The Printing Farm

By Margaret Richardson
U&lc: Volume 25, No. 2, Fall 1998

For the Love of Books

THE PRINTING FARM in Sedro Woolley, Washington, is idyllic: A warm, cozy farmhouse complete with a Bernese Mountain puppy, cats, an exotic assortment of wild birds who swoop on a bird feeder, the Skagit River flowing nearby, and the peaks of the North Cascades rising on the horizon. The hub of this rural haven is a converted hay barn, which has been turned into a type studio, printery, foundry, and bindery to house two individualist imprints for fine books, Grey Spider Press and Street of Crocodiles Printery. The two principals of the four-and-a-half-year-old Stern & Faye Printing Farm, C. Christopher Stern and Jules Remedios Faye, walk each day from their house to the barn where they work.

Chris Stern started his Grey Spider Press in 1986, after a long career as a typesetter, in order to pursue his fascination with typography, printing, and hand bookmaking. Jules Faye was a commercial job-printer in San Francisco, and later a used bookseller in Seattle, before combining her interest in printing and books in 1990 into Street of Crocodiles. When the two collaborate on projects, they work under the imprint of Stern & Faye.

Their workspace is meticulous, a trove of over 20 cabinets of type: wooden display types, all neatly sorted and typifying Americana, and cases and cases of metal type, salvaged from now-defunct letterpress job shops and advertising agencies. Their equipment is equally impressive: two C&P platen presses, a Colt’s Armory press, a Kelly-B flatbed, two Vandercook Proof presses, and now a hot-metal type foundry, as Stern becomes expert in his use of the Monotype equipment he has acquired.

Chris Stern’s passion for print came from typesetting for 15 years at various type houses in Seattle, including his stint in the early ‘80s as composition manager and book designer for Microsoft Press. Grey Spider Press was born when he acquired his first printing press. "Getting a name for one’s press is a very big decision," says Stern. "You want it to reflect everything you are, and I was having a hard time finding just the right name. It took us about ten hours to move that press into my house, just me and Scotty – Byron Scott, who was 75 at the time. The press itself was grey, and when we jacked it up to get it over the three steps to the porch, we noticed how spiderwebby it was underneath. After we got it inside – I was just high as a kite after all this, bouncing around the room, giving thanks that the press hadn’t fallen through the porch – I went over to examine the press. There was this little grey spider just walking across the ink disk. So I became the Grey Spider Press that night."

Jules Faye became an apprentice printer early in her life by begging her local print shop to let her learn the trade. Learn she did, but then diverted her energies into used books, as co-founder of Aunt Violet’s Bookbin & Menagerie in Seattle. "The thought had never occurred to me that I could make books," she says, "but being surrounded by them, being immersed in selling and hunting for and finding and talking about books, awakened that thought. My intellectual interest in books and my experience of the craft of printing – it all finally coalesced." Faye has also been writing for many years. When she started Street of Crocodiles Printery, it gave her an outlet for her love of books, printing, and writing, and led her to add new skills, like bookbinding and illustrating with linocuts.

Both Stern and Faye design books, set type, do the printing, and create woodblocks or linocuts, all on the ground floor of the barn – where, as they put it, "we stand a lot." When this phase is finished, they move upstairs to the spacious bindery, and then "we sit a lot."

STERN IS WELL KNOWN for his chapbooks, featuring the work of local poets. These are quietly text-driven, with sensitive type treatments. For chapbooks, he often favors large-size serif type, but occasionally he interprets the poem with a formidable sans serif. He is frequently the visual collaborator on exotic books. In The Gates of Night: Six Songs from Noh, a translation by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins of six poems for the 16th century anthology Kanginshu, Stern not only handset the poems in 14-point Perpetua with titling in Koch-Antiqua, but also provided a startling five-color woodblock print with the mystical quality of Japanese prints.

