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From Lead Type to Bytes and Pixels

When I applied to Yale in 1976, I was intrigued by a photo in the Yale College Bulletin that showed students standing with their adviser next to a printing press in Pierson College. Little did I know what that first sight of the Pierson Press would lead to.

As editor of my high school newspaper in Rome, I sat with the Linotype operator as he set type. Watching such a complex, Rube-Goldberg machine was a captivating experience. So when the Pierson Press held an open house during my first week at Yale, I couldn’t resist.

At the time, desktop publishing had not yet been invented, so the only way for common mortals to create graphically sophisticated materials was to set metal type by hand and to print letterpress. I can still remember going up the stairs in the Pierson tower and walking into the Press—a printing shop with three presses and a full complement of fonts and sizes. The press in the Bulletin was right by the front door. Chief Printer David Rose '79 was doing his sales pitch, showing us how the presses worked.

The closing of Commons and the dining halls during the 1977 strike made the press very popular, for David lured us with pizza and doughnuts and turned the Pierson Press into a social center. My class produced a bumper crop of printers.

Operating presses is complicated and dangerous, and the Pierson Press taught an apprentice course each term, both to pass on the skills of the “black art” and to avoid mangled type, fingers, and limbs. I took this course and was totally hooked, spending most of my free time printing. My family and friends gave up calling my room and simply called me at the press. Working with metal type, we learned about letterforms and their relationships. The constraints of working with physical letters also gave us a rigorous foundation in structured page design and graphic layout.

Howard Gralla '75MFA, the press adviser in the Bulletin photo, taught the “Art of the Book” seminar and became our mentor. I succeeded David as chief printer and worked as the Pierson College printer, crafting stationery, business cards, and posters for the master’s and dean’s offices. One of my apprentices was a curious sophomore, Natalie Yates '82, with whom I worked on many printing projects. We’ve now been married 20 years and have a son, Alexander. (David calls him “one of the best things the Pierson Press ever produced.”)

After getting an MBA from Columbia, then working for Procter & Gamble in Rome and Bristol-Myers in New York, I joined Natalie as vice-president of marketing and sales in her family business, which manufactured contract office furniture. My first project was to design and produce a brochure. We also designed the company’s marketing materials, product catalog, and, in 1996, its website.

In 1998 we took a sabbatical, during which friends and acquaintances asked if we could help with their web projects. A year later, we founded Blue Iceberg, a website development agency. On the web, we’ve always emphasized clear, clean graphic design. We’ve also been fanatical about good typography, and we apply the skills and the aesthetic “eye” we developed at the Pierson Press.

I’m told that undergraduate printing is alive and well at Yale today. After the renovation of Pierson and Davenport, the Pierson Press was merged with the Davenport Press and has now moved into a marvelous studio space between the colleges. When I was at Yale, many of us developed strong bonds as a printing community because we actually spent more time together as apprentices and advisers than we spent with professors or faculty advisers. The Honorable Company of College Printers, Yale’s community of printers, is still active, and we periodically return to New Haven for the Wayzgoose—the traditional printer’s banquet—where we reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

I’ve witnessed the technology progress from metal type to phototypesetting, from four-color process printing and desktop publishing to the web. It’s been an amazing journey, and the foundation provided by letterpress printing using handset type is remarkably relevant even now as we work in the online world.




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