Bridging the Gap

Written by on June 4, 2012 in Art, Features - No comments
Allen's "Slivers of Light" print

By Leigh Ann Simpson

When Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century he set a social revolution in motion that continues to gain momentum today: the increased speed and availability of communication. Although his innovation underwent countless refinements and mechanism increases, the same simple principles were used up until the 20th century. Brian Allen is an expert on the history of printing and a master of the craft. He is truly an artisan printer and a pioneer, bringing together his wealth of knowledge, years of experience and his imagination in hopes of bridging the gap between modern and ancient printing techniques with his art.

Allen's 19th century Albion printing press

Step inside his studio and you’ll find his intense dedication to the craft quite obvious. Every nook is occupied by printing equipment from various days in time, walls of books, large antique printers cabinets filled with type letters and several computers; however you won’t find a desk or chairs on which to sit. One of the room’s most notable items is a 19th century Albion hand press from circa 1850. Originally designed and manufactured in London, Allen found what he calls his “pride and joy” through an online auction from a seller in Atlanta. Allen uses his treasured press along with other printing mediums from his collection to create fine art spawned from an interesting blend of hand-set metal and wood type and computer generated designs. His experience in the field covers the gamut of print making technique, and he pulls inspiration from every facet, incorporating modern digital typesetting with centuries old, tedious and even obsolete techniques. This peculiar marriage results in unique monotypes set onto exquisite paper (some even handmade) and then embellishing them with original brushstrokes and calligraphy. In addition to his art, Allen prints invitations, announcements, book covers and marketing materials. The quality of his letterpress printing is tactile and provides warmth that is rarely found today and widely sought after. Allen works with graphic designers and wedding consultants to make exotic invitations for his high-end clients. “They have to look more original in the wedding world so that people don’t think that their invitations were done at Kinko’s,” he jokes.

Allen has an enormous library comprised of over 500 rare books on typesetting and printing as well as calligraphy, art and ceramics. “This is where I get my inspiration,” says Allen. “The shape of a letter is utilitarian and beautiful and that just fascinates me. Look at the letter S, it’s both utilitarian and sensual – I’m just fascinated by that.” Allen also derives inspiration from early Venetian Renaissance printers like Nicholas Jenson. “Italian Renaissance forms are stately but not obtrusive,” he says. “They carried a message without being ostentatious.”

Allen was always a reader but he didn’t discover his passion for letters until after he graduated from college. He obtained a degree in geography and had planned on going into academia, but he took a position as a typesetter with a mapping company, a move that ultimately sparked his passion. Allen worked as a typesetter for nearly a decade from the mid 1970s to the early 80s before making a career shift during the time that the printing industry was being transformed into the digital age. He spent many years at the heart of the movement as a productionist making digital fonts for computer systems. “My career has been on the forefront and I’m very proud of the huge contributions that I made during the transition to today’s printing world,” he says. “And this was done before Photoshop!”

In addition to his list of impressive accomplishments, Allen is also a survivor of tongue cancer, a lesser-known type of cancer that is associated with extremely unpleasant radiation treatments that leave permanent, problematic effects such as constant dry mouth and difficulty swallowing. “It was very difficult but I made it,” he explains. “Now I know more about the medical world than I ever care to know.” Despite the challenge, he has managed to keep his sense of humor and can now laugh about one of the most painful experiences his life. “The protocol for head and neck radiation treatment must have gotten their ideas from the Spanish Inquision – at the end I would have told them anything,” he jokes. Allen admits he doesn’t have the stamina that he did before he was diagnosed. He says that he has downsized to a life that is much more simple and modest, which has allowed him to focus more on what is really important to him – his art. He also has moved into teaching his “bridging the gap” methods of letterpress printing to small groups of students. His inspiring story is a tribute to a fading art that he hopes to keep alive. “I want to leave a legacy,” he says. “That’s why I always say I have one foot in the 15th century and the other foot in the 20th century.”

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