SORT: Letterpress & typography heaven! A Q&A with co-founder Theo Wang…

SORT products battenberg

SORT products battenberg

When we came across the not-entirely-serious but definitely earnest duo of Theo Wang and Tom Boulton, who produce simply brilliant letterpress designs and wares under the moniker of The Society Of Revisionist Typographers (SORT), we just had to find out more!

From greeting cards and notebooks, to photo albums, stationery sets and beyond, SORT’s wares reflect a mix of hands-on craft and most pleasing design, shot through with a vein of classic British humour! Theo was kind enough to answer a few questions…

SORT Theo and Tom

When were Tom and yourself first attracted to typography and printing?

It was probably when we were at the London College of Printing (now Communication) about 8 years ago. Although we actually studied typographic design, we both had an interest in the handmade and more traditional print-based skills as well as spending a lot of time in the print rooms. Additionally, each of us comes from families with some connections to printing so it has always been in the background so to speak.

Just what is it about letterpress that makes it so special?

There are a lot of different factors that drew us to it; the tactile nature of letterpress printing, the diversity of effects that are otherwise unachievable in digital print to the inherent random differences and quirks that are all part of the process. But I think we’ve also learned to appreciate that it’s a technique that requires skill and practice to really work with; there aren’t any quick fixes and having an understanding of how the presses work is crucial to getting the most out of them. Most of all I think we like working with our hands and being able to go from a design idea to a pile of printed products completely on your own is a very rewarding process.

The Society of Revisionist Typographers sounds like a statement of intent, but quite playful, how did you come up with the name?

Initially, we’d talked with several other people about possibly starting up a small design group after we’d left college, but events changed and people moved about and in the end it was just the two of us left. At the time most famous design groups tended to have single word, monosyllabic, playful names and we felt we wanted to do something a bit different and more in keeping with our turn of the 20th Century aesthetic so we came up with the Society (of two). Essentially, the revisionist element is based on the idea that we didn’t want to just spend our time faithlessly re-creating letterpress work to look like it was from the 19th Century, but to revise it, bring it forward and re-appraise the technique as something that can have a history and be contemporary in its look and feel.

SORT Theo Tom printing

Where do you source your type sets and printing machinery?

All over the place. We’ve been collecting bits and pieces for years now and we’re always on the look out for more. Some of the equipment we’ve got from auctions, Ebay, classified ads, forums, even car-boot sales! All of the presses we’ve restored to an extent; some we’ve acquired in working order, others we’ve had to practically rebuild from scrap, but we’ve got about eight in total now. Additionally, as we’ve been around a while, people have started to approach us and see if we’re interested in type or equipment they might have in the back of a garage or shed, since they’ll often prefer that it goes to someone who’ll actually restore and use it rather than just scrap it or put it in a shop window.

Can you name any particular influences, in terms of design, typesetting and humour?

In terms of design; obviously printers like William Morris, Emery Walker and Alan Kitching are big influences but we’re also very keen on the Bauhaus school, the Constructivists and magazines like De Stijl. Typographers like Jan Tischold, Derek Birdsall and Stanley Morison are also up there. But most of all I think we take a lot of our inspiration from a love of ephemera. We’re both keen collectors of pamphlets, playbills, chapbooks and all sorts of printed items from the turn of the Century through to the 50s & 60s; the focus on bold typographic design and often ridiculous language is an aesthetic we’re both extremely keen on.

SORT frames

As a letterpress-based company, what kind of bespoke work do you attract?

All kinds really, we try not to restrict ourselves too much and we like to be as open as possible when it comes of commission work. There are natural limits as to what can be achieved with letterpress and we’re always warning people that while there are many effects that can be achieved with letterpress, there are some that definitely can’t (such as full colour photography). Generally speaking though we do a fair amount of business and personal stationery, gift vouchers, event invitations and wedding stationery plus the occasional completely bespoke project as well.

What are your favourite SORT projects?

We’ve had the opportunity to be involved in some great projects over the last couple of years, such as producing commission items with the V&A, Southbank Centre, Design Museum and Tate Modern, but most of all I think we really enjoy developing our own products. It gives us that freedom to just experiment with type and formats, plus the fact that we’re in total control of all stages of production means we can be more inventive with the end product too. The Idea Pads are a prime example; we developed them very early on because we wanted some small, shirt-pocket sized notebooks. We just played around with the style and format before finally  deciding to made them in a non-standard size and band them as a pack of four mixed colours. They’re still one of our best selling products.

SORT V and A commissions

What plans does SORT have for 2013?

It’s still quite early to say but we’ll probably be looking to expand our workspace down South. Currently we operate out of two spaces; Tom is down on the coast in Bognor Regis and I’m based in central London, in Clerkenwell. We’ve been steadily acquiring equipment over the last few years and we’re on the brink of running out of room so we’ll be looking to expand a bit soon.

Beyond that, we’re continuing to expand our range of products and have begun design work on a number of new items for the New Year. We started selling to a number of larger retailers in 2012 and it’d be great to continue to get our handmade goods spread far and wide. Accessibility has always been an issue for us as we feel that well made, handcrafted items don’t have to be exclusive and ridiculously priced.

Plus as always, we’ll be on the look out for more equipment, type, ephemera and general printing knick nacks.

Finally, what are your simple things?

For both of us, good coffee is absolutely essential. The occasional greasy spoon fry-up comes a close second.

SORT printing press and type

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