Two years ago I met my first risograph machine. It was pretty underwhelming.
I was visiting Stuart Geddes at Chase and Galley, his studio in Fitzroy. He said hello and pointed at a very boring, very grey box, sitting in the corner. “Nice one, Stu,” I said, then flattered him some more. I had no idea what he was pointing at, what it did, or the sudden obsession this machine would inspire within Melbourne’s art and design underbelly.
The obsession has become so great, a group called the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild runs regular meetings, featuring Geddes as a member. The group of five like-minded designers and printers (pictured), each with Risograph printers, swap stories and ink drums over beer every few months. They want to combine their powers to purchase drums and paper in bulk, share technical information, and fight for better service from the Australian distributor.
The whole thing is nuts. These guys are nuts. It’s just a printer. What is it about the Risograph that gets these guys so giddy? Everywhere I turn, designers are gathering around a Riso to print their stuff, and generally in groups. Not only that, but it holds my favourite Melbourne designers captive, and they’re printing almost everything on second- hand machines found on eBay. It’s just so fascinating. I had to know more.
So down the Risograph rabbit hole I went, searching for answers.
Geddes tells me it works just like screen-printing. The Risograph burns an image with little perforations onto a paper stencil. The stencil is wrapped around an ink drum inside the printer, paper is inserted, passes over the drum and appears on the other side with a neatly printed image. That’s if you’re printing one-colour. For two or more colours, the original print is fed back through, each separation is sent to print individually, and registration is checked as each colour is added.
It’s a simple, hands-on process, and will often produce mistakes. But that’s what these guys love the most.
First, the registration may be a little off. In the world of Risograph, that’s totally OK, and misregistration can give an image a spooky haze. All of a sudden, the printer has become part of the design process, and the fingerprints of the Risograph are stamped on each print. It’s the first of many idiosyncrasies.
The colours of a Risograph print are remarkably bold, but inconsistent. You’ll usually see reds, blues, yellows or purples, and sometimes a mixture of the lot, but with so many colours, it’s difficult to get the same print twice. For the Risographer, this only adds to the handmade quality of a Risograph print, and makes the outcome more desirable.
But the real benefit of these machines is their economy. They’re cheap to run and produce work quickly. One of Geddes’ favourite anecdotes is that most Risograph machines used in Australia today are owned by church groups and government offices with small printing budgets. The Japanese manufacturer, Riso Gaku Corporation, started selling to community groups looking to print cheap, short run brochures and signs back in 1986.
It’s these economic reasons that motivate Risograph groups to form around one machine. A group of designers can publish whatever they want, whenever they want, quickly and cheaply. Groups like this are starting to appear all over Australia.
In Sydney there’s Rizzeria. Its members liken themselves to a food co-op. Anyone with something to print can use their facilities. Three friends in Perth run another with similar ideals called Bench Press. These groups follow the lead of several overseas co-ops, printers and small-scale publishers running Risograph ventures, such as Ditto Press, Rollo Press and Swill Children. It seems the Risograph is inching its way, full-bleed, across the world.
And it’s this story that has hypnotised the wide-eyed designers of the Melbourne design community. Even I’m not immune – I love its weird history and colourful prints.
But we’re not the only ones with an interest. The independent, art gallery community of artist run initiatives (ARIs) is in on the movement too.
Limited budgets and short print runs mean Risograph printed art catalogues and essays are popping up at art openings around Melbourne. I saw a neatly stacked pile at a packed opening just weeks ago. I got a free beer too. I felt really cool.
I walked outside and bumped into a friend. He asked if I knew a printer who might print a book of his photography. I knew just the thing.
After using the catalogue as an example, I said I’d introduce him to my good friend and fifth member of the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild, Xavier Connelly. Connelly runs his own Risograph printing and publishing company, Dawn Press, in Collingwood. He prints most of the art community’s catalogues and is one of the only Melbourne Risograph printer who isn’t a part-time hobbyist. It’s his full-time job.
We go to visit Connelly, the two become friends and they make plans to print the book. Afterwards, I stay a while to talk to Connelly about his own obsession and slump myself in his comfy green couch.
But talking is difficult. The printer is loud and he is on deadline. Five days later he has a flight booked to New York to meet fellow Risographers at the New York Art Book Fair and these jobs aren’t going to print themselves.
As the Risograph wails in the background, Connelly tells me how he discovered it for the first time.
“I wanted to publish my own photo book, but I couldn’t find anywhere to get it printed. Not the way I wanted. It was going to cost more money to make than I wanted to sell it for.”
So after some research online, he decided to buy a machine, and turn it into a business. “If I wanted to do this, there must have been others out there too.” And he was right. There was soon enough work for Connelly to quit his café job and print full-time.
Well into our conversation, he begins to talk about the Roycroft movement, a community of master craftsmen from the US, active during the early 20th century. They were highly skilled printers, furniture makers, leathersmiths and bookbinders loosely attached to the popular Arts and Crafts movement. He sees many similarities between their philosophies and his. “There was a matter of quality with what they were searching for and that was the important thing. They also established strong relationships with the people they worked with.”
But this relationship between printer and designer can become a sticking point. The idiosyncrasies of the Risograph are turning into a fad. “Now I’ve got people getting disappointed when it doesn’t look shit. When there’s no misregistration. It’s weird.”
I’ve heard others say the Risograph explosion is just a fad too. Designers sometimes copy the effects of a Risograph print in offset prints. But Connelly refutes the icons of the fad.
He’s obsessed with the restrictions of a Risograph, and how they inspire production, rather than replicating a popular aesthetic. It’s a likely story, but I genuinely believe him. He’d rather others become obsessed with the process than the product too. It’s where the best ideas come from.
“It’s important that people can see it and know how to use it. The better our relationship is, the better the results.” It really is a lot like the Roycrofters.
Then he hands me a book published by UK Risograph printer, Bedford Press. It’s issue two of its Civic City series, Design and Democracy. Connelly talks excitedly about the beauty of the publication. He says it’s perfect. No paper or ink has been wasted. It communicates the information effortlessly. This is obviously Connelly’s ultimate purpose: the reason why he does what he does.
Weeks after our discussion, he is at the New York Art Book Fair, meeting like-minds and swapping stories. I ask him for a comment regarding his trip. The following is his hurried response. “Been inspired by many things, hard to narrow it concisely. The way of thinking, the common sense of people, the adaptable nature of things, improvising, keeping things sustainable.”
The Risograph is Connelly’s ticket to other cultures, people and ideas. It’s the perfect vehicle for a communal craftsman, a neo-Roycrofter.
Now, two years since I first visited Stuart Geddes, I pay him another visit. There are examples of Risograph prints everywhere. Each one trying something new. It looks like he’s searching for something within these prints. A solution to his burning need to publish something great. With the Risograph, he can continue on his eternal search, without the anxieties that come with large print runs. It’s the perfect outlet for his work.
The same day I run into a friend at a café. He’s just bought a Risograph printer on eBay with a group of fellow designers. They’re planning to use it to make some cash and print things they really want to publish.
This Risograph thing is really taking off, I think to myself. I’m going to put that in my article.
All images are copyright by Thomas Friml – tomasfriml.com
From desktop magazine.