Remembering our Graphic Design Elders

Mark Busse – One Comment



I feel a rather humbled and a little bummed out since attending Rimmerfest at SFU downtown in 2007. It was both an inspiration and an honour to be among Canada’s Graphic Design elite to celebrate and honour one of Canada’s living national treasures, the printer, publisher, and one of the few remaining typography and letterpress craftsmen alive today, Jim Rimmer.

To say Jim Rimmer has made many friends over his over fifty year career would be woefully inadequate. Jim has mentored, inspired and befriended numerous printers, type designers, publishers, students, teachers, design firms, type founders and book lovers. Just Google Jim Rimmer and you’ll see what I mean – there are too many links to post here.

So why am I feeling so humble and morose?

I’ve called myself a Communication Designer for a while now, but as I sat in that audience listening, I was more than slightly overwhelmed with the realization of how little I really know about the history of my own profession. Or perhaps more accurately how much I’d forgotten and failed to honour. Even with training and years in the graphic arts field, I felt like I had failed to properly remember and pay respect to the early innovators of graphic design that paved the way for me.

I sometimes forget that I was a young typesetter and apprentice pressman once long ago. Hell, the truth of it is if my Graphic Arts teacher hadn’t have shown me how to use the letterpress in my high school, I doubt I would have pursued any sort of career in graphic arts, eventually working as an junior pressman in the late eighties before training in the design field. It seems like a lifetime ago. So you can imagine how nostalgic I felt looking around this room full of dinosaurs and legends listening to their stories of “the old days”.

The room was filled with both balding, shaggy and bearded legends of typography, printing and graphic design, as well as wide-eyed students and young designers, from near and far. I met one gentleman who had gladly traveled from Colorado to be there for the event. These were real Rimmer fans.

As with much of history, this event was steeped in the sad stories of the demise of the graphics arts and traditional printing trades. In a trade that has gone through so many rapid changes in the last few decades, many craftsmen who were not willing to embrace change were rendered obsolete and got lost in the wake. But not Rimmer.

The legendary Robert Bringhurst (author of the tome Elements of Typographic Style) gave a dark, yet stirring, speech about the legacy and demise of the Monotype Corporation and how so few protectors of the hot lead and hand cut type trade are left to defend its legacy. With Monotype Corporation gone and only Adobe and Lintoype left to really keep typography alive, the craft does appear to be fading into obscurity. Jim Rimmer is really one of the few survivors of a rare breed indeed.

One of my own bearded mentors, Dick Kouwenhoven (owner of Hemlock Printers), spoke about the shared parallels as he and Jim came up from humble apprentice beginnings, with Dick’s company eventually leading the print community into the digital print era by embracing modern technologies while Jim continued to master his custom type and traditional printing skills.

It became abundantly clear that Jim Rimmer had affected innumerable young lives and careers by his patient instruction and mentorship, with many former students such as Charles Chadwyk expounding the generous and kind attributes of this legendary figure and paying homage to their mentor and teacher. One particularly memorable homage was presented by Denise Carson Wilde (artist, designer and co-owner of Paper-Ya) who gave a heart-wrenching account of how Jim showed her the ropes and allowed her to apprentice and grow her fledgling printing business in the corner of his studio.

After many funny and nostalgic stories were told, the evening’s formalities culminated with a presentation by the Alcuin Society of custom broadsides produced by various printers, each crediting him with a debt of gratitude for all his guidance over the years.

As the evening continued I started feeling badly that my professional association GDC, celebrating a comparatively young 50th anniversary this year, wasn’t giving him any kind of presentation to Mr. Rimmer. In fact, there were only two GDC representatives present, Linda Coe (BC Chapter Ethics Chair) and myself. Perhaps no one asked and it didn’t occur to us to offer, but as the official national Society of Graphic Designers in Canada, we owe craftsmen like Jim Rimmer a huge debt of gratitude and a great deal of respect.

It also seemed to be an occasion worthy of much more fanfare than there was. I saw no press at the event and saw no coverage in the media. The Mayor, or the Premier – hell, even the Governor General would not have been out of place presenting Rimmer with a shiny award worthy of his contributions to Canada as well as the global graphic arts, design and printing industries.

The strange thing about these career celebration evenings is that they sort of feel like funerals. The irony is that I doubt Jim, who is now in his 70s officially retired, still works and teaches regularly. I bet he’d prefer to die happily working at his letterpress long before he hits the easy chair. He’s a craftsman and always will be.

I still haven’t adequately explained why the event bummed me out, have I? Here’s the deal: I have a quick tongue and often find myself berating colleagues for using the title “Graphic” Designer, arguing that there’s so much more to our trade than the term graphic suggests. It’s a valid argument, but what I often forget is where our trade came from: the GRAPHIC arts. Type! Illustrations! Ink on paper! Making an impression on paper to communicate a message. We may stare at our glowing electronic pallets most of the time now, but there’s nothing like a well designed, masterfully typeset and expertly printed book.

I will never be a master typographer. Hell, I doubt I will ever get the chance to publish a typeface in my lifetime and I’m OK with that. But I love type and printing. Those of us who do should share that knowledge with young designers – regardless of what we call ourselves. Our job descriptions and the tools we use will continue to change and there’s little we can do about that. But we can remember our history and roots. And we can strive to preserve the memory of our craftsmen forebearers – graphic design elders like Jim Rimmer.

In the many years I spent producing graphic design and printing, I had many opportunities to visit Rimmer’s famously dark and cluttered print shop in New Westminster, but for some odd reason never did. Perhaps because I was exploring the digital print realm I felt slightly above the old school lead type and letterpress shops I had left behind me as a young man. Perhaps I forgot how magical the craft of making type impressions on paper was. Writing this article made me realize it was time I fixed that and I’m happy to report that I am bringing a small group of IBC designers to meet Mr. Rimmer in person and finally visit his print shop. Tune in again for our report on the experience.

Here are some photos of SFU’s Rimmerfest posted on Flickr from Rimmerfest.