Dafi Kühne is a Swiss designer and letterpress artist who combines contemporary graphic design approaches with the art of letterpress printing. Based in Glarus, Switzerland, Kühne has been working full-time as a letterpress printmaker for over a decade, producing a wide range of artifacts including posters, brochures, and invitations for the world of music, art, theater, and film.
Kühne prides himself on his ability to combine contemporary graphic design with printmaking techniques no longer practiced by the vast majority of designers. As a “no-digital-only” designer, Kühne cites his favorite tools as letterpress printing presses from the 1960s, traditional metal and wood type, pantograph cut wood blocks, laser cut blocks, polymer plates and handcuff lino and chip board. In addition to his computer, which is also an integral part of his process. In his Swiss studio, Kühne has collected over twenty tons of equipment. Kükne’s studio set-up includes three FAG Control 405 machines and a massive German Frontex loaded with seemingly endless dials and knobs. How the floor resists caving in remains a globally disputed mystery.
To many designers, working exclusively in letterpress may seem tedious, unsustainable, crazy, or all of the above. For Kühne, the draw of letterpress comes from his ability to assert total control over the design and production process. Kühne states, “I am not a luddite or a romantic retro fanatic…it’s just about finding the right tool for producing my design.” For Kühne the printing presses are an important tool in the process of design, not just the final step. When you send a digital file to print, there’s no telling what will come back in the form of paper and ink. The designer relinquishes control after they send or upload a digital file. Kühne remedies this by being hands on from the start. “When it comes to printing I want to have full control over the whole process and the power to make all the decisions, such as choosing the colors and the paper, mixing the ink, setting the about of pressure and ink, according to my design concept.”
Before taking on a client’s project, Kühne must make sure the concept and messaging are strong. Typography plays the leading role in the formation of the communication but color and texture are equally important. Kühne’s over 600 cases of type include favorites such as Caslon and Helvetica, along with more obscure typefaces such as Normal Grotesk.
Perhaps Kühne’s biggest contribution to the world of contemporary letterpress, other than his work, are his informative and engaging videos, which explore alternative printing techniques. His video on casting plastic resin type explains how he made additional letterforms from a pre-existing metal typeface because he didn’t have enough type specimens to print a text-heavy poster. Other topics that Kühne covers include working with magnetic wood type, indirect printing, vinyl sticker type, and torn structures.
Kühne’s work is appealing because it balances graphic design traditions with contemporary approaches. The hand-made quality can be felt not only in the aesthetics but also in the concept. As each step takes much longer on letterpress than it doesn’t on a computer, decisions are carefully calculated, leading to better choices, and better design. In a n era when designers can create hundreds of sketches on a computer in an hour or two, having an awareness of the image making roots of the letterpress are more important than ever. Setting type by hand allows for a sort of embodied cognition to take place, as a designer learns the classical components of typography. Hopefully more designers in the future will have an opportunity to discover the letterpress and incorporate traditional techniques in their own contemporary designs.
Owen Pritchard, December 9 2016
True Print: the work of Swiss designer Dafi Kühne catalogued in fantastic new monograph
Luc Benyon, April 2018
A Look Inside Dafi Kühne’s Swiss Alps-based, Mindblowingly Vast Letterpress Studio
Dafi Kuhne’s Vimeo Channel
by Erin Thomas
Although it is fascinating to learn about professional print makers, what they produce, and how they got to where they are, I find it interesting to understand how letterpress and other forms of print making are put into practice by those who do it as a hobby. These individuals have pursued careers in other fields that maybe allow for more substantial salaries capable of supporting families, or careers that simply fulfill a different interest of theirs.
I met Joe Mildenhall at church and came to learn that as a working professional in the education sector, he enjoys print making as a hobby.
“I was introduced to letterpress in high school. It was still an active form of printing for small jobs like business cards, menus, etc. back in the late 1960's. In college I usually took one "fun" class in addition to the required course work. One semester I took a class called industrial communication or something. It provided instruction on several printing techniques including silk screen, rubber stamps, lithograph and letterpress. Later I had a student job at the university press where they were still printing books using lead typesetting and printing equipment. I didn't operate that equipment but did operate other presses so I learned the fundamentals of printing.”
Although he has worked in software development and technology management his entire career, he has found a lot of enjoyment in art and design. He says “[he has] always enjoyed the intersection of mechanical devices and art.” Print making appeals to many who sit in the crosshairs of the more rigid right side of the brain, and the creative, loose left side.
“I dabbled in photography and silk screening so several years later when I saw that letterpress greeting cards, etc. were becoming popular I decided to see what was involved in producing them myself. My initial motivation was the idea of producing our own Christmas cards rather than buying them. I think I have reasonable design and layout skills and our oldest daughter has some really good drawing skills so I thought we could join forces.”
And this was how Joe became more involved in his practice. He started with a small table top press and, through buying and selling four different presses, has settled on his current Chandler and Price Pilot 6"x10" tabletop press. He has printed several Christmas cards and some miscellaneous Thank You and birthday cards.
His style shifts back and forth between vintage and modern styles, but mainly looking for opportunities to use crisp lines that will highlight the letterpress effect.
Where some may find the tedious intricacies of print making, and letter press in particular, to be exhausting, he really enjoys the manual process of layout and printing with letterpress. The physical part of the process gives him more personal satisfaction than running something out of a modern printer. However, Joe is not exempt from the frustration that comes with setting the press and printing—his experience is that “the only part of letterpress printing that can become taxing is when things like inking, roller height and positioning aren't quite dialed in. [He doesn’t] print frequently enough to quickly and easily resolve issues so it takes some trial and error.”
