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When the London-based company Letraset launched its first dry-transfer typefaces in 1961, its advertisements proclaimed this new letter method ‘revolutionary’. And in its way it was: those sheets of rubdown Letraset fonts allowed graphic designers, commercial artists, admen (and in the 1960s it was mostly men), art students, anyone really, to set their own display type, without having to spend time and money sending out lettering to be metal typeset or drawn by hand by specialist artists, as had been the case until then.
By 1963, Letraset had distributors in 70 countries and had floated on the London stock market. What had begun as a rather ramshackle operation in the old Wonderloaf bakery in Waterloo had grown into a big money-spinning success. Its cultural impact was even greater, as not only ‘the trade’ but also a whole hobby market of parish magazines, film-society circulars and school newspapers began to use Letraset.
By the 1970s, punk had got its anarchic hands on Letraset, using it for handbills, record sleeves, posters and fanzines. They were quick to adopt Letraset as one of the typographical vehicles of choice, along with the typewriter, the IBM golf ball and hand lettering. Daniel Miller, musician, DJ, producer and co-founder of Mute Records used Letraset as a natural extension of his philosophy of DIY music production, a philosophy that sought to wrest control of music – its making and its dissemination – from the grip of the major labels and put it into the hands of the musicians.
Miller famously released one of the first DIY singles. He wrote and performed the music, he organized the pressing of the record, and with the help of a friend, designed the sleeve using Letraset symbols and typography. The 7" cover for the single T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette is now regarded as one of Letraset’s ‘greatest hits’ and is invariably cited when the case is made for the crucial role Letraset played in the music scene of the 1970s.
The Letraset ‘liberated letter’ had begun life in 1956 as a wet-transfer system, devised by print designer / lettering artist Charles Clifford ‘Dai’ Davies and print consultant Fred Mackenzie, who took the notion of children’s ‘slide-off’ toy wet transfers (as used on plastic model aircraft) and applied it to type. The result was not exactly user-friendly – you had to strip a letter off a sheet, place it on a special dampened screen, then soak for a minute before carefully sliding off and pressing into place. Fiddly perhaps, but still cheaper, quicker and more accessible than the metal alternative – Letraset was on to something.
Before long, though, the wet transfers were superseded by the new improved dry-transfer version – Letraset as we know it – whereby letters were screenprinted in reverse on the back of a polyethylene carrier sheet and overprinted with low-tack adhesive. Here, the user would simply line up a letter using the ‘Spacematic’ guides (or more likely do it by eye), press with a dead ballpoint pen (better than the bespoke burnishing tool) and hey presto or maybe not: many designers recall the frustration of completing a headline only for the very last letter to break, of having to cannibalize letters when others ran out. As one blogger notes, Letraset taught you a lot about letter spacing and kerning, ‘not to mention how to swear’. Moreover, the adhesive sheets, left unprotected, would collect dust, which would show up as bubbles when transferred.
Keen to expand its range in the 1960s and 1970s in response to a fast-changing society’s demand for more novelty, more variety, more choice – a demand that hot metal had been unable to meet as industry in Europe struggled to its feet after WW2 – Letraset also bought in fonts from the New York photosetting houses, at the time the fashion-leading Mad Men of the field. There were custom-designed Letraset originals too, the first of which was Fred Lambert’s Compacta, a bold condensed typeface that was both timeless and totally of its era.
Introduced in 1970, Letragraphica was basically ‘business-class’ Letraset – a subscription service that offered its members early access to typefaces chosen by a committee of the world’s top type designers that included Roger Excoffon, Derek Birdsall, Lou Dorfsman, Admin hofmann, Marcello Minale, Colin Forbes and Herb Lubalin (whose own Avant Garde Gothic Bold was one of the first Letragraphica fonts). ‘The whole point of Letragraphica was to get designers to use it,’ says Farey. ‘It would come out on a Monday, the fonts would be used by designers on Tuesday and by the next week it would be on the streets, in magazines like Honey and Fab 208.’
In addition to the fashionable abundance of its typefaces, Letraset had another edge – quite literally – over the competition. Whereas the company’s early method for making the dry transfers had been of so-so quality and had involved painstakingly lining up individual letters on a grid, the introduction and adaptation of silkscreen printing techniques resulted in clearer, sharper letters. Stencil masters of typefaces would be cut freehand from ultra-thin red Rubylith masking film (manufactured by Ulano in the US) using what was essentially a razor blade fixed with sticky tape to a piece of wood.
The job required patience, a steady hand (apparently quite often a left hand) and what seems like an almost Zen-like ability to go with the flow of the type. When in the mid-1990s the Letraset stencil-cut masters were officially housed at London’s St Bride Printing Library, librarian James Mosley likened them to some of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century punch-cutting.
By the late 1980s, Letraset’s star was in decline and in 1981 Letraset was acquired by Swedish paper company Esselte, and in 1984, ITC (International Typeface Corporation – the type company set up by Lubalin, Edward Ronthaler and Aaron Burns in New York in 1970) was ambitiously added to the group.
However by the 1990s, computers and desktop publishing heralded what Brignall calls ‘the death of dry transfer’. In the glory days, Brignall recalls, ‘You walked down Carnaby Street and every shopfront fascia had a Letraset font. There was the glamour of it all … the glamour of the 1960s.’