Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 6, 2010

Words: a different style of art form

Most people rarely take the time to notice the font of the book they are reading or the design of the words on a wine bottle label. Ron Gordon, however, has made these things his life’s work. A professional graphic designer and the owner and founder of The Oliphant Press, Gordon spoke about changing technology of printing and its influence on the art of fonts and printmaking.

Joining the legacy

“As a kid I was fascinated with printing,” said Gordon, who began working with his first printing press at age ten. That curiosity carried Gordon into high school, where he worked for his high school’s literary journal in the area of graphic design.

“I thought graphic design was more interesting than writing,” said Gordon. “By the time I was in high school…I was very interested in printing.”

Gordon spent his summers working in a print shop. There, he was exposed to books that included hand-drawn artwork and unique bindings, results of his employer’s artistry.

“I decided right there and then, that’s what I wanted to do with my life…make books as beautiful as that,” said Gordon. “I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer. It was going to be my life’s work.”

Gordon attended Amherst College and credited it for giving him opportunities that allowed him to further explore his fascination with printing. Offering an intellectual challenge, the college often gave him special graphic design projects to work on and even held showings of his work. Amherst College is one of Gordon’s clients to this day.

“Amherst was a very important part of my life and is still an important part of my printing life,” said Gordon, who noted that the college has held a showing of some of his printed works within the last few years.

The Oliphant Press

In the 1970s, Gordon started his own graphic design and printing company called The Oliphant Press. Offering printing and graphic design for organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the company employed multiple printing techniques, including letterpress, which was “on its way out” and offset printing, which was fast becoming the more widely-employed style.

At the time Gordon established his business, graphic design and printing were not separate arts. Anything that was designed would also be printed.

“What graphic designers did in those days — they didn’t work in front of a computer, they worked in front of a drawing board,” said Gordon.

During this time period, large sections of New York were dedicated to printing.

“If you needed to set type, you couldn’t design it yourself,” said Gordon. Anything that needed to be printed needed to be sent out through an entirely separate company. In his estimate, 99 percent of those companies are now gone.

Gordon also appreciated the diversity of his early customers.

“I had some really interesting customers in those days,” he said. Many of his clients were small publishers producing volumes of poetry that they wanted to be “interesting and beautiful.”

The question of “what kind of experience did this printing add to reading this poetry” was investigated with regularity. It is a question that Gordon feels is still relevant today. In one recent poem he printed about the World Trade Centers, he ended up printing the piece on an angle, reminiscent of a falling building..

Gordon also appreciated the cooperative feeling that existed between the publishers and the graphic designers.

“[A customer] said you’re the professional, do what you want,” he said, noting that this was the best kind of customer due to the trust that each placed in the work of the other. He observed that today printing often receives less appreciation due to the ease of use of modern graphic design programs — there exists a “do it yourself” attitude.

Changing times

The letterpress, which was already becoming less popular when Gordon began its business, eventually fell completely out of use.

“It was harder and harder to justify doing something that was so laborious and underappreciated,” said Gordon.

As computers became the main tool of graphic design, “I was asked to change my style to keep up with things…my style adapted but I think it is still classic in a way,” said Gordon. For him, the 1990s were “basically the part of my life where I had to learn how to use a computer.”

During this change, Gordon eventually had to give up all of his old printers that impressed words on the page using metal fonts. They simply took up too much room.

Even so, Gordon defended the artistic legacy of the older, letterpress printing.

“If you’re a graphic designer, you should know about your history. It makes your design better. Economically, I couldn’t defend it.”

Gordon’s business has changed and thrived throughout the decades. A lifetime later, Gordon still remains incredibly passionate about his work.

“I feel like I’m still learning and changing. That’s a good thing,” he said.

Katy Sutcliffe

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