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The Evolution of Book Design on bpNichol Lane
A wonderful article on the process of printing books at Coach House is over at Canada’s The Varsity. Writer Brigit Katz talks to Coach House’s Stan Bevington (whose complexly adorable face we cannot stop admiring) about the evolution of book design. Bevington himself has won many awards for contributions to book art since the press’s founding in 1965. Since then, of course, they’ve published and supported the likes of Lisa Robertson, Christian Bök, Sina Queyras, Nicole Brossard, Gail Scott, Guy Maddin, and other Canadian and American poets and experimentalists. (We’re personally super fond of this book.) Katz makes us at home:
The small publishing company is located at the end of bpNichol Lane in a small brick building that was once used to store horse-drawn carriages. I can hear the hum of a printer through its blue doors and walk along a pathway that leads to the front of the premises. Two hulking antique printing presses greet me as I step inside. At the top of a narrow staircase is a cozy room with a large window and creaking wooden floors. Densely packed bookshelves crawl across the walls, reaching the tips of the triangular ceilings. A plush armchair rests by the window beneath a hanging sign that proclaims it the “magical sleeper chair.”
They chat about offset lithography and letterpress, technologies that were considered high-tech in the 1960s. Eventually Coach House switched over to new printing presses, and now digitally typeset their books. Originally, all the books were set in Helvetica: “‘Our shop was the first to buy Helvetica … when it first came out,’ he says. ‘[But] the lead and the brass moulds for the type were so expensive, we could only have two typefaces.’” More about book design:
Stan shows me a book that describes the holdings of Chinese studies in the U of T libraries. The cover is floppy, and the paper inside is so thin that it could only be printed on one side.
“This book was made [with this paper] because in the Oriental way, they printed on rice paper,” says Stan. “So we chose the thinnest paper [available].”
He tells me to turn to page 32 of the book, where there is a beautiful Chinese illustration coloured with delicate strokes of red ink.
“In the history of Chinese printing, they only had that red, which was a vermilion pigment,” Stan explains. “So I printed this book with black and vermilion [ink].”
Although Stan has always welcomed the progressions in printing technology that have allowed Coach House to expand its repertoire of book design, he admits to being somewhat baffled by the ever-shifting nature of the industry.
“I think of how reassuring it must be for a craftsman who’s a bricklayer, because the materials haven’t changed. We’ve been on quicksand. We have to keep making the things look like books, but they’re always made in a different way.”
Yet there are some aspects of book design that Stan refuses to change. While most publishers now print their books on recycled paper (“post-consumer junk,” as Stan calls it), Coach House still uses the same type of paper that it commissioned from a Quebec paper mill during the ’70s. This paper is made from fresh, young trees and sized to fit the Coach House printing presses in order to cut down on waste.
“We asked [the mill] to make the paper a little thicker … and we asked them to put a laid finish on it,” Stan says, holding a book up to the light so I can see the grids of parallel lines on its pages.
“Why?” I ask him.
He looks at me for a moment, as if wondering why I would ask such an obvious question. “’Cause it’s a tradition,” he replies, “A tradition in papermaking.”