Master printer Richard Rose reflects on typography at Yale
The first thing you notice in Jonathan Edwards’ press room is the smell. The scent of metal, ink, and citrus cleaning spray combine to give the room an industrial, yet warm smell. This subterranean room in the college basement is in a constant state of cozy mess: the organization system consists mostly of handwritten labels on scrap paper, and the lost-and-found type bowl only gets bigger, but one has always the feeling that everything is in its right place. Away from the natural sunlight and chatter of campus life, the press room is cave-like with the temperature always oscillating between comfortable and oppressive. The setup itself is happily analog. The 19th century printing presses and dozens of character crates are an invitation to slow down, spend time creating and playing. For Richard Rose, it doesn’t get much better than this.
As Master Printer of the JE Press, Rose is responsible for passing on the tradition of letterpress printing at Yale to students. His goal as a teacher and fellow at Jonathan Edwards College is to provide students with the opportunity to experience this unique art form that combines both technical craftsmanship and artistic vision. “There’s so much on campus vying for student attention,” Rose said, “and it’s important to me that people recognize how special it is.”
For Rose, the ability to operate a press is a dream come true. He grew up with a love of drawing and visual thinking that led him to pursue studies in architecture and design, although even as a graduate student he was unsure which discipline was the best artistic fit. While pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Rose was fortunate enough to take a course in letterpress printing that would establish a lifelong love for craftsmanship. “There’s something about the tactile quality that really appealed to me right away,” he explained. “Just the physical quality of the type and the printing on beautiful paper was something I picked up on very quickly.”
Letterpress printing is hard work. Words must be chained backwards from individual letter blocks. Each row should be evenly spaced and locked together so the type stays in place during the press. Printers sometimes spend hours adjusting and re-adjusting type so that each letter prints evenly, filling the recycling bin with drafts as they go. Inks must be mixed to achieve the perfect shade and images produced by hand-carved stamps. When a design requires multiple colors, the different elements must be printed separately, requiring a careful level of precision to ensure everything fits together. Oh, and there’s no spell checker either.
It takes an almost masochistic degree of perfectionism to be a printer, but Rose fell in love with the process and all of its exacting details. “There’s a kind of quality to being in the press room,” he explained with a smile. “There’s something evocative about using these kinds of outdated materials. It has a kind of mystery. I think some people are happy to get just a little taste of what it looks like, but for others, like me, it sort of settles.
After working as a graphic designer and teacher on the West Coast, Rose found a home in Yale’s printing presses when his wife accepted a position at the Yale Center for British Art in 2002. By then, the JE press was in a period of disuse, so he presented an idea for a residential college seminar focusing on letterpress printing and was delighted with the enthusiastic response. For over a decade, “The Art of the Printed Word” has been offered as a freshman and residential college seminar that teaches students how to use the JE Press while exposing them to the rich historical archive of printed materials housed in the Yale Collections.
As seminar students work on producing large-format posters, Rose is on hand to help with everything from creative brainstorming to technical troubleshooting. With a pen and a pair of reading glasses stowed in the front pocket of his plaid shirt which is neatly tucked into lightly faded jeans, Rose looks like a model from the LL Bean catalog. His typically sweet demeanor is infected with excitement as he discusses design ideas with the students. Rose’s love for teaching rivals his passion for printing, and he enjoys watching students immerse themselves in this art form for the first time. “In college, I had a lot of very good teachers who inspired me,” he recalls. “There’s a kind of relationship you have with the students that’s very exciting and interesting, and it’s wonderful to be at Yale where the students are so great.”
Rose has noticed an increased student interest in printing in recent years, a dramatic departure from when it seemed like typography would cease to exist outside of history books. “Everyone was so excited about the early personal computers, and there was this push towards everything digital,” he said of his early years teaching after grad school. “People just left the presses on the loading docks because no one wanted them.” However, Rose noted a recent revival of the 600-year-old art form, even among young people who grew up surrounded by screens. “The printed word has a kind of authority, and there’s excitement in creating type and putting it in an old press, printing and then making this physical thing. I just don’t think you get that kind of feeling on screen,” he added.
Rose has always drawn inspiration from the historical contexts of printing, a centuries-old tradition that has long been part of Yale’s past. The Jonathan Edwards printing press was founded in 1936, and many other colleges operated their own presses throughout the 20th century. Today, only two remain: the one located at Jonathan Edwards and another shared by Pierson and Davenport. Rose explained that he “came to really appreciate how central this is to Jonathan Edwards College and its history. It’s really very connected not only to the university, but also to Yale and the libraries and to printing as a scholarly and creative activity. The walls of JE’s basement are lined with decades of printed flyers and event invitations, chronicling both the history of typography at Yale and that of the university itself. Some student printers have even gone on to successful careers in typography or graphic design. Renowned artists Lance Hidy ’68 and Leonard Baskin were both exposed to typography as students at Yale College.
Rose admits that most of his students will leave Yale with career plans unrelated to typography, but he hopes the creative and design experience will have an impact nonetheless. “My students come from every discipline imaginable,” he said. “I’ve had students in biochemistry, literature, architecture, engineering, and it’s an absolute delight to see how everyone’s interests come together in print.” Although her students don’t do typography for a living, Rose appreciates the skills that can be learned through printing. “You develop a kind of visual intelligence that will serve you in so many, many ways,” he noted, adding that printing gives students “attention to detail, a sense of doing something and having constraints to work, and the ability to be able to bounce back from those constraints and work creatively” which applies to almost all areas of work.
For those who fall in love with typography the same way he did in grad school, Rose points out that a printer’s education is never truly complete. “I think it’s one of my favorite things about printing,” he said. “I always feel like I’m learning something new.”
Elizabeth Hopkinson | [email protected]