Moveable Type Across the Nation: An Im(press)ive Enterprise

Posted April 5, 2012 in

Kyle Durrie inside her movable type truck. Photo by Brent Rowland

There is something romantic about an American road trip—embarking on some wild adventure across the miles of varied terrain. A journey of this magnitude captures our country’s restless, itinerant spirit. Adventurers like Kerouac and Steinbeck set off on their travels from New York, while Portland, Ore., on the opposite side of the continent, was the launching point for Kyle Durrie.

For nine months, this lone wanderer zigzagged across the American landscape to arrive in the cradle of the Wasatch on a sunny day in April. After a few weeks, her journey would terminate back in the northwest after ten months of travel. Like Steinbeck’s Rocinante, Durrie’s trusty “Type Truck” functioned as both her home and form of transportation. This 1982 Chevy Step Van was at times mistaken for both a taco truck and ice cream van, while providing neither edible product. Instead the van was Durrie’s own “Moveable Type” studio, most recently parked in front of Mandate Press on South Main in Salt Lake on April 2, offering letterpress printing demonstrations.

The simplicity of the vehicle’s interior design was immediately evident. Durrie had the entire van gutted after purchase, removing amenities like the bathroom shower and toilet. The vacant space was subsequently filled with a modest bed, drawers, cabinets, and letterpress equipment. The unfinished cabinetry appeared rough but functional. A map of the United States hung on the wall, a pin marking each past destination; there were hundreds of dots scattered across every one of the country’s 48 lower states, speckling the vast landscape.

The letterpress seemed an unlikely focus for a journey since this form of printing succumbed to new technology over 60 years ago, according to David Wolske, Creative Director and Instructor at the J. Willard Marriot Library at the University of Utah. He explained that in the 1950s, offset lithography replaced the letterpress, which had dominated printing for 500 years. Since then, digital equipment supplanted offset lithography. With the letterpress rendered obsolete, the need for meticulous placement of individual letters and rolling ink was diminished.

However, many perceived a value in the process. Like Durrie’s truck, the beauty of the letterpress seemed to lie in its simplicity and functionality. Unlike so many digitalized machines today, the letterpress preserves our ability to visibly understand a process. No computer screens or invisible mechanizations separate user from product. Furthermore, letterpressed documents harken back to those old newspapers in western outposts and “wanted” signs with shaky print yellowing on musty buildings; their nostalgia is enticing. Durrie’s studio was a hands-on historical lesson. Attendees became Johannes Gutenberg who made the printing press famous in 1440 and painstakingly reproduced the Bible using miniscule type—type comparable in size to a selection Durrie had in her Type Truck, as tiny as the letters you read now.

Durrie’s passion for letterpress originated six years ago in Portland. A formally trained artist, she had fallen victim to the dreaded “creative slump.” Creatively frustrated and discouraged with her current job search, she signed up for a letterpress class on a whim and immediately fell in love. “I had been struggling with my drawings and I liked how letterpress allowed me to work with my hands, make stuff and be creative without over-conceptualizing … It was just really physical and immediate.”

Quickly, Durrie made the decision to transform her art into a business, which she named Power and Light Press. Images were designed digitally and then transferred onto polymer plates for printing through the old-fashioned press. For type, wooden and metal letters were delicately arranged as well. Results of this process included clever greeting cards, signs and calendars. Adapting her work to the needs of her clients was a challenge that Durrie learned to embrace. “I’m able to make a living by doing something that I love doing.”

In 2010, inspired by the rovings of her friends’ bands, she decided to “go on tour” for the purpose of learning more about her trade and combining her love for road trips with her passion for printing. The press would serve as her passport and guide across the country’s diverse regions. Since her departure in June 2011, her life has consisted of a series of adventures. Many, she admitted, will not surface from her memories until she slows down and returns to some pattern of normalcy in her life. Overall, she contended that there is no city she disliked. Her enjoyment was attributed to the creative people she connected with in every location. “If I had just showed up in Cincinnati or in Oklahoma City and just was just wandering around on my own, I’d have a really different appreciation for the place. But I get to meet really amazing people who show me cool stuff in their towns that I wouldn’t find on my own.”

Her escapade across the nation is enough to make any person envious. So, how did she fund such an ambitious adventure? Durrie chose to utilize multiple avenues. Pre-departure preparation and van renovation costs were earned through Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform that has helped users set financial goals and raise money for creative projects. For funds required during the trip, which were primarily fed into the fuel tank, she has accepted donations, sold prints, taught classes and offered demos. Furthermore, sponsors including the Dale Guild Type Foundry and the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum donated equipment such as her mid-twentieth century sign press.

One can imagine the quiet solace and rhythm of the long roads, the landscape through the van’s windshield drastically changing in contrast to Durrie’s showcased technology that hasn’t fundamentally changed in hundreds of years. This is enough to make anyone want to go on tour.

You can follow Durrie’s adventures on her website, Check out more photos from her time in Salt Lake here.

Kyle Durrie inside her movable type truck. Photo by Brent Rowland After 10 months on the road, traveling across the US, Durrie's truck stopped by Mandate Press in Salt Lake. Photo by Brent Rowland Durrie's life for the past 10 months. Red pins mark type truck waypoints. Photo by Brent Rowland