The Death of Print: NYC Tries to Save Typographic History

Old-school print shops like Bowne & Co. are vanishing. How long will a group of devoted fans be able to cling to the past?

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Print is not dead! But many of the reliquaries of print and printing are closing, perhaps forever. A group in New York City called Friends of Bowne, is trying to save from extinction one of the few remaining functioning print shops, Bowne & Co., Stationers, where many New Yorkers and visitors learned about type and printing from devoted volunteers. The firm, located at the South Street Seaport, was fully operational until February this year when financial cutbacks forced its "temporary" closing.

Bowne opened in 1975 but had its genesis in the late '60s when a group of concerned New Yorkers decided to try and save the blocks in the Seaport area before the old buildings were leveled by developers. When the South Street Seaport Museum was formed, founders wanted to reestablish maritime and related crafts in the area, including job printing, since Fulton Street and the blocks near Newspaper Row (surrounding City Hall) had once been New York's printing district.

bowneposter.jpg "The ground-floor space at 211 Water Street was outfitted to re-create a job printing and stationery shop as one would have looked around 1875," explains Doug Clouse, a graphic designer and co-author of The Handy Book of Artistic Printing, A Collection of Letterpress Examples with Specimens of Type, Ornament, Corner Fills, Borders, Twisters, Wrinklers, and other Freaks of Fancy. It was named after Bowne & Co., which opened in 1775 and had become a large financial printer.

"Little Bowne & Co. was not meant to be a place where costumed employees printed only for tourists," insists Clouse, a volunteer. "It took commissions and became a neighborhood printing shop, specializing in printing social stationery and notecards. Over the years an important collection accumulated at Bowne, including many 19th-century presses, wood type, metal type, and printing manuals and type specimen books." In the '80s Bowne acquired the venerable Tri-Arts collection of metal type, a renowned collection of mostly late-19th-century ornamented typefaces, which was used in the '50s and '60s by many of the leading New York agencies and design studios. "By the late '80s/early '90s, Bowne's ambience, collection, and the reputation of its output had matured and it had loyal clients who appreciated its quiet connection to New York's past," Clouse says.

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Bowne produced all kinds of job printing, from Christmas cards to posters for Cole Haan. Notecards and stationery were printed for sale in the front of the shop. Non-commercial projects were printed as well, including several books and many broadsides. Perhaps Bowne's most significant production was a specimen book of typefaces in its collection, printed from wood and metal type and linotype and published in 1985.

But sustainability has been a critical concern. "The Seaport Museum New York (formerly the South Street Seaport Museum) rents space from the city and is deeply in debt," Clouse explains. "On February 14 it finally had to slash expenses by furloughing 32 employees and cutting services. Bowne was closed that day and remains closed. Seven members of the museum board have resigned and the museum is not making any statements except that it hopes to reopen soon."

savebowne.jpg Even though Bowne is a re-creation it is closely linked to the identity of a specific urban center. "Like Hatch Prints in Nashville," Clouse says, "Bowne deserves to be better-known in the design community and could become a center for printing and type history, though with an emphasis on metal type of the 19th century." Friends of Bowne, which Clouse co-founded with two other former Bowne volunteers, is also inspired by the recent purchase of the collection of the Globe poster printing company in Philadelphia by Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and a group of students and designers called Friends of Globe helped arrange that purchase.

Friends of Bowne sees potential for education and the creative use of Bowne's rich collections. "We also saw the reactions of visitors from all over the world who were surprised by the charm of this little-known, out-of-the-way shop. Bowne made New York a more interesting place, and, though a re-creation, was so well conceived that it felt like an antidote to chain stores on nearby Fulton Street," Clouse concludes.

A lucky benefit of the recent economic recession is that Bowne found itself in tune with more serious interest in craft, shopping locally, keeping small manufacturing in New York City, and energy conservation. So, if Bowne cannot be saved, The Friends of Bowne are committed to ensure that the collection goes to the best home(s) possible. A worthy cause to be sure.

Images: Friends of Bowne

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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