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‘Counterpunch’: how the book was made

This article was written in October 1996 for the ‘Typelab Krant’. This was a laser-printed and stapled publication circulated at the ATypI meeting in The Hague in that year: it was published in the issue of 25 October 1996. We resurrect the piece now, because it gives some picture of the way in which Hyphen Press books come into existence.

In January 1991, with a ticket that allowed a week’s unlimited travel on the country’s railways, and with advice and phone numbers supplied by Fransje Berserik, a friend from student days, I went on a quest. The trigger was an interview for Eye with Gerard Unger, in his house at Bussum: an entrance to the phenomenon of Dutch type design. Among memorable scenes of the journey: the garret flat where Just van Rossum and Peter Verheul lived (electric guitars, drying washing, buckets for a leaking roof, Macs); the Hague Royal Academy and lunch at a nearby herring stall; Petr van Blokland’s studio and speculations about how Adobe digitized Univers (‘the phone must have rung then’) and how much e-mail had arrived since we had started talking; an overnight stay at Karel Martens’ recently converted village sports hall – and the sense of excitement and recognition in that encounter. Then on the day the Gulf War broke out – people were listening to the radio on the train – I travelled to Arnhem, to meet Martin Majoor, Fred Smeijers, and Wigger Bierma. We talked for several hours in a café. Martin asked if I was interested in the war; of course I was, but somehow this intense conversation pushed it out of my mind. The intensity I remember, but not much of the details; except that Fred said he had an idea for a book about punchcutting, and wondered if I would be interested in helping with it.

In the spring of 1991 I went to the USA for the first time, and in New York, looked up Ellen Lupton at the Cooper Union. When Ellen said that she was about to start on an exhibition of Dutch graphic design, I said I knew something about this, got out my notebook and gave her names and addresses of people I had met in January. Ellen asked me to write for the publication accompanying the show. My first attempt was a celebration of the whole typographic scene in the Netherlands, which mentioned vital but unglamorous designers such as Harry Sierman, Alje Olthof, Paul Mijksenaar and Piet Schreuders, and brought in the musician Willem Breuker too. The second attempt – as published – concentrated on the type designers.

Contact with the Arnhem typographers continued sporadically. At ATypI in Budapest, 1992, Fred Smeijers launched his Quadraat typeface with a bilingual leaflet, whose English I had polished (this was becoming a familiar task). My book Modern typography, printed in Zutphen, a few stops along the railway line from Arnhem, was published at that time too. After some frustrating previous experiences with English printers, that book had gone well in production. In January 1993 I wrote to Fred suggesting that he and I could co-publish this book of his, of which I still hadn’t seen anything. In March of that year he finally sent me a packet of text and pictures, with a covering note by fax, which included the warning: ‘About the book Robin, its in Dutch’. But still, I could see a lot in this slim packet: an engaged, informal and lively discussion; some surprising photographs; very impressive, fresh and to-the-point drawings. I had never been particularly interested in sixteenth-century type, but I was certainly interested in any book, on any subject, that turned its back on recycled tales, refused the blah of stylistic celebration, and instead looked hard and in detail at the processes of material production – and at the ideas and intentions that informed this making.

Fred then began to send me English versions of his text, chapter by chapter: changing and adding as he wrote in this second language. In turn, I would rewrite, cut, ask for expansion, and so on. It turned into a nice collaboration: Fred would supply the ideas and much of the language. Most of the verbal images and some of the nicest phrases in the finished book are his. But I would shape, punctuate, puzzle over what he wrote and drew, and sometimes suggest new thoughts or pictures. Once or twice I even translated from his Dutch, as I began to learn that language. It was a long, enjoyable and entirely uneconomic process, carried out in Arnhem, London, and elsewhere – in our homes and offices, in pubs and cafés. One scene I remember especially: in the lobby of a grand hotel in San Francisco, Fred acted out for me what happens when a punch is struck into metal to make the matrix for type, his body shaking, like the disturbed molecules of the soft metal.

By autumn 1993, at ATypI in Antwerp, we had got reactions from our first critics – Paul Stiff, James Mosley and Matthew Carter. They were sharp, and helpful. For that conference we also produced a leaflet announcing publication in spring 1994. Friends said that this told too much about the book. Certainly it was premature: it included material that we had already begun to modify. It also used, for the first time, the typeface that Fred was designing, based on a roman cut by Hendrik van den Keere: the sixteenth-century Flemish punchcutter and a hero of the book, to which we had now given the title Counterpunch. By the time of the leaflet, The Enschedé Font Foundry had agreed to take it on, and it had been named Renard. It is dangerous to give precise publication dates for books that are still in the making. All publishers learn this – the hard way, through orders for books that are more complete in the mind than in reality.

