Barbarian Press Curwen Project

A celebration of the disappearing art of printer’s ornaments and their history at the Curwen Press.

Jan & Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press, a fine press devoted to making beautiful books using traditional letterpress methods have been making books by hand since 1977, when they discovered letterpress printing while living in a small village in Kent, England. As Canadian graduate students studying American literature at a London university they had no notion that their world was going to turn completely around – from training to be academics destined for university teaching, to becoming craftspeople who work with their hands.

They fell in love with books – not just for the ideas in them, but with the way they could look and feel when someone made them with particular care and attention.

They discovered their beauty as objects and learned to love the feel of deeply textured handmade paper and of pieces of type as they snicked into place in a composing stick, letter by letter. They began printing the type they had composed on a 19th century hand press, page by page. Since then, they have published over forty books. 38 years on, they are still practising their craft, and making books that aim to be both useful and beautiful.

Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press

The book will describe, celebrate, and display a significant area of printing history in the 20th century: the ornamented borders of one of England’s most distinguished trade publishers, The Curwen Press, which existed from 1863 until 1984. The press was well known for its artistic designs, and in particular, for its original and exquisite use of type flowers and ornamented borders.

A few years ago, they were lucky enough to acquire the type for over 100 of these borders in their original state, ready for printing. Their plan was to reprint these borders using the original standing type, and to create new patterns with the individual type flowers as well, some of them recreating Curwen borders for which the type has been distributed. The book will include essays describing the history and special virtues of this unique press, and other information about the history of typographical ornaments.

This book will bring the beautiful work of the Curwen Press to light again, and will remind us how much can be achieved when fine design and craftsmanship work together.

* Please watch the video to see some examples of the work and of the Curwen Press borders.

The impact of the project

Most of us take printing for granted, because we see it every day. This is even more the case with decorative printing like these ornamental borders. But closer attention reveals the extraordinary skill and imagination required to work with printer’s ornaments, and the special gifts of a compositor (typesetter) as skilled as Bert Smith, the man who designed and set most of these borders. This of course also extends to the work of the press operators who had the difficult task of printing them originally.

This book, Bordering on the Sublime, will draw attention for the first time to this little-known or explored area of printing history, and will also give Bert Smith, a compositor with a touch of genius, his place in the history of printing and design.

Since 1977, Jan and Crispin Elsted have designed, set, printed, and published well over forty books at Barbarian Press, not to mention countless pieces of ephemera and ‘jobbing work’, and have been greatly rewarded by the pleasure our books have given to many people over those thirty-eight years. Their books have won many awards for design and printing, and they have established an international reputation for craftsmanship and design of which they are very proud. Recently the Alcuin Society of Canada presented Jan and Crispin with their Robert R. Reid Award for Lifetime Achievement. This Curwen project presents new challenges, and they are very excited about the book, and eager to take these challenges on.

Learn more about the Curwen Press Project.