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Just paper and ink

August 27, 2010

Germany is the birthplace of the modern printing press and, even today, Berlin is home to a number of letterpress printers. DW's Gerhard Schneibel found out why printed books hold a magic he'll never find on a screen.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

The prospect of delving into the world's greatest literature by means of an electronic device appalls me. I don't relish the thought of reading from a chunk of plastic any more than I look forward to eating a microwave meal at the end of a day's work.

I need ink on paper, and I doubt I'll ever learn to be satisfied with substitutes. Furthermore, I live in Berlin, a city which seems to have a disproportionate number of letterpress printers faithfully plying their trade, invented in the 1400's by Johannes Gutenberg.

In my neighborhood alone, there are two such printers, both of whom learned their trade in communist East Germany and continue to turn out printed material on dated machinery.

Printing as a launchpad

Martin Z. Schroeder works at his letterpress
Letterpress printing requires patience and self-restraintImage: DW

One of them is Martin Z. Schroeder, who works out of a few rooms at the base of an apartment building, just below street level on Schonensche Strasse. He has a number of presses, including an "Original Heidelberg Windmill" from the 1950's. It uses a rotating mechanism to whisk paper into place to be stamped with type.

Schroeder's love for printing began at the age of 14, when he was first exposed to the trade in the East German youth organization, the "Pioneers." Then, in 1984, he joined the last two-year vocational course being offered in letterpress printing before more modern technology was introduced.

"Only a handful of us actually stayed on working as printers," he told me. "For most of us it was a launching pad to get into graphic design. Basically the only ones who became printers were students whose families did that."

I was mainly after one question: I wanted to know why the printed word appeals to me in ways electronic text just can't.

Schroeder emphasized that it's the slight imperfections that make each imprint individual. Type leaves barely-perceptible indentations in the paper, and the ink dries somewhat differently each time. The result is a final product with "more warmth" than a computer-generated print.

Letterpress type
The technology essentially stamps ink onto paper, leaving slight imperfectionsImage: DW

"I notice that my customers always like to be able to tell that there was a human hand involved somewhere in the process... and letterpress printing leaves behind traces of production by hand," he said.

Comfort in imperfection

Adding to the aesthetic is the fact that letterpress printers have technically limited options in terms of what elements they can use in a design. So while their computer-reliant counterparts might be tempted to clutter designs with garish colors, graphics and typefaces, letterpress printers must engage in a kind of minimalism. They focus on negative space, paper quality, and subtle details like tinting the papers' thinnest edges.

The fact that graphic design and publishing are now so easily accessible to amateurs has left markets saturated with low-quality alternatives to the painstaking work Schroeder offers. Still, he has noticed a resilient desire for quality work in the personal stationary, business cards, postcards, wedding stationary, bookplates and books he prints.

The printer's workshop
Letterpress printing is messy, which lends it a certain charmImage: DW

I was certainly relieved to learn about the distinct attributes of a lovingly printed text. It means I actually have a reason to dislike e-books - which, from what I can tell, offer only one consistent typeface throughout - and am not simply cranky years before my time.

There is an incredible amount of enthusiasm afoot for the revolutionary aspects lent to reading, writing and information by technology. But somewhere at the core of all this innovation and progress, the essential nature of humanity is still intact and just as imperfect and fundamentally stuck as it ever was. Personally, I see progress as somewhat illusory and am more comfortable with the intimacy provided by slight imperfections.

Gerhard Schneibel lives in Berlin and first learned about printing techniques from a 68-year-old newspaper editor who threatened to hit him with a pica ruler any time he got AP style wrong.

Editor: Kate Bowen