With Grey Spider Press, Stern has brought a contemporary sensibility to his use of classical types. His delicacy and airiness on the page is complemented by the typographic wit seen in the cards and promotions he creates for Grey Spider Press. A simple ticket form may be laden with type and type jokes, while remaining elegant and stylishly printed. His liberal use of dingbats and borders is not just decorative but actively expressive. Stern’s latest passion is for Monotype casting. As he speaks, he makes each aspect of this formidable machine seem fascinating, from the keyboard itself ("I love typing," he affirms) to the paper holder and the sound of the bell. Of course, for Stern, the immediacy of casting type, compared to hand-setting type, allows him to work on longer pieces and still have precise control over the position of the type on the page.

For a collaborative portfolio for the silver Buckle Press at the University of Wisconsin, thirty-two printers were each asked to interpret one half of a horse, to be matched in the finished work with a corresponding half from another printer. Stern pulled out his arsenal of decorative types and created his front half of a horse entirely from letters and ornaments. The resulting steed is a mythical creature stomping on the page. Faye then wrote a bravura companion story, which Stern cast on the Monotype in Lining Gothic No. 66. Faye also contributed her own vibrant half-horse to this project, and the finished book may be seen on Silver Buckle Press’s website:

FOR JULES REMEDIOS FAYE, Street of Crocodiles is the culmination of her lifelong enthusiasms for printing, art, and literature. The name of the press is itself a literary reference, the title of a story by the fantastical writer Bruno Schulz, who wrote, and then perished, in the Drohobycz ghetto.

Faye’s books are artfully graphic, with impeccable type treatments. Her most popular work to date (it sold out in six weeks) is an anthology entitled The Ladies Printing Bee. Faye contacted the women printers she admired and asked them to provide one signature each on the subject of women’s work. Thirty-eight printers obliged. Faye wrote the preface and set the opening pages. Her own signature, entitled "Three Matadoras Reflect on La Fiesta Brava," features the experiences of three female bullfighters. It was printed on a Vandercook 4 using Caslon Oldstyle for the text (and a few "curious" types from the Grey Spider Press collection for the illustrations).

With the small, enigmatic book The Mechanical Dreamer, Faye created a surreal fable (Il Sognatore Meccanico: A Fabulous Tale of Italian Dreams Told in Linoblocks Cut During the Perseid Meteor Showers by Jules Remedios Faye) and interpreted it in searing black and white images.

WHEN STERN AND FAYE are working together, the meticulous and sensuous qualities that both bring to the page mesh seamlessly into the work. In invitations for exhibitions of handmade books, their formidable flair turns simple announcements into collectibles, with carefully crafted typography that captures a sense of the event. The Stern & Faye promotional and personal pieces evoke their characters, as well as their characteristic styles, with a punctilious use of type, and a sedate symmetry or an occasional flash of humor.

In a complex collaboration for a recent work commissioned by the Whitman College Book Arts Press in Walla Walla, Washington, Faye & Stern bring true typographic ingenuity to a lasting and singular form. The project is She Who is Untouched by Fire, a short story by Tess Gallagher with frontispiece art by the author, who was then a visiting professor at the college. Although Stern and Faye worked with students from two departments of the college, supervising the various techniques used in the book, the two printers were ultimately responsible for the design, and for casting the type, printing the pages, and hand-binding the 125 copies of this limited edition.

Both Chris Stern and Jules Faye create books that are works of art, yet still respect the function of a book. "From the start," Faye says, "that has been one of our fundamental aims, to work within the traditional function of a book, an object that contains information or art or literature. Yet we seek to make that object more than just a container."

Their individual and combined talents and visions influence each book emerging from Grey Spider Press, from Street of Crocodiles Printery, or from Stern & Faye Printers, Publishers, Typefounders. Each volume has a synchronicity with its content, a formal intensity, and a classic sensibility. Each book has its own character, its contextual authenticity, its sensuous aesthetic evoked in fine papers, interpretive illustrations, and hand-binding – and above all, in pristine, impeccable type.

As Faye puts it: "That’s the challenge of our work – to hone all the elements of each book until they come together as a whole."

Margaret Richardson is past editor & publisher of U&lc. She continues to work on design and art projects from her new base in Portland, Oregon.

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