Of many things in Patrick Reagh's print shop, perhaps most notable is what is missing: any evidence of the second half of the 20th Century.
In one corner of the shop on Gardena Avenue in Glendale, an Elrod machine designed a century ago heats molten lead to 800 degrees. In another corner, the smooth whir of a big Heidelberg cylinder press underscores the noisy clacking and banging of a Colt's Armory press and a monotype caster.
Reagh, master of a craft that many would call an anachronism, is drawn to the music of the presses and the slow, painstaking work of setting type by his love of things the way they were.
Earlier this month, he shed his printer's apron for a tweed jacket and dress shirt when he attended a reception at UCLA's William Anders Clark Library in honor of a book he printed for the Library of Congress.
The book, "Fine Printing--the Los Angeles Tradition," was written by Ward Ritchie, founder of Ward Ritchie Press, based in Los Angeles. Ritchie chose Reagh to print the 1,500-copy edition of the book because, he said, Reagh is "the finest printer in Southern California."
Reagh may have earned that accolade by default. He runs one of the few remaining all-letterpress commercial printing establishments in Southern California.
A Certain Vogue
Although letterpress printing is in vogue among artists, designers and writers who like the results of an almost-obsolete technology, most fine printers do work limited to their own needs. Reagh does letterpress printing for book publishers and authors who intend to distribute their products on a larger scale.
The books that Reagh and others like him print are not likely to be found in bookstores or on most library shelves. And, if they were, "Most people, who see print as a way of communicating, they wouldn't notice the difference. And, if they did, they wouldn't put any great value on it," said Bob Lindgren, executive director of the Printing Industries Assn. of Southern California.
"People who are familiar with the technique are impressed when we see Pat's product because we know it's difficult to do," he said.
The market for limited editions is perhaps as limited as the editions themselves. At the Clark Library reception last week, a small, clubby group of librarians, publishers and collectors spoke in hushed tones under the frescoed ceiling and in the manicured gardens of the former Sen. William A. Clark estate.
Reagh's clientele has grown to include authors such as John Cheever and Tennessee Williams, John Updike, Walker Percy and Ursula LeGuinn, for whom he prints special limited editions, and artists such as ceramist and sculptor Peter Shire, who is based in Los Angeles. Recently, a mysterious phone call led to a commission to print a book for King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
"There are people who collect everything under the sun," Reagh said. "What goes hand in hand with this world is a sort of 18th-Century, snooty atmosphere. Some of my sensibilities make me not take what I do very seriously."
Johann Gutenberg developed movable type in 1456. Letterpress printing, refined over the three centuries that followed, makes printed images from type forms or from relief printing plates. It was the standard printing method until the 1940s when printers began to abandon the old technology for the new, less expensive and more efficient offset printing technique.
Offset printing gets its name from its process, in which images put on plates photographically are transferred indirectly onto the paper to be printed.
Most fine-book publishers and printers print editions of fewer than 150 copies, feeding paper sheet by sheet into hand presses. When Reagh's big Heidelberg press is running smoothly, it can print up to 3,000 copies an hour. He runs a production shop that would not have been at all unique 40 years ago, he said, but now represents methods that are almost gone.
Sell For $50 to $2,000
A book printed on handmade paper using letterpress techniques can sell for $50 to $2,000, said John Bidwell, reference librarian at the Clark Library, which has a large collection of such books. Letterpress books are generally sold to collectors and specialty libraries, Bidwell said.
Working closely with authors and publishers, Reagh creates books prized for their reserved typefaces, ornamentation and layout and understated, elegant design. "One of the appeals of the small-press art book concept is the melding of the printing process with the artist," Lindgren said. "You are taking the ideas of design and typeface collection and making a coherent whole with the meaning of the book."
Unusual Career Route
Collectors and printers of limited-edition books take very seriously such details as the size of the margin and the spacing between lines.