Smile Politely

Keeping tradition alive with Typeface

The rural Midwest has a lot of hidden gems. About two hours east of Champaign, hidden in the middle of the cornfields of Indiana is Tribune Showprint, a little letterpress print shop that still uses wood type to print its posters. In business since 1878, Tribune is known as the longest continuously operating letterpress print shop in the U.S. If Tribune needed to replace a letter or two in their wood type collection, they might very well have to call the Hamilton Wood Type factory.

Located in Two Rivers, Wis., the Hamilton Wood Type factory was once the largest manufacturer of wood type for letterpress shops in the U.S. Hamilton is a museum today, preserving the traditional techniques of letterpress printing and the art of setting type by hand. Norb Brylski, a retired Hamilton employee still comes in to work as a volunteer every now and then. His job? To cut letters out of wood using a router and a pantograph machine to enlarge or reduce the pattern. Norb is the last of his kind, a craftsman with a skill that no one needs anymore.

The Hamilton Wood Type Museum is at the center of a new documentary by Justine Nagan that is making the rounds at film festivals around the world. Although Hamilton is a featured character of the film, the real subject matter of this lovingly crafted documentary is the revival of a lost American craft. Since Gutenberg’s days, type has been designed, cut and set by hand one character at a time. When poster printers demanded larger type, wood was used instead of metal because it was lighter. It was not until the 1960s that newer technology started to replace this time-honored craft. Today, anyone with a desktop computer can set type without getting their hands dirty.

Since setting digital type is cleaner, faster and more efficient, then why are graphic designers drawn to this out-dated, time-consuming method of setting type? Is it just nostalgia? Or is it a reaction to the virtual world of today where friends are zeros and ones you collect on Facebook? When type appears on a computers screen and you can’t touch it or smell it, is it still type?

It is exactly these questions that Justine Nagan explores in Typeface, her debut film that’s getting a lot of attention among graphic designers. Like Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica, Typeface explores a specialized craft that is almost invisible to most people (how many non-designers really pay attention to the shape and form of letters?). Both documentaries dive deep into the world of typophiles who like to say “leading” when they really mean “line spacing,” and who can identify the fonts used in most movie title sequences (yes, I’m a typophile).

What sets Typeface apart, though is Nagan’s ability to capture the passion of the people who love this craft. Whether interviewing the retired workers of Hamilton or the young Chicago designers who drive three hours to attend workshops at Hamilton, it’s obvious that Nagan has a deep respect for her subjects. Because they get so excited over a little piece of wood, because they feel a rush when touching wood type and letterpress machines, because their passion is so authentically captured on film, the audience can’t help but also get caught in all this ecstasy.

Nagan, who is a quilter in her spare time, obviously understands the tactile appeal of touch. “People are craving things with texture that they can hold in their hands, whether they’re knitting or playing guitar,” says Nagan. “Then there’s the whole nostalgia factor: LPs vs. iPod, film vs. video, letterpress vs. inkjet.”

Two Rivers, Wis. is obviously a very special place. It’s where the ice cream sundae was invented. It’s also known today as the museum capital of Wisconsin. Personally, I can’t wait to go there myself. As a graphic designer, I can definitely relate to the history of my profession. As a professor teaching graphic design at Parkland College, I can also appreciate the importance of Typeface as a historical document. Who knows how long Hamilton will survive? With the future of print in question, what other historical artifacts will be lost to time?

In addition to being a filmmaker, Justine Nagan is also the executive director of Kartemquin Films, the distributor of Typeface. Kartemquin has been an independent producer of socially conscious documentaries for over 40 years. Based in Chicago, Kartemquin has produced over 30 feature length films including a little gem called Hoop Dreams, that was co-directed by Champaign native Fred Marx. For a filmmaker who has been quoted as saying that she wanted a career that “made a difference,” Kartemquin might just be the perfect home for her.

Typeface took over four years to produce and the craft of the film itself shows in every frame. The story threads are expertly woven together, the editing is tight and not a frame is wasted. Watching the film, one can almost smell the fresh ink drying on paper. If Typeface is any indication of other films to come, then Justine Nagan has a brilliant career as a filmmaker ahead of her.

The local premiere of Typeface is presented by Graphic Design at Parkland College and the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization (CUDO).


Kartemquin Films presents
Produced and Directed by Justine Nagan
Champaign-Urbana premiere on April 21 at 7pm
Parkland Theater
2400 West Bradley Avenue, Champaign IL

General admission $5

Parkland students/CUDO members $3

Proceeds to benefit Parkland Art Gallery
Info: or 217.351.2485

TYPEFACE: The Movie Trailer from The Show ‘n Tell Show on Vimeo.

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