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ASU press worth its weight in maroon and gold

ASU's Pyracantha Press publishes fine books and special limited editions.
Among Pyracantha creations: Bill of Rights printed on pulp containing US flags.
September 7, 2017

Pyracantha Press uses collection of metal machines and moveable type to produce expressive, limited-edition works of art

There are thousands of printers, tablets and computers on the campuses of the nation's most innovative university.

But tucked away inside an underground classroom on Arizona State University's Tempe campus sits a relic that has its roots in Gutenberg.

It’s a breadth of heavy metal presses and moveable type, collectively weighing in at an estimated 30 tons. It occupies 2,000 square feet of space fanned out over two locations, and includes 3,000 cases of metal and wood type — enough to fill several semi-trucks.

“This collection gives students and academics an incredible resource for teaching and creative research,” said Daniel Mayer, director of Pyracantha Press in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“The work we do here is super labor-intensive, and every project is unique and a work of art.”

Most of the book projects are by invitation only, and each production can range from one to five years. Print runs can vary from 10 to 200 copies, depending on project complexity, handwork and duration.

“A lot of the projects we choose are culturally significant and interdisciplinary,” Mayer said. “We are very selective in our choice, often picking subjects that might otherwise not see the light of day.” 

printed pages of paper made with clothing fibers

These pieces were created from paper 
made from clothing that refugees were
wearing when they fled their homelands.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Pyracantha has produced approximately 30 original books for national and international poets, artists, musicians, ceramists, historians and historical figures. They’ve also re-created works by William Shakespeare, James Dickey, Rita Dove and ASU’s own Alberto Rios, Arizona's poet laureate. 

Kurt Weiser, ASU art professor and ceramist, is Pyracantha’s newest author. He’s excited about a special limited-edition book of his work, which Mayer said will be published later this year.

“It’s different than ceramics. I don’t have to fire it. It doesn’t shrink. It doesn’t crack, and it doesn’t peel off,” Weiser said. “What you see is what you get. There’s certainly a craft to the printing process, and right now I’m just watching and listening.”

The two have been collaborating on the project since February, which includes dialogue, proofing sessions, prototyping, cutting, folding and constant trouble shooting, according to Mayer.

“It has to be precise,” Mayer said. “Everything is hand-produced and hand-built. That’s what makes our books special.”

Originally established as a letterpress shop in 1981 inside of the Art Building, Pyracantha Press publishes fine books and special limited editions for individuals, collectors and special collections, including the Getty Center, Yale University, Klingspor Museum in Germany, the Library of Congress and others. The press is self-supporting and receives sustaining gifts from the Hatchfund and the Philip C. Curtis Charitable Trust.

In 2016, ASU was gifted the Adam Repan Petko Type Collection, making ASU’s type collection the largest at any institution of higher education in North America. Twenty years prior, he donated 10 tons of type to the book arts program and Pyracantha Press.

Despite its massive size and weight, the press is capable of producing expressive works of art, said Professor Emeritus John Risseeuw, who came to ASU in 1980 to establish a book arts program within the printmaking area of the School of Art in what was then known as the Herberger College of the Arts.  

“In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, this equipment was being offloaded by the industry as equipment was upgraded, so people like us, collectors, took it in so it wouldn’t be put in the trash and started making art with it,” Risseeuw said.

Risseeuw added that this type of press is expanding commercially and gaining popularity with universities nationwide. He says the fascination remains because of the sentimentality factor and continues to be "a medium of expression."

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Some of the titles in the Pyracantha catalog have been spectacular. They include:

  • Venus and Adonis” — a 1984 edited version of William Shakespeare’s narrative poem. Includes an introduction by John Doebler, with two lithographs by Leonard Lehrer. Bound in leather and maroon linen.
  • The Bill of Rights — a five-color broadside of the text of the Bill of Rights to commemorate the bicentennial of the document on Dec. 15, 1991. It was printed on 100 percent rag handmade paper from pulp containing cotton American flags.
  • PETRIfied forEAST” — a 1994 collaboration with three poets and artists from Budapest and Hungary on the theme of freedom and oppression.
  • Eco Songs” — a song cycle based on poetic works by Chief Dan George, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Stevie Smith, Alfonsina Storni, Li Po and the Book of Job. Published in 2000, it includes an artist’s book constructed of plant fibers from around the world, a CD of music and a colophon about the making of the book.

Pyracantha will remain in good hands, said Mayer, now in his 30th year at ASU. Part of his charge is to continue the tradition by training the next generation of printers — people like design major Hailey Tang, who has a passion for books.

The 21-year-old Herberger Institute junior is not only being mentored by Mayer but is the president of A Buncha Book Artists, an ASU student-run organization of interdisciplinary artists and writers working in the contemporary artist book movement.

Tang said their generation has transitioned into a digital lifestyle where many believe books have become obsolete. Tang said, however, that book and printmaking can never be fully replaced by the digital medium.

“I find that as a designer and artist that books are a huge part of how I tell other peoples’ stories and communicating ideas,” Tang said. “I hope that I can keep the book arts alive in the future and make others realize how it is needed.”

