Destination Portland: ‘Orphan Annie’ casts a milestone for type foundry/museum

[Tom Biederbeck]  When the Monotype sorts caster clattered back to life at the C.C. Stern Type Foundry in Portland, Ore., its first product was Stern, a font dedicated by Jim Rimmer to the namesake of this nonprofit “working museum, with emphasis on the working.” It’s a fitting milestone for a close-knit group of volunteers who launched the organization — devoted to “preserving the art and industry of the cast letterform” — in 2009.

The caster of choice for this inaugural run: what’s known in the trade as an “Orphan Annie” — although the foundry crew insists it has neither red hair nor much of a singing voice (it clicks). According to Jeff Shay, Board chair at the museum, the nickname is said to come from the model designation OA applied by the Monotype Corporation to this machine. This orphan came to the foundry from the typecasting foundry of Chris Stern, whom Shay describes as “an extraordinarily gifted printer who became dissatisfied with the type available to him. He decided to make his own type and acquired the equipment and the skills to use it.”

After Stern’s death in 2007, his equipment was set aside until a suitable museum space for it could be located and prepped. That home became known as the C.C. Stern Type Foundry, with a public mission to preserve the heritage of typecasting, educate the public about metal type and typography, and inspire graphic artists and printers.

At right, volunteers Rebecca Gilbert and Joe Green make adjustments to Orphan Annie.

Which is how the museum’s volunteer staff of six (also the Board, in the proper nonprofit spirit) found themselves on Oct. 15 casting 150 pieces of the st ligature of Stern … of course, there was first a small matter of getting the nearly century-old machine running.

“One of the first things letterpress printers — which most of us in the group are — do is figure out how to make old machines go,” Shay says, noting there’s no Monotype parts store located conveniently nearby. New parts had to be fabricated, and a cooling system for the machine had to be engineered and installed. It was all made possible by a successful funding drive that centered on a Kickstarter appeal. See the video that accompanied the appeal below:

With funding secured and Orphan Annie restored, the decision to cast the Stern font to celebrate the milestone was an easy one, according to Shay. There’s a very special relationship between this font and the foundry/museum, he says: Following Chris Stern’s death, Jim Rimmer — the renowned letterpress printer, illustrator, type designer, typecaster and subject of the film Making Faces, which we wrote about here —named the new font in honor of his friend. Upon release in 2008, Stern became the first-ever type font to be released simultaneously in both metal and digital forms. Rimmer, who died in 2010, bequeathed the sole set of mats for the font to the museum. So besides commemorating the museum’s namesake, Stern will also become a key fundraising product.

First castings: the st ligature from Stern

Why cast the st ligature for the inaugural run? “Just because it’s a beautiful ligature,” Shay quickly responds. “This was definitely a milestone for us. There were a whole series of things to do before we could actually start casting type, so this is all very exciting.” And it’s one more step on the road to achieving the museum’s mission, Shay says. “It was also a learning process for us,” Shay says, noting that project was a way of exposing the foundry volunteers to the caster and begin building skills in operating and maintaining the machine.

In turn, this opens up new avenues for teaching and supporting the craft of metal typecasting. Of course the museum has plenty more typecasting matrices and machines yet to be reanimated. In a way, the appreciation the museum staff is gaining in the process is indistinguishable from they want their visitors to have. “Giving people an opportunity to design and create with their hands is really important to us. Allowing that experience is, as much as anything, why we’re doing this.”

Visit the C.C. Stern Type Foundry website and blog, see more photos here, and follow on RSS or Twitter @typefoundry.

Lead image: Mats for Cooper Black (which is very close to the titling font for the Orphan Annie comics; photo by Jeff Shay/Buzzworm Studios

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Allan Haley on 10.28.11 at 10:54 am

    An excellent post about passionate people dedicated to a very good cause. While digital technology has made “type” (or at least “fonts”) a household word, it is important to preserve the rich tradition of typography and by printing with things that you can hold in your hand.

  2. Posted by Connie @ Daydream In Color on 10.28.11 at 11:01 am

    I was at their grand opening! So cool to hear more about them!

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