Crafts renaissance

In the documentary Typeface, filmmaker Justine Nagan, AM'04, offers an ode to a definitively analog technology: the wood-type letterpress. The film, which made its Chicago premiere on January 29, centers on the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in the sleepy tourist stopover of Two Rivers, Wisconsin (self-proclaimed birthplace of the ice cream sundae).

Typeface reflects a growing do-it-yourself crafts movement, which over the past decade ushered in a return to one-of-a-kind items produced with hand-operated technologies, such as knitting, sewing, and paper and book arts. The movement sparked events such as Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair, featured in the 2009 documentary Handmade Nation and in Typeface. At the same time, online crafts marketplaces like, founded in 2005, continue to grow in popularity annually.

Despite DIY's popularity, Typeface documents some of the potential problems in reviving an outdated technology in the 21st century. For instance, though Greg Corrigan, artistic director of the museum, espouses the joys and virtues of wood type at the start of the film, he grows increasingly wearier of his job, complaining of boredom, of a lack of visitors, and of a lack of income. Finally, Corrigan quits his post as director, saying, “Life’s too short not to do what you want to do.” Meanwhile, the older generation of Hamilton's skilled workers have all retired, leaving the factory almost entirely empty. A viewer wonders if these occurrences signal the modern movement’s demise: once the novelty of the crafts renaissance wears off, will people tire of the expense, labor, and time required to make items like hand-printed paper products? Will there be anyone left who's willing to carry on these techniques?

Though Nagan depicts these challenges, she chooses to conclude Typeface with an optimistic epilogue of sorts. Jim Moran of Minnesota’s Blinc Publishing has replaced Corrigan as museum director, and a busy Hamilton is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its modern museum. A former Hamilton employee has come out of retirement to return to work, continuing the techniques and traditions of the industry. All this seems hopeful and promising, but a nagging doubt insists that the problems that arose at Hamilton before can and will surface again. What is to stop the next director from tiring of his post, and what is to ensure that a new generation of skilled workers will choose to learn the trade of wood typesetting? Nagan's optimism may be justified, but only time will tell.

Typeface is Justine Nagan's directorial debut at Kartemquin Films. Domestic and international screenings of the film will continue throughout winter and spring 2010.

Emily Riemer, AM’09



February 10, 2010