A trio of graphic designers and zine publishers have found their spiritual home in a renovated 1970s print shop in Anderlecht. I sat down with Peter de Roy, Axel Claes, and Thomas Billas to talk about their workspace, its role in the artistic community and its art-activist inspired beginnings.
The three met in a typically serendipitous Belgian fashion: though Dirk and Axel attended the same school, they only found each other while in Brussels working on How to Make it Without Ikea , Thomas’ collection of nifty DIY guides, and Dirk’s friend Peter completed the trio. Peter acknowledges the significance of Thomas’s book in bringing them together, calling it ‘the belly button of the world’. The ideas contained in the collection are observations on the practical applications possible with everyday objects, and the series will be made up of ten books, with number three on the way in March.
Peter is the proud owner of three letterpress machines, one of which is a Heidelberg from the early 60s that he uses for finer projects. He’s also an avid collector, and has been building up an extensive array of type and symbols. “There are bigger collections”, he admits, “but this is a good working one. If you’re lucky”, he tells me, “you can find the beautiful old fonts on eBay for €50. The wood-type are especially collectible.” Downstairs is an enormous letterpress dating from the late 1950s that he found for next-to-nothing in England. Using his three letterpresses he creates vintage-inspired posters, notebooks, business cards, and invitations, for workshops, the Gillis press, and his own design company, Signbox. Peter has been teaching typography and graphic design at KASK for the past 16 years, and also works part-time as a graphic designer in Sint-Lukas in Brussels.
There are regular workshops upstairs, alongside Peter’s letterpresses and the Risograph printer. The workshops are attended by everyone from high-school students to housewives who come to learn how to typset and stencil. There are also frequent collaborations with Nova Cinema and Atelier Urban. Though these days they get requests from graphic design bureaus as well as individuals, in the early days, collaborations and clients were limited to schools or groups sharing similar interests to PTTL, the collective Axel helped found in the late nineties.
PTTL – Plus-tôt Te laat – was founded in 1998 as a reaction to the treatment of unemployed artists by the Belgian government, and was originally based in an unemployment office in Sint-Joost. Axel talks about what it was like to be on the dole at the time: “Though today in Belgium the situation has changed, at that time there was no real help, advice, or even interaction at the unemployment offices – you just turned up to get your stamp from the local authorities. Whether it was a heated building or a van in a parking lot depended on the wealth of the commune in which you lived.” In Sint-Joost, the civil servants issued a pamphlet inviting artists to present their artwork in the offices, both as a way of brightening these dark buildings and giving them an opportunity to exhibit their work.
Then came the infamous case of an unemployed woman whose self-published book sold a modest number of copies: she was singled out by the government for cheating the system, who then demanded reimbursement for her success. The government’s attitude was seen by Alex and others as an assault on free speech and inspired the formation of a national platform for artists, whose aim was to encourage a change in society’s attitude to artists.
Peter talks about the fetishisation of print, and the increasing attention paid to minute aesthetic details. He uses old and new technologies in his work, such as the QR code, imagery we associate with ultra modern technology, painstakingly set by hand. The Risso machine itself is deeply symbolic, combining as it does processes previously confined to the sphere of the hand-crafted in an incredible digital machine. Peter calls it a ‘post-digital letterpress’. “These techniques have been around forever but only recently are they becoming hip – it used to be exclusively the territory of the posh bibliophile. The difference might be that now they mix styles.”