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    Studio visit: Nicole Phillips, typographer and letterpress printer

    By Jo Hoban

    STUDIO-VISIT-NICOLE

    In the 80s, Nicole Arnett Phillips spent her school holidays fossicking around the dusty corners of the press room of the New Zealand Herald Newspaper, where her Dad worked. Letterpress was long-gone, but the old machines and equipment remained, and Nicole would lose herself playing amid the traces of days gone by, discovering old pieces of type—her ‘treasures’—some of which she has kept to this day. These formative years impressed Nicole (letterpress pun intended) with a passion and curiosity for design and typography, both where it had come from and where it was headed. She studied Art and Design, majoring in Typography and Book Design, at Auckland University of Technology and the uni subsequently published her related dissertation entitled ‘Form’d’. This propelled Nicole into an exciting design career working for a range of global brands, marketing/design groups, publishing houses, and built environment organisations, in both New Zealand and Australia, where she’s now settled.

    Albert, the 1872 Albion hand-iron press against the backdrop of Nicole’s inspirational studio wall.

    Albert, the 1872 Albion hand-iron press against the backdrop of Nicole’s inspirational studio wall.

    By 2009, Nicole was tiring of the long hours, feeling like she was “an extension of her Mac”, and could no longer ignore the voice in her head that was crying out: “I need something analogue, I need more movement, and I want to connect with my design production!” She started her own design consultancy, Nicoleap, working from her home studio. And she bought her first antique letterpress—‘George’, her 1860s treadle-powered, Gordon Franklin Old Style press. These days Nicole has 5 large machines housed in a backyard Print Pavilion, purpose-built by her clever husband, Mike. It’s a long, black rectangular shape that discreetly trails along one side of her backyard. Neat, industrial and aesthetically pleasing, it’s like a mini letterpress museum unexpectedly nestled in Brisbane’s southern suburbs. Except this is no museum – this is the active workspace of a curious, contemporary creator! Nicole’s commercial design consultancy is now complemented with her personal letterpress research and experimentation; she explains that her ‘passionate letterpress practice’ adds value for her clients by making her a more engaged designer.

    Nicole Aug 2014

    Nicole Aug 2014

    When I visit Nicole’s home, the sun is shining and natural light streams into the print pavilion through two segments of the roof and walls made of clear Perspex. The walls are dotted with inspirational quotes and printing experiments, tools abound, shelves of furniture (specific press equipment) are organised within easy reach, numerous drawers of type are on hand, and of course her antique crew of gentlemen are lined up along one wall. Nicole has kindly offered to demonstrate a letterpress printing process using ‘George’, so we print and chat…

    Nicole spreads her soya-based ink over George’s platen...

    Nicole spreads her soya-based ink over George’s platen...

    ...and later activates the treadle-powered printer with her foot.

    ...and later activates the treadle-powered printer with her foot.

    A freshly printed ampersand.

    A freshly printed ampersand.

    Can you tell us more about George?
    I try not to play favourites but I print on my Gordon Old Style press more than any of the others. It’s a really versatile press and you’re really engaged with working it. George is the one that I really cut my teeth on. He’s inky and greasy, and he’s not perfect, but I love him! This machine was actually the first ever treadle printing press, so it was a really important letterpress machine.

    What about the other four gents?
    There’s Albert, an 1872 Albion hand-iron press; Sergio, a 1910 Italian Saroglia proof press; Harvey, a 1960s Heidelberg Windmill Platen T; and Milo, a Miehle V45 vertical rotary cylinder press. Each press does a different thing well, and I value the history and legacy of the machines.

    What are the constraints when letterpress printing, and is it hard to be experimental?
    There are constraints’a’plenty, so being experimental is a necessity. I enjoy trying to use an old format and tools in new ways; that excites me. For example, it’s possible to recreate something that’s so easy using InDesign, such as a flipped letter, but you have to stop and think “How can I do that with a physical piece of type? Well, if I print that onto a sheet of plastic and then I print that sheet of plastic onto the paper, I’ve got a reverse!” It’s creative problem-solving and it’s so much fun. You can achieve exciting things with dusty old type if you’re creative and want to push the boundaries. Once I’ve mastered a technique, I think ‘Ok, what’s the next thing I can do with that?’

    Nicole’s machines lined up in her print pavilion.

    Nicole’s machines lined up in her print pavilion.

    You decided not to be a commercial letterpress printer quite early on. What draws you to the older presses?
    Commercial letterpress printers mostly use Heidelbergs, which are super-precise, automated and efficient—awesome machines for this reason. I tried this, but preferred being more physically involved with the process. Operating my older machines is a real workout; printing with George, I get a sore bum and sore arms and need to stretch out! I wanted to get ink under my fingernails and experiment with making and taking something apart, and have the freedom to try something and then stop and rearrange if I didn’t like it. It’s not viable to commercially print on these older presses, so if my clients want letterpress, I’ll do the design work then refer them to a commercial letterpress printer.

    Along with your commercial work, you’ve been teaching occasional workshops at Designworks College and have started publishing your own journal—Typograph.journal. Tell us more.
    My workshops offer design students the experiential nature of letterpress printing. The more teaching I do, the more I’m interested in knowledge-sharing. This shaped the idea that I thought there was a need for a journal less about visual eye-candy, and more about candid process and conversation. I think a new design discourse is required, and that in this information-saturated era the form that information takes probably matters more than it ever has before.

    Nicole perusing Volume 1 of her Typograph.journal.

    Nicole perusing Volume 1 of her Typograph.journal.

    Nicole’s home-based studio is overflowing with design books, and organising them by colour works best for her.

    Nicole’s home-based studio is overflowing with design books, and organising them by colour works best for her.

    You can visit www.nicoleap.com.au to learn more about Nicole’s design work, and check out www.typographher.com for the latest info on Typograph.journal. For more insight into Nicole’s letterpress experiments you can follow her on Instagram @typographHer.

    Words and interview by Jo Hoban. Jo is a freelance editor and copywriter with a background in publishing. She loves collaborating to produce meaningful content that delves into people’s creative processes and spaces. Jo posts images that inspire her on Instagram @jojohoban.

    {All photos kindly taken by Ross Pottinger.}

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