Dave Darcy is the talented ink and type enthusiast behind Dublin's One Strong Arm Letterpress studio. I am an avid fan of Dave's Instagram account (& work!) - each post is a visual treat documenting his print process and outcomes.
Thanks so much for taking the time out to answer some Q's for the TypographCommunity Dave! To kick things off what got you started with print?
I’ve been working as a graphic designer for a little over ten years now so print has always been very much on my radar. In terms of letterpress printing though, that really started a little over two years ago when I had the opportunity to spend some time in our National Print Museum. It was during a few days spent there, with an introduction to hand setting type, that I got a feel for letterpress printing. At the same time I met a number of printers (Jamie Murphy of the Salvage Press and Mary Plunkett of The Belgrave Private Press) who were producing beautiful contemporary work using a medium that I’d mistakenly resigned to the history books. That experience, in a way, reframed how I see letterpress printing.
In your opinion what about letterpress makes this such an enduring medium?
I think quality and craft resonates with people - even if you’re not 100% sure what it is that’s speaking to you. It could be carpentry, vinyl records, good whiskey or a well made pizza-cutter - regardless of what you might know about a particular subject, when something is well made the quality tends to make an impact. Good printing does this too - and it’s probably propped up a little by how used to disposable print material we’ve all become.
You have recently moved studio! Congratulations it's an exciting (and nerve wracking!) time moving presses but setting up a new space is always a rewarding process. What you're most looking forward to about your new space?
Thanks! I’m getting close to settled in, everything has a home now, almost, and projects are beginning to come off the presses. It was a tiny bit stressful but ultimately a very positive move. It’s an experience to watch a Heidelberg Windmill floating down the road on a forklift! It’s also a much bigger space, so I’ve moved my design practice in here too which is nice, no more running across town because I’ve forgotten which studio the scalpel is in! The extra space hopefully means a lot more opportunity for other people to visit the studio to work on various projects, collaborations and workshops.
You have a number of wonderful presses! Do you have a press or piece of machinery you favour? Or something you print on or with most often? (I know first hand it's difficult to choose!)
I have a Korrex Berlin flatbed proofing press, a Heidelberg Windmill and a wonderful German made tabletop press called an Emil Kahle - they are all constantly fighting for the top spot really, I love them all for different reasons, and they all have different uses too - that said, for personal projects I tend to favour larger formats so the Korrex might have to be my choice - it was also the press that got OSA going.
Your printmaking uses physical type (both wood and metal sorts) composed by hand as well as polymer plates and linocut for illustrative elements and expressive/contemporary type styles... this results in a diverse range of aesthetic outcomes in your work! The consistent thread being the high quality of your print! Do you have a relief you prefer to print with? Or an aesthetic you gravitate toward?
I think because I’m a designer-turned-printer my approach to letterpress printing can be quite varied. It’s also a case of experimenting with different techniques, I’ve only been printing for a few years so almost everything I do is a little bit of an experiment. Finding what’s right for the project is definitely what’s most important. I am starting to see certain approaches reoccur and develop, and it may be the case that over time an OSA aesthetic develops, but I’m not sure that would suit how I work - for the moment I’m happy to see where it goes.
It was an honour to be featured alongside you in the recent Random Spectacular Interrobang publication. Your Conviction with Passion print is exceptional! A beautiful nod to the craftsmanship and culture of all of us who value traditional print media. Can you tell us a little about the concept, composition and production of this piece?
Wow, thank you! It really was an honour to be included along with such a fantastic line-up of printers. A lot of those involved have been a real source of inspiration to me, yourself included, since OSA started. As you mentioned, the piece was for Interrobang which was marking the 100 year anniversary of Edward Johnston’s Underground typeface.
I wanted to create a piece that said something about the often hidden passion with which typographers, printers and designers work. I think that is one of the most interesting things about Johnston’s typeface - it helps countless Londoners everyday and most probably never notice it.
However, I couldn’t bring myself to print anything about Edward Johnston and not set it in Johnston. Rudolf Koch had a similar career to Johnston, both calligraphers turned typographers, working at a similar time too. The quote just seemed to fit; he’s saying that typographic design, printing, punch-cutting and book-binding are skills comparable to the loftiest of endeavours. I quite like that idea. The layout is an approach I find myself coming back to again and again, I like if a print can be made to work on two levels, from across the room as well as having something more to offer when you get it in your hand or get up close to it.
I think designers (especially those concerned with the aesthetics of visual language) are notoriously bad at 'seeing' letters and words rather than 'reading' them! (Occasionally making for clumsy spelling and grammar!) So I particularly adore the piece you did for 'Me Jewel and Darlin' Dublin' 'A healthy contempt for Grammar' which I absolutely agree can make talking that little bit more interesting!
It’s a great line! It’s by the author Roddy Doyle. The whole show was about Dublin, commissioned a part of a broader program called ‘I love my city’ - so all the pieces are Dubliners speaking fondly about Dublin. It was good fun to research too - we have a crazy take on the English language and his line really sums that up. I’m definitely guilty of ‘seeing’ rather than ‘reading’ – I’ve probably sent hundreds of photos to family and friends for some emergency proof reading! It can be pretty nerve-wracking laying down the third or forth colour on a print when the first three formes are already dissed! So, for that print I thought I’ll embrace the errors and the paranoia, or at least the idea of them. It was fitting to spell grammar incorrectly and ‘fix’ it with overprinted correction.
