On August 31, Graphic Design Students at FIDM’s San Francisco campus took a field trip to Arion Press, a business that specializes in fine printing, bookbinding, editing and other publishing roles. Students in San Francisco’s Pre-Press Production class visited the press to learn more about the history of typography and printing. The article below is written by Graphic Design Student Amy Cebada about her experience on the trip.
After being lost for about an hour I finally arrive at Arion Press with Bridget. From the outside one might confuse it for a school in the middle of a small neighborhood. It is a big and white building with a tall “chimney” situated somewhere near the entrance. The Chimney goes up above the roof and puffs white smoke out into the atmosphere. Since I know that we are at a press I wonder for a second if they also make their paper here and imagine a large amount of boiling pulp as the cause of this humble cloud factory.
We are left to walk around the building for a few minutes while we wait for our guide to give us the tour. I see books of different sizes and finishes, each demonstrating the great skill of the press’ workers and representing the overall work ethic of Arion’s Press. My attention is drawn to a huge, 2-volume Bible displayed in a clear case. Later we learn that has more than 1,300 pages and took two years to print. We are also told that it was hand-bound and as we walk past the Bible, our teacher Charlene points out the signatures, or individual sections that form the book. We are to remember this term for our test next week.
Our guide walks us through a series of rooms taking the time to teach us something in each one. We walk into a production room where he shows us the metal template that they will use to print one of the pages of Don Quixote, the book they are currently working on. The template is a series of individual, hand-arranged lead-and-metal alloy letters held together by a string. He reminds us how lucky we are to have computers with which to adjust the spacing between letters (kerning) and lines (leading), but also highlights the importance of knowing what each used to mean. He shows us a metal bar or slug with which they adjust the spacing between the lines of text. In the background I see a man hand feeding large sheets of paper into an ancient-looking machine. My attention is back on our guide who is holding a comp of Don Quixote printed on newsprint. He explains to us that this is done to check that everything is printing correctly. Someone is to check this copy of Don Quixote before they go into full production. I am awed by the work that goes into printing the books we read.
We walk through a narrow corridor with drawers stacked high containing metal type. Our guide shares with us a piece of trivia about uppercase and lowercase letters. He says that the drawers we see are called cases, and in the old days printers had two sets of alphabets (one uppercase and the other lowercase). The alphabets, not surprisingly, were situated where their names indicate. We are shown a linotype machine and learn that the old “typewriter” contains special keys for ligatures such as “fi.” Nearing the end of our tour our guide shares another piece of wisdom with us. He says, “It’s not quite enough to be able to identify type. You need to know where it came from, what its nationality is, what its history is and how it was used.” He talks about picas and points and identifiable font sizes such as 10, 12, and 14. Then he picks up a small book with Abraham Lincoln’s picture pressed into the cover, In My Poetizing Mood below that. He takes his spectacles out of his jacket’s inner pocket and begins to read.
“Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and Fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.
Where friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray…”
Everyone listens patiently, some with their eyes focused in the distance perhaps imagining what we are listening to. But I am focused on our guide. I can see a spark of joy in his eyes as he reads off the pages a poem written by our first republican president. I am curious if the joy in his eyes is also pride for the great company he has shown us but decide to not ruin the beautiful ending to this day.
Photo captions: (Above)
SF Graphic Design Instructor Charlene Lowe with FIDM Students at Arion Press,
A Linotype Machine at Arion Press,
Metal Template Used to Print One Page from Don Quixote
Arion Press Tour Guide reading an excerpt from In My Poetizing Mood.