3D printed type combines future tech with traditional letterpress

Published:  September 12, 2014

A mode and medium still awaiting the realisation of its full and surely complex potential, 3D printing has sprung onto the creative scene offering all the delight of a new plaything. London-based type studio A2 and print shop New North Press have created what is possibly the first 3D-printed letterpress font, ready for commercial use.

Made from pristine white ‘chemiwood’ and sculpted from a ‘polyjet’ photopolymer, the type set is composed of a wire-frame font designed in collaboration with architectural model makers, Chalk. A2 partners, Henrik Kubel and Scott Williams, investigated intricate eighteenth-century examples of chiselled fonts before their direction evolved into something much more contemporary.

Thinking about the future of letterpress, Richard Ardagh from New North Press explains that a conversation between himself and a commercial litho printer, planted the essential seed in his mind: “could we 3D-print a letterpress font, and connect the oldest and newest forms of print technology?”

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Dissatisfied with the proposed retrospective uses for 3D printing, Ardagh believes “it was still looking backwards, and I wanted to do something looking forwards.” Funded by a grant from the Arts Council, the print shop were able to commission a design from A2. “When Scott and Henrik presented their colution of the characters as wireframes I knew this was new territory that felt contemporary and exciting. This was a design that worked large as a display font, but was also something you wanted to get close up to, to examine the precision of the detail.”

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He goes on to say that, “another inspirational touchstone, one we returned to again and again, is the publication Architectural Alphabet by Johann David Steingruber, published in 1773” as many of the draft designs “could easily have been produced fifty or 100 years ago, and by other technological means” — encouraging the collaborators to literally break the mould of what had been done before. Rife with constraints, the selection of technique and optimum process was certainly experimental. “Selective laser sintering” proved to be too brittle and porous, while “fused deposition modelling” would crumple with a change in temperature. The final font was produced using ‘polyjet’ printing, as the photopolymer could withstand pressure and maintain fine print detail.

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Ardagh says A23D will be treated “like all other fonts at New North Press”, where the studio collects thousands of typesets ready for public use at monthly letterpress workshops. He confirms, “it had to be a working font; otherwise, it becomes something else, sort of art for art’s sake, which just wasn’t the aim of the project.”

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To celebrate the release, A2 have designed 200 specimen posters printed in fluoro ink — now available from the New North Press online shop. A film of the fon’t creation is set to premier at London Design Festival next weekend.


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