One of the difficulties of our project now began to make itself felt. Fred was author and designer of the book, and designer of the typeface in which it was set. I was editor and publisher; though we would share costs and profits. There the team ended. There was no authority figure to drive us on, or put limits on what we were doing. We could choose to ask friends and acquaintances for advice or comment. But there was no one within the operation itself to act as an awkward critical presence. So eventually the book fell into the doldrums. It was susceptible to other pressures. Martin Majoor had landed the job of redesigning the Dutch phone book, and Fred helped Martin with the design of the typeface (Telefont). Most of the Telefont design was done in 1994, and was one important reason for a break in our work. Another event of that year was an article that Fred wrote with me editing and language- improving – for Gerrit Noordzij’s Letterletter (not yet published). It diverted energies from Counterpunch, but also helped to make chapter 6 one of the liveliest and richest in our book.

The 1994 Hyphen Press catalogue, designed by Fred, announced publication of Counterpunch in spring 1995. But by the time 1995 came, nothing much was happening, and I felt strongly that we needed someone or something to kick the book into life. We agreed to ask Fransje Berserik to take charge of its design. After a few weeks, she had read the manuscript, proposed a page layout, and suggested important restructuring changes that couldn’t have occurred to me – the book’s official editor, but by now far too close to the text to see the need for such rearrangement. When she made a ‘plakproef’ (paste-up) of the text and pictures as they then existed, it was as if ‘the book’ was, for the first time, something with visual presence and identity. Later in the year, Fransje designed a dummy of the book for the Frankurt Bookfair: another encouraging step towards the final object, now announced for ‘spring 1996’.

The final work on the book was done in a series of packed sessions this summer, so that finished copies would be available at ATypl (this became our main external constraint). Now we were joined by Peter Paul Kloosterman, an old colleague of Fred, who took the role of ‘dtp-er’: but one with something to say about the design too.

In this last stage, when the book was coming together, literally, on Peter Paul’s computer, we began to wonder about what we were doing, and how we were doing it. I think there is something new here, in this way of making books, which is worth thinking aloud about. Here was an author, a designer, an editor, a ‘pagemaker’, and no one else: no boss, no one to report to. Our roles were clear, but also fluid. We are all designers; we all have views about the content of the book too. You could talk about this in terms of the present discussion of the ‘designer as author’, but I think it is more interesting, and truer in our case, to talk about the author as collaborator and as risk-taker. The author had something to say, wanted to get his book into the world untroubled by established publishers (who probably wouldn’t have been interested anyway), and the rest followed.

Counterpunch is varied and quite complex in its material. It uses pictures from different sources, each one of which involved a chase. One important element is the attempt to explain processes, in words and pictures. Is the drawing clear? Can you understand what is going on? What should the text say? Should the caption repeat what is said in the main the text? And so on. These difficulties were one reason why the book took so long to make.

Counterpunch is also an exploratory work, open-ended and looking to the future. That too, as well as the way we worked, made it hard to put limits on content. Fred went on modifying his views. For example, the chapter on ‘Letters and the Italian intellect’ was continually adjusted, right up to the last moment at the end of September. The argument about the two traditions of making punches (the method that works mainly with punches, and one that works with gravers) was modified after James Mosley had arranged for Fred and I to go to the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris, to meet Christian Paput, a living representative of the ‘digging’ approach. A fresh look at the evidence, rethinking and some rewriting followed. And this rethinking was then explained in the book itself: in the true critical spirit.

Sometimes, as we sat discussing the book in a train or a pub, in Antwerp or Amsterdam, with the material on a PowerBook or in files in a backpack, I felt that we were reliving the sixteenth-century experience, but now helped by computers and fast travel. But, just like the old punchcutters, we had intimate control over what we were making, not just physically but also mentally. The intellectual and financial risk is ours and no one else’s. I had a similar experience this summer, working on the book about Karel Martens, with Jaap van Triest and Karel himself: again content and design roles were fluid and interactive. Though on that book we worked with the generous, hands-off patronage of Heineken.

If there are great freedoms in this approach, there are still dangers, especially in the present developing state of the technology. We knew that we couldn’t scan all the pictures on Peter Paul’s machine: but where to draw the line between cost-saving and quality? There were some ‘digital mysteries’ that we could have done without, working against the clock in the last days before film had to be with the printer. And at the same time as we were pushing the technology, we were putting finishing touches to the design, getting last minute reactions from proof-reading colleagues, chasing pictures, trying to keep the whole thing editorially ship-shape. Everything interacted with everything else.

Now, this week, we have the first finished copies of Counterpunch, hand-bound and rushed from Zutphen to The Hague. In December the book will be officially published in Europe, and early next year in the USA. The book is made, but new adventures begin, as we spread it around the world.