Top photo: The basement press room of the ASU Art Building houses Pyracantha Press and contains more than 30 tons of metal- and wood-type for use on its several presses. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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A type of excellence

Know why capital letters are called upper case? We have the answer.
Donation makes ASU’s type collection the largest at any higher-ed institution.
April 15, 2016

Petko donation makes ASU's type collection the largest in North American higher-education institutions

Most people can identify a loved one with a glimpse of an eye or mouth. For Daniel Mayer — printmaking instructor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts’ School of Art — a single letter, comma or ligature can be adequate to identify one of the hundreds of typefaces that make up Arizona State University’s more than 3,000 cases of metal and wooden type.

The collection grew dramatically in early 2016 when ASU was gifted the Adam Repan Petko Type Collection, consisting of some 1,600 cases of type (enough to fill two semi trucks) and printing presses that include an ornate 1834 Columbian Press.

The collection — which is named for the donor’s father, a dermatologist interested in preserving printing technology — makes ASU’s type collection the largest at any institution of higher education in North America.

“The pristineDr. Petko collected what is referred to as “reproduction type.” The type composition was set “once” from the case, a reproduction proof impression was taken, and then it went into a photo-mechanical process for printing. The type that had one impression was put back into the case, leaving it pristine as the day it was cast. This makes up the majority of the collection. type was collected from commercial letterpress shops by Dr. Petko over many years as the print industry changed,” said Mayer, who is also director of Pyracantha Press, the School of Art’s production and research imprint. “We’re identifying it case by case.

“For example, there was a piece of type on the table, and it was a period in a diamond shape. The Goudy period was designed as a diamond. So you can pick up a letterform and identify it as Goudy, or Palatino. Selecting typefaces for a project is essential whether it’s for an artists’ book, broadside or ephemera as type has a voice.”

Metal print type is set in a curve.

Detail of the type used by visiting artist
Jessica Spring, along with ASU print experts,
to create a poster (below) celebrating
the Petko collection, using 35 fonts.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

ASU’s printmaking program, which was recently ranked fifth in the country by U.S. News and World Report, houses its letterforms, punctuation marks, spacers, composing sticks and presses in the Art Building, at Hayden Library and in a new glass-front pop-up studio in the Tempe Center building on the northeast corner of 10th Street and Mill Avenue so that community members can easily engage with ongoing printmaking projects.

The inaugural guest artist to work in the pop-up space was printmaker Jessica Spring. Spring, who lives in Tacoma, Washington, spent a week in March collaborating with Mayer to create a commemorative letterpress print celebrating the Petko donation and paying tribute to the 35th anniversary of the Pyracantha Press.

She also taught workshops to ASU students and visitors who traveled to campus from the Phoenix metro area, the University of Arizona, Prescott, Flagstaff and New Mexico.

Spring and Mayer’s print, “35 Faces of Dr. Petko,” features a vibrant yellow smiley face — a nod to Petko’s career in dermatology — circled by 35 adjectives. Each word is hand-set in a typeface from the Petko Collection that the artists thought best conveyed its meaning.

Spring, proprietor of Springtide Press, is perhaps best known for her collaborative broadsides series “The Dead Feminists.” She often works in a style she calls “daredevil letterpress,” which consists of novel ways to hand-set type in non-traditional curves, waves and other shapes.

Petko type collection poster.

“I do daredevil printing, and ASU is home of the Sun Devils, and it’s a big, sunshine face,” Spring said of the final product, noting that its headline features the 1960s typeface Eurostile, which aligns with when the bright, smiling icon became popular.

To determine which typefaces to use, Spring, Mayer and Creative Research graduate assistant Sofia Paz gathered word lists and acted out traits that came to mind for letterforms that would best represent what it meant to be “gleeful” or “jubilant.”

“We decided ‘satisfied’ needed a typewriter font, for instance,” said Paz, who is the first year of her MFA program in printmaking.

Paz, who did not have much background in letterpress before joining ASU, says working with movable type has changed the way she interacts with her computer.

She thinks differently about what it means to select a 12- or 14-point font, or to use an “upper case” letter (letterpress printers traditionally worked simultaneously from two cases; frequently accessed, non-capitalized letters were stored in the lower case and capital letters were placed in the upper, harder-to-reach case). She says she instinctively searches her word processer for her favorite typefaces from the Petko Collection, even if they don’t exist digitally.

“I’ve only been doing this for a semester now, and I feel like it’s already getting engrained in my psyche,” she said.

“It catches students, especially when they’re using typefaces on the computer. That’s virtual — but in the letterpress studio it’s very physical,” said Mayer. “They’re picking up a character letter by letter and making words, making sentences, making paragraphs that are composed in tandem with other graphic processes such as woodcuts, silkscreen and newer digital technologies. It makes you pay attention to what it is and how it’s been done, while respecting the history of the printed word.”

While “35 Faces of Dr. Petko” was made to shepherd the Adam Repan Petko Type Collection into its new home, working on it also put a smile on a different newcomer’s face.

“I’ve lived in Argentina, Switzerland, Colorado and Texas and I never felt like I found home, but I feel like I have at ASU,” Paz said. “I know it’s kind of cheesy, but when the day is over, I don’t want to leave. After cataloging type for five hours straight, I don’t want to go! I just want to be here with everyone. I feel so welcome and they support one other, and the connections you make are just invaluable.”

To view or purchase the inaugural letterpress print, or to visit the Adam Repan Petko Type Collection in the School of Art, please contact Daniel Mayer at

Additional public book-arts activities can be found through ASU’s student artists’ book collective: