6x6 is a collaborative letterpress research project that brings together six leading UK based Higher Education design schools with active letterpress workshops. The project combines a traditional understanding of letterpress composition with a contemporary approach to design education. This has been realised through the collaborative creation of; a book, a travelling exhibition, a series of reflective essays, conference papers and the initial phase of the construction of an inventory of type and equipment within letterpress workshops in art and design schools in the UK. The colleges involved in the project are the University of Brighton, Camberwell College of Arts, London College of Communication, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, Lincoln College of Art and Glasgow School of Art.
The production of the book and the supporting exhibitions has presented staff and students in each college with the opportunity to work together in response to a common brief. The student and staff experience combines practice-led research with an immersive investigation of the letterpress process. We have invited staff and students from each of the contributing colleges to write an essay reflecting upon their practice within the broader context of the historical development of their respective institutions. The roots of letterpress teaching lie within apprentice training at trade and art schools but have evolved to inform typographic understanding, and in turn, the presentation of the written word within graphic design. The six colleges identified to participate in the project have letterpress workshops with a dedicated member of technical staff. Each are independently engaged with practice-led research, the project provides the opportunity for collectively reviewing and sharing this research. The letterpress workshops within the colleges are primarily the legacy of print training when the technology was the principal form of production. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, the majority of art and design colleges and some trade schools in the UK housed letterpress workshops to support the teaching of composition and typography, and as a means of preparing apprentices for the printing industry. Letterpress within these institutions was traditionally taught through a 'training' model as preparation for the print trade. This training characteristically prioritised the acquisition of skills to enable the production of printed artifacts including; books, newspapers, periodicals, ephemera and packaging. Expert compositors, themselves trained in print production, were responsible for imparting their knowledge of the reproduction process to students. Through this didactic model of instruction, apprentice compositors and printers were trained to a consistent standard regulated by Master Printers and the related compositors, printers, bookbinders and finishers guilds. Each college's workshop and equipment mirrored that found within industrial print shops. Research into the positioning of the letterpress process within education is pertinent today, as there has been a marked shift in purpose from technical teaching to a tool for investigation and experimentation. The industry the workshops were devised to serve, by producing a consistently trained workforce able to efficiently compose type and safely operate presses, has been catastrophically reduced. Commercial letterpress workshops continue to operate as small private presses on the basis of a model more closely related to craft rather than industrial production. Today nearly all of the apprentice trained compositors working as technical or academic staff who were once responsible for the letterpress workshops have retired. We have therefore entered a period within design schools where letterpress practice continues, but is not in the hands of anyone who has learnt their trade through the apprenticeship tradition. A younger generation of technical staff have appropriated college workshop spaces to reinvigorate letterpress values informed by their own broader educational experience of graphic design. The colleges that have chosen to retain print workshops have done so to support the education of students from disciplines within the art school. This shift of purpose from training to education has taken time to work its way through the system. The consistent body of letterpress subject knowledge, which was formerly instilled in the technical staff through training, can no longer be called upon. There has been a fundamental shift in a generation of teaching staff's experience of letterpress. Staff and student's knowledge of digital type has radically altered student's experience of the older workshop spaces and their relationship to typographic design.
The Design History Society have generously supported the expansion of the network through funding a series of visits to a wider range of colleges with letterpress workshops, in advance of the digitisation of the findings. We are actively seeking participants for this next phase of the project, and invite colleges to get in touch.