In a world where design and digital have almost become synonyms, Letterproeftuin is unconventional in almost every way. Founded by three Dutch designers, Letterproeftuin is a traveling collaborative project that invites you to get your hands dirty – literally. Designers are welcome to abandon their digital gear for a while and explore the world of paper, ink, printing presses, hand-cut typography, and everything else that’s beautifully physical and inspirational. We talked to Letterproeftuin’s Jaron Korvinus, Yorit Kluitman and Timon van der Hijden to find out what the project means for them.
Letterproeftuin is quite a catchy name, and a bit mysterious if you don’t speak Dutch. I read an article that said it can be loosely translated as "Local print terminal". I also used Google Translate, and it came up with "Experimental letter". What do you think about these interpretations and what is your own?
Good to hear that you find it a catchy name. We know that it is quite difficult to pronounce and understand. De Letterproeftuin was actually the working title when we first started thinking about doing a project three years ago. Somehow the name stuck around, so we used it again for our second project, not knowing that we were to go abroad with it. Letterproeftuin is in fact a combination of two words, Letterproef and Proeftuin. Letterproef is a proof typesetters use to showcase their fonts. Proeftuin is a Dutch word for a place where new things are tested in a test environment. It is literally translated as a "taste garden".
You call Letterproeftuin a traveling, or mobile open-source design studio. What do traveling and open-source elements mean for Letterproeftuin?
We don't have an actual headquarters. Instead, we try to build a site-specific installation that functions as our studio each time we work on a project. Thus we are constantly on the move and in constant change. The installations we build are open for interpretation and everybody involved can add something to them or twist them. The work in progress or the work in process is the "exhibition". For us, it is not merely about the end result which is the framed work, but about the chemistry that erupts when you put a group of enthusiastic designers in one room. We think this is the open-source part. Everything open and all knowledge shared.
Your work is a counter-reaction to everything online and digital. What exactly is your relationship and experience with digital design? How did you end up counter-reacting to it?
I guess counter-action sounds more aggressive than it was originally supposed to. We do have a strong and good relationship with digital design. What we do as Letterproeftuin is more of a personal reaction to the fear of being stuck at the computer desk for the entire year. We created Letterproeftuin to meet and work with people away from keyboard, or away from Adobe Creative Suite. Let people really step out the box for a week, and after that jump back in with a whole new vision of things.
What is your process? Do you ever design something digitally and then move to the handcraft stage, or is it always low tech?
Our goal is to mix high and low tech. There is a lot to discover when you mix new techniques with really old ones. An example is the possibility to create something in Illustrator and have it laser-cut in seconds to go on a printing press. That opens up a whole new world. You can say it speeds up the process and it can be a bit of a threat for the ‘slow-art’ process, but you save a lot of time that you can use to ‘slow-art’ something else that day.
What do you think is the future of print? In your day-to-day life and work, what is the ratio between digital and printed content and media?
We live in the digital age now, and in our profession as graphic designers everything is getting more and more digital. It can be a bit of a threat for printmakers, and a lot of them go out of business because of that. But if you want to create something special, nowadays good print is the way to go.
A lot of your work is about typography and fonts. However, I noticed that the work of people involved in Letterproeftuin is not necessarily always about that. Is Letterproeftuin some sort of an outlet for everything typography-related for you?
Our name suggests that there is a lot to do with typography here, and the resulting work also implies that. But for us everything is open. We try not to restrict anybody or to push certain outcome in one direction. We let the designers choose witch path they want to walk. To our surprise, all the people involved in the projects always do the "opposite". We think people normally doing something completely different produce more "typographical" work, and vice versa.
Your printing press looks amazing, I feel like it’s impossible not to start playing with it when you see it. So engaging. How did this machine come to be? What other tools and techniques do you use or plan to use?
The printing machines were specially made for the Chaumont Poster Festival. We did a project there in 2012 with a lot of crazy heavy equipment. They invited us again in 2013, and for us the main goal was to travel light, so an idea to "shrink" our whole installation into something that is portable and allowed on a train was born. Our concept is to keep each machine in one box, and for every next project we try to come up with a new machine and a new box. We are thinking about a small laser cutter or small CNC milling machine to add to the installation so we can also make print forms on the spot. We currently have three, so one extra box would still be portable, sort of.
If anyone became interested in the printing craft through your work, what other designers, magazines and projects would you recommend to check out?
Our projects are mostly about exchanging expertise and experience between designers and craftsmen. If we were to recommend someone with great expertise in one particular area, that would be the people of Knust. Knust is an independent and a bit underground stencil printshop based in Nijmegen. They know an awful lot about stencil printing. If you want to print a book that really stands out of the crowd, go there.
Looks like your 2013 was quite busy. What’s going on with Letterproeftuin right now and what’s next?
2013 was indeed quite busy, but we think the busiest time is yet to come. The Smallest Printing Company a big success in terms of exposure, and right now all kind of enquiries are flooding in. We are already talking with the organizers of the Graphic Design Festival in Chaumont to do something in 2014 but that’s still a bit of a secret. For us, a big dream come true is to be invited to travel to Japan and do a project there.