The revival of Dead Tech

Callum Jackson
May 16, 2019 · 7 min read
‘Royal Road Test’ Edward Ruscha, 1967

The past decade has seen a resurgence in analogue technology, most commonly seen with vinyl records/ players which have managed to outlive their successor-CD’s. Despite their obvious setbacks, there is a charm to them that we love and spend vast sums of money on. Typewriters despite their redundancy in the modern world have still remained a collector’s item and still have a purpose in the creative world. Each typewriter comes with its own history, the harmonious sounds of the keys banging away at the ribbon and the joyous ring of the bell as you reach the page margin, all vary from the machines wear and tear.

Some people may see them as a useless lump of metal, others become infatuated by them.

Just over a year ago, I attended a lecture by designer, typographer, university lecturer, and typewriter enthusiast Barrie Tullett at Leeds Beckett University. He talked about his passion for typewriters and about how they played a role in one of his most significant projects—‘The Typographic Dante’ based on Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy; which he recreated key elements from each Canto in a purely typographic approach. More specifically Letterpress for Hell, Typewriter Art for Purgatory and is currently working on Heaven using Letraset. He uses type in an illustrative way, and a clear tone of voice and movement communicated from his work. An example of this is in the piece ‘Purgatory: Canto ii’ in which Dante meets an angel, Barrie depicts the angel by creating the wings out of angled typewriter characters and the halo simply with the letter ‘o’.

The Typographic Dante, Barrie Tullett

I arranged to interview Barrie at The University of Lincoln where he lectures, and also runs independent publishing collective ‘The Caseroom Press’ “whose work explores the function and format of the book, from single limited editions to multiple copies; from poetry to prose; from the artists’ book to traditional print; from stencils, to typewriters; from wood and metal type to litho and digital print processes.”. Barrie’s office was filled with an incredible collection of typewriters and letterpress sets ranging through many eras.

“Graphic designers should all own at least one typewriter”, he tells me as he points to his preferred Underwood no 5.

He describes typewriters and letterpress as ‘Dead Technology’, when he refers to them as ‘dead’ he means technologies that have been superseded and discarded in the rush to embrace the new’. They are his favourite method of work due to the restraints it puts on him as a designer and the extra dimensions which come from rollers and ghost impression which the typewriter leaves behind. He has collated his favourite pieces of work created on a typewriter in a ‘Modern Anthology’ available to buy here.

Inside Barries Studio

Typewriters are synonymous with famous writers from the 20th Century, you wouldn’t be able to picture a drug-fueled Hunter S. Thompson bashing away his opinions on the search for the American dream on the electronic keyboard.

I was walking past the John Lennon memorial in Central Park and heard the clanking of keys — an eccentric man was selling custom poems for $5, written on a vintage Underwood typewriter, the quaintness added by the typewriter was the hooking point. A man sat selling poems from a Mac wouldn’t have quite the same dramatic effect.

They have become the cool accessories for the trendy hipster shops/ bars of Shoreditch high street which they proudly display (usually next to an exposed brick wall) to add an extra bit of shabby chic value.

In Jack Kerouac’s literary classic ‘On the road’, Kerouac wrote the whole book on a continuous 120ft roll of paper, in a 20-day burst of creativity — the scroll of the novel sold at auction for $2.43m in 2001. The piece itself has now become a work of art as well as, which acted as inspiration for American artist Edward Ruscha to use typewriters for art, but in quite a different manner. In 1967 he set out on a deserted road in the west coast of America. Once he hit top speed in his Buick, he threw his typewriter out the window. This was done in homage to the roads Kerouac describes in his novel. The photographs capture the event and the aftermath of the typewriter’s destruction in a beautifully comedic manner. Then put together in the publication ‘Royal Road Test’, with the Royal coming from the brand typewriter used.

Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ manuscript
Spreads from ‘Royal Road Test’ Edward Ruscha

Inspired by the results of this project Professor Simon Morris, decided he would recreate his own conceptual take — ‘The Royal Road to the Unconscious’ which uses the ‘Royal Road Test’ as a set of instructions to create his own project. Prof. Morris replaced the typewriter with 200,000 cuts from pages of Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, from on a Dorset road at 90mph. The photographic outcomes are mesmerizing images which seem fitting into a Freud/ Dreams theme.

One of the most prolific collectors of typewriters today is actor Tom Hanks, his obsession with them has gone to such heights he made the film ‘California Typewriter’ — about other fanatics and how their passion came to be, he has also authored the book ‘Uncommon type’. Which is more a collection of short stories, but he uses any chance he can to mention a typewriter.

In an interview last year he described them as ‘equal to a wooden chest that your great-grandfather carved, or the perfect set of doilies that your grandmother hand-stitched themselves, or a quilt that your mom passed down to you, that she made for you when you were 5 years old. A typewriter is — you can carry it around; it can go with you anywhere in the world.’.

Letterpress may also seem obsolete in the Creative Suite world, but its legacy still lives on (especially in art schools). The absence of CMD+Z means more thought and immersion in the process are required before the ink hits the paper, but even the times when it all goes wrong ‘happy accidents’ are formed. It’s not just the outcome of working in letterpress which its main selling point, it is the fun in the process. Many restaurants and bars menus over the past years have been trying to digitally recreate the urban effect but with the real thing, each character comes with its own beautiful unique flaws.

Alan Kitching is renowned for his exploration in the medium—using it a playful, colourful and expressive way. His work stands out amongst the digital world and is recognizable as his own. Seeing a demand with the revival of Letterpress and the lack of workshop facilities in the UK, Kitching created ‘The New Typography Workshop’, offering one or two-day courses giving ‘art directors, artists, designers, printmakers & students the opportunity to study typography & work closely with wood letter & metal type, letterpress materials & printing equipment’.

‘Taxi!’ Alan Kitching

It’s not just typewriters and letterpress which are having a second life, the now no-longer-produced Letraset dry transfer sheets have become a sought after item to creatives. Canadian poet Derek Beaulieu breaks the chains of the usual poetry norms and visualize his ideas using Letraset transfers, creating harmonious waves and patterns which aren’t necessarily legible but are an expression instead.

Derek Beauliea

Beaulieu is not the only one with a passion for Letraset, the RCA’s Adrian Shaughnessy authored Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution, interviews and essays from some of the top names in design on how it has influenced their practice and career. The book not only looks into its heyday but shows its modern-day revival. It did not live just in printed pages, the book was transformed into an exhibition at the Sheffield Institute of Arts.

“In the short gap between the end of hot metal setting and the arrival of desktop publishing, with its range of ultra-modish typefaces, Letraset offered designers — and crucially, non-designers–a low-cost passport to instant typographic hipness. And while in the pre-digital era Letraset functioned as a metaphorical lifeboat for graphic designers” Adrian Shaughnessy, It’s Nice That

Letraset The DIY Revolution, Adrian Shaughnessy

If you want to begin your collection you don’t have to trawl eBay for long to find a hidden gem. The advent of second-hand/ auction sites may have played a hand in the resurgence of ‘dead tech’. The saying ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ seems appropriate to this.

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written by Callum Jackson , Creative Intern at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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