Ultimately, Joe has enjoyed having letterpress as an occasional outlet. He doesn’t have very much time to spend on it, but gets a lot of satisfaction when he does. I think these experiences and this perspective is such for many who practice as a hobby. Creating, in whatever form, grants substantial satisfaction and fulfillment. It is always exciting and interesting to me when I find characters like Joe who understand the importance and beauty of creating, and do so in a way that fits into their careers, lifestyles, and schedules.
Interview conducted personally with Joe Mildenhall
A printing press is a machine for applying pressure to an inked surface that rests upon a surface to be printed on (such as paper or cloth), transferring the ink. Typically used for texts, the invention and spread of the printing press was one of the most influential events in the second millennium revolutionizing the way people understand and explain the world they live in, and ushering in the modern era.
The printing press was invented in the Holy Roman Empire Johannes Gutenberg of Germany around 1440. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, developed a complete printing system, which perfected the printing process through all of its stages by adapting existing technologies to the printing purposes, as well as making groundbreaking inventions of his own. His newly devised hand mould made for the first time possible the precise and rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities, a key element in the lucrativeness of the whole printing enterprise. Upon further investigation, I found that a “hand mould” or “matrix” was used in hot metal typesetting, a matrix is a mold for casting a letter, known as a sort, used in letterpress printing. However, in printmaking the matrix is whatever is used, with ink, to hold the image that makes up the print, whether a plate in etching and engraving or a woodblock in woodcut.
In the Fall of 1909, Robert Vandercook founded Vandercook & Sons in Chicago, Illinois. His first press was made with a geared cylinder. Before the development of his press, all proofs were made on a roller press, a hand-operated crank press that relied on gravity to make an impression, or on a Washington Hand Press, which was pre-ink-rolling—you had to hand ink each print, and could only do 4 prints at a time, on the large press bed. The press in the Petko studio that we visited looks to be a Washington Hand Press. Here’s a video demo: https://vimeo.com/67678996
Over the next half-century, Vandercook introduced 60 different press models—29 before World War II, 17 of which were still being manufactured for years after the war. Manufacturing was halted during the war, as Vandercook was greatly involved in making things for the war effort, for which they received the E Award. The President's “E” Award was created by Executive Order of the President to afford suitable recognition to persons, firms, or organizations which contribute significantly in the effort to increase United States exports.
With a couple exceptions that were gravity presses, all of Vandercook’s presses were geared cylinders. The SP’s or Simple Precision presses and the Universal series were the last designed. The SP15 was the most popular of all of the Vandercook presses. Take a look at this demo: https://youtu.be/jxwRlQib1EQ
Although the company has changed hands a couple of times, it still operates under the name NA Graphics out of Silber City Colorado—making parts and supplies for many Vandercook models. Without the efforts of Mr. Vandercook and his sons, we may still be using gravity to create prints.
By: Nikki Villatoro
The history of writing was created to express emotions, imagination and language by letters or any other mark, Through writing, we had the ability to transfer complex information, ideas etc from one individual to another, because of this we were able to grow and learn from one another. Since 25,000 – 30,000 BP, humans were painting pictures on cave walls. Through this, we learned stories from one another.
Learning how to write taught us how to express ourselves– whether it was a way to represent our tribe, our emotions or our experiences.
The writing system started to become more of a representation of hunter-gatherer societies. People's property were solely relied on their 'mark'– food, land, animals. We saw this on their 'tokens.'
The history of writing was created to express emotions, imagination and language by letters or any other mark, Through writing, we had the ability to transfer complex information, ideas etc from one individual to another, because of this we were able to grow and learn from one another. Since 25,000– 30,000 BP, humans were painting pictures on cave walls. Through this, we learned stories from one another.
Learning how to write taught us how to express ourselves–whether it was a way to represent our tribe, our emotions or our experiences. The writing system started to become more of a representation of hunter-gatherer societies. People's property were solely relied on their 'mark'– food, land, animals. We saw this on their 'tokens.' The tokens began to be symbols, then they started to transition into being used as an impression or inscribed in clay. First they were pictographs but started to become more, certain pictures representing an idea or concept, ideographs and then sounds.
We have grown much more since then.
From glyphs, to Greek/Trajan/Roman, alphabets to Gothic lettering, to Letterpress.
Gutenberg was in 1439 was the first European to use printing press and movable type in Europe. Along with the many experimental things that create the printing– the invention of movable type, the machinery, oil-based ink, wooden print press etc. Through his invention of all these elements, he was able to make a system which we all know as today as Letterpressing.
Thanks to Gutenberg, the use of movable type was marked as such a magnificent improvement in on handwritten manuscripts. Gutenberg has changed the printing world, this rapidly started to spread around Europe and soon, the world.
Mankind is known for is evolution: in its self and it's inventions– although we have not forgotten about Letterpressing, it's now as easy as clicking a letter on a keyboard. Letterpress is making its comeback since we have founded the 'computer' but, there will always be something unique of the process of letterpress, and the outcome of the work itself. Having to gather the ink, going through drawers to find the typeface and manually having to put the work into it. Every step of it is so beautiful and different each time. We have grown so much but will never forget where it all started from.