At his studio p98a, the legendary German designer has returned to his first love: letterpress printing.
“It’s not rocket science, it’s just geometry.” Erik Spiekermann brushes aside our apology for disturbing his work. The energetic 70-year-old looks like he’s solving a metal puzzle as he meticulously finalises the forme (frame) of a poster he’s printing for a customer. The pervasive smell of ink fills the workshop at p98a, a two-storey open space located in a leafy Hinterhof off busy Potsdamer Straße. Spiekermann’s black leather boots tirelessly move between his computer and one of seven letterpress machines, each of which weighs a tonne and dates back 40-60 years. As he speaks with us, a few of the eight colleagues with whom he shares his studio help lead a workshop for 12 visitors, mostly men in their thirties and forties, who’ve come to learn about letterpress printing.
If you’re at all interested in graphic design, you know Spiekermann’s name – and if you don’t, you’ve at least seen his fonts. Residing in Berlin since the 1960s with a short stint in London, he’s created typefaces for companies like Volkswagen, Nokia and Deutsche Bahn. Take a look around the next time you’re on the UBahn – all the signage for the BVG was designed by Spiekermann in the early 1990s, when Berlin required a unified public transport system.
In 2014, Spiekermann officially retired as head of his design firm Edenspiekermann and reignited his lifelong interest in letterpress. With p98a, he’s trying to go back to where he came from, revisiting the art form he first encountered during his studies at the Free University 50 years ago. “It’s simple: I like making things. For 30 years, I’ve been working on screens, and while my work is evident in the real world, it came directly from a screen onto something. This is different.”
We call our work ‘post-digital print’, because we combine the best of both worlds.
The limitation of the format is part of the allure, he says. “For a certain font, you may only have one X and two As, for example. It’s a restriction which pushes us on the creative front.” But that’s not to say that Spiekermann eschews screens entirely. “We love analogue, but for colours and images, letterpress is quite rubbish,” he says. “We call our work ‘post-digital print’, because we combine the best of both worlds.”
In the ‘post-digital’ version of letterpress, designs are printed from a computer onto photosensitive polymer plates; when exposed to light, the plates harden, and everything that’s not part of the design can be washed away. Spiekermann and his colleagues use this method as well as old-fashioned wood and metal typesetting to create posters, books and other commercial and non-commercial prints, a recent example being a one-of-a-kind German/English version of Sylvia Plath’s 1960 book The Colossus and Other Poems.
Lots of curse words escape the Hanover native’s mouth as he speaks, hinting at the passion behind the precision. While Spiekermann calls letterpress his “hobby”, he admits that some idealism burns behind his glasses – otherwise, he says, “Why would I spend a shitload of money on something that isn’t commercial?” He’s currently applying for public funding to help finance p98a’s various projects, including his purchase of one of the very few existing 51x61cm Polaroid cameras and, starting next year, vinyl cutting machines for the studio.
Spiekermann knows they are riding on a wave. “It’s like the revenge of the analogue. People are spending all their time in front of a screen and some are starting to realise that, hey, maybe there’s something else. Even 3D printing is analogue to some extent. Sometime I will try to 3D print missing pieces for the big printing press we have next door. The connection between analogue and digital – that’s the coolest connection for me.”