Co.Design

Creative Destinations: Two Rivers, Where Wood Type Still Makes a Big Impression

In small-town Wisconsin, the Hamilton Wood Type Museum inspires visitors with a vast hoard of fonts, woodcuts, and catchwords from printing's past.

The handmade, the local, and the slightly wabi-sabi are all having a moment right now. That definitely goes for typography, where letterpress printing using wood type remains a highly imitated and valued—but rare—part of the printing landscape.

At the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, you can get a better feel for the days when every line of text had to be composed by hand rather than typed and styled using a computer menu—and also get some inspiration for your own projects. The cavernous former factory in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, about 90 miles north of Milwaukee, is the subject of the 2009 documentary Typeface, directed by Justine Nagan and being shown on the festival circuit right now.

A major part of the attraction here is that nothing's behind glass: it's a working museum. The letters and woodcuts are still available for setting and for creating new works, and the options are vast: roughly 1.5 million pieces of wood type in 1,000 different forms. The brothers Jim and Bill Moran, whose family ties to printing go back several generations, are the museum's printer/archivist and artistic director. They run workshops for newbies as well as old hands at letterpress. This year's five-day Wayzgoose conference, which takes its name from a yearly party that printers had before winter arrived, attracted hundreds of wood-type fans from over a dozen countries.

Chad Kouri, a member of the design and art collective called The Post Family, says the spot is a "hub for letterpress people" and a great place for helping modern-day typographers understand "where the profession [that] you're in came from." Another member of the Post Family (and the designer of Co.Design's website), Scott Thomas, echoes the sentiment, saying that the museum gives him a "great appreciation of where the craft was"—and also an understanding of why people wanted to change "the way things were done."

Setting type can seem tedious and is anything but fast, and as the wood letters wear down through use, what's printed becomes less and less even and crisp. Of course, it's partly this organic quality that sets it apart from other kinds of letterpress—you "can't really imitate textures and feeling," says Kouri.

That such a design landmark still exists in this town of under 13,000 is the result of a few happy accidents, as well as some wise decisions. The factory's founder, Edward J. Hamilton, moved to Two Rivers from New York state in 1880. At a time when the country was becoming more mobile, posters and other cheap, fast communication were the name of the game. Even the tiniest burgs had their printers, and they needed both a variety of letters and other forms. Wood type was especially useful for making display type and images-?it could be made in sizes that were impractical for metal, given its weight and expense.

Hamilton and his company prospered. By 1900, it was the biggest provider of wood type in the country, and its specimen books from that time are still being pored over by modern-day typographers. Somewhat surprisingly, the factory remained in operation until 1985.

That may have been the end of the line for all the knowledge and the types here, if it hadn't been until a local citizen named Jim Van Lanen, Sr., who founded the museum in 1999. Now, with the brothers Moran and volunteers from Two Rivers and the greater design community, the museum can continue its mission, which includes reminding those who care about design and typography just where their fonts came from.

[Photos: 1, Adam Peterson; 2 and 5, Nick Sherman; 3, Hamilton Wood Type Museum; 4, Kartemquin Films]

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