fun creating a design by hand, as Bonadies’ associate Molly Poganski demonstrates:
Virtual, in the case of LetterMpress, does not mean “pale imitation” either. In creating the app, Bonadies aimed for authenticity. With money raised from Kickstarter, Bonadies set about collecting actual vintage type, letterpress machines, and the proper paraphernalia, which he then scanned. The resulting interface is vivid and nearly tactile, capturing the textures and patina of old type, the battered type drawers, the metal gears and roller of the press itself. There are sounds effects too. This attention to detail, never pedantic or fussy, makes the experience satisfyingly inventive. With the bold wooden type forms evoking children’s building blocks. LetterMpress feels like an invitation to play.
The story of LetterMpress’ invention and creation has an interesting twist, a coda that even Bonadies didn’t foresee. After acquiring three Vandercook presses and a cache of vintage type to make the app authentic, Bonadies didn’t want to turn around and re-sell it. Instead, he established a typesetting cooperative in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he lives and works. The Living Letter Press offers workshops, training, and access to the machines. The virtual renaissance spawned an analog twin, so to speak. Though, fitting for our time, the Living Letter Press maintains its own vibrant presence online, with a Facebook page and an Etsy shop.
So those who mourn the passing of old technologies should take heart in the LetterMpress story, a charming marriage of hi tech and low. Reframed, reinterpreted, translated for a new medium, what was relegated to the scrap heap suddenly seems fresh and vibrant again, a creative tool poised to yield new forms of expression.