I also love the Jingle Jangle print in 'Me Jewel and Darlin' Dublin' series where you print the feet (the backside) of woodtype sorts to show the grain and form the geometry of Dublin’s geography as a background! How did you go about the shapesetting and composition process for this print?
All the type used in the background was from a box of pied wooden sorts that came along with a collection of type. It was perfect for the task since it was such a random collection of sizes, different quality and textures. I mapped it out digitally using whatever sizes and proportions replicated the contours of the geography - as closely as I could anyway. After that I digitally printed it and started to match the physical type to the printed guide and adjusted it a number of times while trying to remain as loyal as possible to the shape of Dublin. Once I was happy with the shape I moved it over to the pressbed and began locking it up - it was a bit more of a challenge that I’d anticipated - it was the first time I’d attempted to lock up anything so irregular. As I’m sure you know from your own shapesetting, it can be a bit tricky. A lot of hours, lead, brass and chopped up reglets later it began to take shape.
Printing the feet is something you also used to great effect in Bit-Maple. The 'Pushing pixels meets mixing ink', 'Flatbed press meets flatbed scanner' and 'End grain meets end user' posters are clever references to the fact the Bit-Maple process was both analogue and digital... Can you talk us through the process?
I was invited to create work for an exhibition of Irish type design called ‘Typeset’ - the only brief was that the final work was to be displayed on a number of screens in the gallery. The first thing that jumped out at me was the challenge of representing letterpress work digitally, rather than just printing a piece and photographing it I wanted to find a solution that gave equal weight to the analogue side and also the final digital output. I started looking for connections and parallels between letterpress and screen based type. I was considering letterpress printing source code for a simple web page, or the years most popular tweets, or binary Kraftwerk songs (I might revisit that one!) - things like that - anything to link letterpress to data of some sort. I’m really drawn to logic-based solutions and information-driven design work anyway, so it made sense that letterpress, being early printing, the digital aspect of the project should be represented by earlier screen typography or bitmap fonts. After that the whole thing just fell into place.
I printed about 100 wooden feet from any type I have which came close to square in shape - mainly a tray of 8 line grotesque and a 6 line slab serif - then they were scanned and individually adjusted into proper squares and these made up the pixels for each of the characters. They were broken into sets and each pixel character pulled from one different square from each set to ensure they were as varied as possible. The submitted piece was a short video showing off the resulting typeface.
There is an incredible tension between technologies in this project. How was it received at the Type-set exhibition?
I think it was well received. I was happy enough with the result, although it was definitely a typographic experiment rather than a piece of typographic design. I feel it achieved what I set out to do - it connected the two worlds quite well, and evenly too, which was part of the challenge for me, I had to keep an eye on my letterpress bias a few times, as well as not letting my feelings about good typographic practice creep in too much. Pixel fonts are largely pretty awful from a typographic perspective - so I had to check to make sure I was staying as true as possible to the shortcomings too. I did cheat a bit on the kerning though and broke out of the grid for the sentences - I set that optically to give an overall more balanced appearance.
I found your 36 days of type journey a joy to follow this year! What did the daily creation process teach you about creative practice, and/or typography?
It’s a great project, and a really interesting challenge. The type I created for 36 days is a bit closer to the work I produce as a designer. One of the things I found really interesting was how often the characters were informed by the print side of my work - on the whole they are very illustrative but I still found myself wondering how could I recreate this, or something similar, in print… this project showed me how the two sides or what I do inform one another, and also how they are beginning to drift towards one another.
Your LATFM print is glorious! And the addition of photo luminescent powder (to make the print glow in the dark) is a clever way the print production reinforces the meaning of the artwork. Is this the first time you have employed ink additives or experimented with traditional print finishing in your work?
This print was a long time in the making - mainly because I had no idea what I was doing! I did learn a lot in the process though - I was attempting to mix the powder through the ink, opaque ink, transparent, various amounts of the powder and seeing how it worked with various colour paper stocks too.
The dozens of mixtures of ink/powder I tried worked with various degrees of success - but none had the punch I hoped for. As it turns out, it was a pretty good example of me over complicating things - once I approached it with traditional finishing techniques in mind I was much happier with the results. It was interesting to turn off the lights in the studio after an evenings failed tests and watch the place light up! The powder really gets everywhere.
As well as printing your own self-initiated artwork and visual experiments you also take on commercial / commission based print production jobs for clients... How does your process differ when working on printing for yourself vs. printing for others?
Occasionally I do print work that comes to me almost fully formed, and they are essentially production jobs. More often though, when I do print for a client I’ll get involved a good bit earlier in the process. This tends to be more inline with my work on personal projects - they might have a piece of copy in mind for example - when this happens the process isn’t really much different, I’ve just swapped myself for the client, I tend to approach it much the same way, I try to make it as collaborative and inclusive as possible. That can be quite interesting.
Other than the move what are you working on right now?
I have a fair few projects on the go at the moment, some album covers for a couple of great Irish musicians and bands which I’m pretty excited about, a collaboration with an local ethical clothing label, Grown, to produce a series of prints around their core values, and I’ll hopefully be dipping into the world of book printing in collaboration with a wonderful illustrator towards the end of the year. As well as that there’s always some smaller production projects for clients moving through the studio - but most importantly I’m getting close to starting work on another show, a new collection of OSA prints which I plan to tie in with some kind launch for the new studio.
Finally how can people get in touch with you and follow your work?
My website is OneStrongArm.com and you can contact me there, look through most projects and have a peep through the shop. OSA’s Instagram account is probably the most up to date was to see what’s going on in the studio from day-to-day.