Justin Knopp, Typoretum
After interviewing more than eight hundred people, I agreed to give my first interview – conducted by Tim Rich for the debut issue of Random Spectacular, published this week by St Jude’s in aid of Maggie’s Centres. Described as a collaborative exploration of the visual arts, the magazine includes work by Spitalfields Life regulars Paul Bommer, Joanna Moore and Rob Ryan among many others. Justin Knopp of Typoretum was commissioned to create a print to accompany my interview and so I took the opportunity to travel by train from Liverpool St to Coggeshall to visit him in his workshop.
I had not met Justin Knopp of Typoretum before he designed the print you see him holding in this photograph – I had not even spoken with him – yet when a copy arrived out of the blue, I was so impressed that I got on the train up to Coggeshall at once, eager to go and find the man behind this clever piece of typography.
Situated where the suburbs of Essex have unravelled into green fields and villages with old flint churches, Coggeshall is an ancient market town lined with medieval houses upon Stane St, the Roman road which is the continuation of Old St. Outlying the village, behind a modest nineteenth century terrace, you will find a long weatherboarded shed with a plume of blue smoke drifting through the orchard from the chimney of the wood-burning stove within. Here, in a single long room lined with trays of magnificent wooden type and filled with gleaming iron printing presses crouching like tamed mythical beasts, Justin Knopp – printer, typographer and retained fireman – works his subtle magic.
Justin was born in Coggeshall though he studied in London at St Martin’s College of Art in Covent Garden before returning after graduation in 1994. “My family are all from London for generations,” he told me as he started blending ink with a palette knife upon a glass plate, “before that they were from round here, Maldon. They were bootmakers.” And then he went silent, assuming the grimace of concentration upon the task in hand.
Meanwhile, the printer’s pie sat upon the Albion Press of 1851 awaiting the ink and I could not fail to be impressed that although Justin had used a different typeface for each line, all the lines were of equal length. “I like the challenge of fitting the type into the block,” he explained, observing my interest, “It certainly makes life difficult, but it’s a bit of a house style of mine!” After years of commuting and working as a graphic designer in London while pursuing letterpress as a hobbyist, Justin took the brave step of starting out on his own in 2009. He built the shed, installed the presses and never looked back.
“I started doing this because I loved it and I knew lots of the old boys that were doing it” he confided to me as he began to roll the ink onto the type, “and I thought, ‘It’s dying out and that’s a terrible shame,’ so it became my ambition to carry it on.” In fact, Justin’s school playground sat beside The Anchor Press, one of the largest printing factories in the country at the time and although it is long gone, Justin befriended many of the veterans of the printworks, recording the oral history and archiving the photographic record. The outcome of this passion was that Justin was gifted collections of type and presses that he has supplemented with his own acquisitions.
Bringing a contemporary sensibility to the use of these classic typefaces, Justin finds himself in demand, not just for business cards and wedding invitations, but providing fine letterpress printing for all kinds of projects such as the recent limited edition of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84.” “Lots of weird and wonderful things we get involved with,” admitted Justin with a delighted smile, as he laid the paper down delicately upon the type, placing the packing on top and rolling the whole contraption forward beneath the press before pulling upon the lever and leaning back with his whole weight.
“I like a degree of imperfection,” he confessed, scrutinising the resulting print with a frown, “but any more than that and it looks badly printed.” Justin is scrupulous to achieve what he terms, the “kiss” impression that sits upon the surface of the paper, not the indented imprint that is commonly associated with letterpress yet merely an indicator of poor quality printing. The truth is that the print looked mighty fine to me, an enormous thrill to see my words emblazoned in such style.
By now, Justin’s wife Cecilia arrived with his two excited daughters from school to interrupt the calm of the print shop. “Which of you is going to be a printer?” he teased, as each gave him the kiss impression upon the cheek, and I could not but envy these children growing up with a printing press at home. Then, while the family went for tea, Justin carried on, re-inking the block and studying each impression as it came off the press. “Printing in this way, there’s a lot more variation,” he said, permitting himself grudging satisfaction as he hung the prints on the drying rack suspended from the ceiling, “each one can be unique, which is nice.”
Working assiduously in his Guernsey sweater and canvas apron, surrounded by nineteenth century presses and bringing new life to old techniques, Justin is a happy man. He is at home here, with a busy family life and an active involvement in village life that includes firefighting duties too. “I’ve gone from doing it purely for the love of it to making a living out of it, and we’re still alive!” he declared to me, casting his eyes around his beautiful print workshop in triumph.