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Letterpress Origins: Mainz, Germany

Mainz city logo in bronze

At summer’s close, here’s a jaunt back to June and the week I spent in western Germany. This leg of the trip was largely unplanned until I arrived in Amsterdam. I knew about the Gutenberg Museum, of course, and I booked a few extra days in the city based on intuition alone. A spontaneous visit with Thomas Gravemaker of Letterpress Amsterdam the week prior proved that intuition correct. Perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was an itinerary for what to do in and around Mainz; the Gutenberg Museum being just the tip of the iceberg as far as he was concerned. And oh my, was he right! I left Thomas’ shop with a bunch of scribbled notes on small scraps of paper which I tucked into my pocket until I was on the train from Münster headed south and the Rhine came into view. Here’s a smattering of travel notes and a few photos from my type-soaked days in the birthplace of letterpress printing.

iron handpress

My time in Mainz started off with a bang at a hipster German block party. I made fast friends with my Airbnb hosts and tagged along on a late night concert-art-show-city-wander, ending with currywurst and lots of laughter pushing our bikes back up the hill. Next morning I had breakfast at a tiny cafe full of mischievous children and then straight to the Gutenberg Museum. The legend itself: gloomy half-lit rooms full of roped-off old presses and even older books, serious long-faced museum staff, odd duck tourists. I spent a good long while staring at two 42-line Bibles, the first printed books, made in Mainz in 1455. In another wing I was mesmerized by a Japanese woodblock print and learned a lot about Chinese and Korean typesetting. 

The day ended with a peek at the Rhine, a pretzel in the park, a wander through a thousand year old cathedral and a sleepy walk home in the early evening heat.

type cabinets at the Druckladen in Mainz

My second day in Mainz began with an early walk through the brilliant blue interior of the Chagall chapel, cafe writing time, and then to work. It turns out letterpress heaven is not at the Gutenberg Museum, it’s actually next door at the Drückladen (print shop). Type everywhere! And it’s only a bit of their collection. They have type stored in six different locations around the city.

printers at Druckladen, Mainz

Two of the lead printers, Gundela Kleinholdermann and Karl Heinz, gave me a very warm welcome. We talked shop, swapped prints and techniques, and generally gawked at type all day. I also pawed through type specimen books in the museum library and discussed the finer geographic points of early book printing over coffee with one of Mainz’ top art historians. By the time the shop lights were off and the doors locked (and they secretly read what I wrote in the guest book), it was hugs all around and they asked me to please come back and work with them! Heart in my mouth and my hands, gratitude ringing all through me, I watched the sun set on the Rhine and dreamed of type cataloguing and proofing ’round the clock for months on end.

Rainer Gerstenberg in his shop

My last full day abroad was spent in Darmstadt (an hour south of Mainz) and Offenbach (a suburb of Frankfurt). I navigated five trains in one day to arrive at more and still more type! Got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Haus für Industriekultur in Darmstadt. It’s a gigantic warehouse full to the brim of typecasting and printing equipment collected from all over Germany. Jaw-dropping. A big highlight is Rainer Gerstenberg’s fully functioning type foundry. He graciously received me and gave me demos on all the machines; we were lucky to have a young engineer, interning at the museum on another floor, who was able to translate. In fact, that engineer thanked me profusely when I left. He learned more about typecasting during my short visit than he had in the previous year. There were several lapses in translation where he began avidly asking questions of his own – it was a wonderful connection to witness.

gold emblem book cover Klingspor Museum

After a late train I barely made it in time to the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach for a brief immersion into 1920’s art nouveau type design and an extensive exhibit on 1960’s European typography. I met the museum director, who kindly urged me to stay until the last possible minute. Not needing much encouragement, I did that quite literally until I was chased out by the frumpy fräulein at the front desk. Fully saturated in beautiful type forms, I wandered down Goethe-street and slowly made my way back across the Rhine. It’s clear I merely brushed the surface of all there is to discover in and around Mainz.