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This Just In: Jack Stauffacher’s Studio

For over 50 years, Stauffacher lived a singular life at the heart of San Francisco’s creative community. Now, his legacy lives on at the Archive, and his prints are the subject of our third book.

panoramic photo of Jack Stauffacher at his studio, Greenwood Press, 300 Broadway in San Francisco. Photo: Dennis Letbetter, 1991
panoramic photo of Jack Stauffacher at his studio, Greenwood Press, 300 Broadway in San Francisco. Photos: Dennis Letbetter, 1991
Jack Stauffacher in his studio, Greenwood Press, at 300 Broadway in San Francisco. Photo: Dennis Letbetter, 1991.

Some rooms convey history all by themselves. They tell stories about the people who live in them before those occupants even utter a word. Jack Stauffacher’s studio in San Francisco was such a place.

Jack Stauffacher shows his Wooden Letters from 300 Broadway during a visit to his studio in 2012.

I first visited this room in 2012. My friend Antonio Cavedoni, at the time a typeface designer at Apple, suggested we meet Jack. I’d heard the name many times before. His reputation for fine press printing and wood type experiments was unsurpassed in the Bay Area and widely known in type and design circles around the world. But he was also famous for his grand personality, his love of creative conversation, and his generosity toward anyone with a curious mind.

Antonio and I were joined by our friends Frank Grießhammer and Tânia Raposo, type design graduates who had recently moved to the Bay. The moment we arrived at 300 Broadway, Jack lived up to his reputation, right down to his signature attire: a dapper aubergine sport jacket with a fresh flower in the lapel. He sat the four of us at his large desk in the middle of the room and proceeded to hold court, putting on a show of his work and the work of others, telling great stories (with his delightful wife Josephine filling in the details), and taking genuine interest in the lives of the young type lovers in front of him.

Proof prints for Wooden Letters from 300 Broadway

As we leafed through his landmark portfolio of experimental wood type prints, Wooden Letters from 300 Broadway, Jack talked about the wooden blocks as if they were living beings. Pointing at the scratches and worn edges of each letter, he described their long working life in the service of circuses and political protests. In Jack’s minimal compositions of shape and negative shape, free from linguistic meaning, he imagined that they had returned to their pure original form. Or, as Frank quipped, “The letters are now retired and they can do whatever they want.”

I looked around the room and soaked up the stories. The walls were filled with original art, photographs, and letterpress prints, hung in that haphazard, unplanned way that indicates each one went up as it was acquired or received. The jam-packed bookshelves revealed Jack’s unfettered interests: design, type, and printing, of course, but also fine art, history, literature, and philosophy. At the other end of the room were the Gietz and Vandercook presses, flanked by type cases, piled high with printing cuts and tools, and surrounded with stacks and stacks of paper — all evidence of countless projects, finished and in progress. It was the rich sediment of the Greenwood Press, whose work flowed through this room for over 50 years.

Books by Jack Stauffacher, including editions for the Greenwood Press and Book Club of California, 1941–2004.
Books by Jack Stauffacher, including editions for the Greenwood Press and Book Club of California, 1941–2004.

Jack landed at 300 Broadway in 1966. He came to get back to printing, to revive an operation born 30 years before when his father helped him set up a little press behind their home near Greenwood Avenue in San Mateo. And this spot at the corner of Broadway and Sansome was the ideal location.

“The building was three floors of printers and presses and a lot of noise and smells. My shop was on the third floor. It was a complete printers’ world” — Jack Stauffacher, interview with Chuck Byrne for the forthcoming Letterform Archive book, Only on Saturday.

300 Broadway was built for printers, with each of its floors specially constructed to withstand the weight of 10,000-pound industrial presses. It was also in the heart of North Beach, which had been San Francisco’s bohemia of writers and artists since the end of World War II. Soon after moving into the building, Jack met some retiring poster printers on the ground floor who were giving up their wood type. For the next five decades, these were the letters he would play and print with on his proofing press when he wasn’t busy with his day job, designing and printing books with metal type (and, later, film and digital type).

“Jack called himself a printer first and foremost, but the studio at 300 Broadway was also a library, an academy, an historical atlas of typography and design through the centuries. To have had the opportunity to set type by hand or to have printed on one of his presses was to have been part of this special place of culture, knowledge, and craftsmanship.” — Pino Trogu, from his essay in the forthcoming Only on Saturday

Stauffacher composing type at Greenwood Press. Photo: Dennis Letbetter, 1999.
Stauffacher composing type at Greenwood Press. Photo: Dennis Letbetter, 1999.

My next visit to 300 Broadway wasn’t until after Jack passed away in 2017 at the age of 96. Letterform Archive curator and publisher Rob Saunders and I were invited by Jack’s daughter Francesca — who worked alongside Jack as a typesetter for several years — to sort and select items for possible preservation at Letterform Archive. While Jack’s absence was palpable, the room looked very much the same as I remembered, packed with objects of personal and historical meaning, each residing for decades with one custodian, now poised to live a new life, in a new space, inspiring new designers.

Letters to Jack

When the Archive considers bringing in a new collection, we rarely assess and organize the material onsite, but this situation was obviously special. The process required multiple weekly visits, each one revealing more about Jack, his craft, and the literary and artistic community of which he was often the center. We sifted through thousands of proofs and final prints, remnants of workshops and collaborations with visiting printers, slides and snapshots of Jack and Josephine’s travels to Italy, process binders and scrapbooks, keepsakes from publishers and artists, correspondence with fellow designers and fans, and books … shelf after shelf of books. There was Greenwood Press stock. There were Jack’s designs for museums and other publishers. And then there was his personal library: a source of research for his work, a collection representing his wide spectrum of intellectual passions, and a repository of gifts from close friends, many of which were personally inscribed to him. (His circle extended far beyond the Bay, with notes from designers like Robert Bringhurst, Adrian Frutiger, Romano Hänni, Gerrit Noordzij, Jan Tschichold, Gerard Unger, and Hermann Zapf.) Jack collected books of every stripe, from limited editions to pulp paperbacks. We’d smile whenever we came across a trade book wrapped in one of Jack’s wood type prints as a jacket. “That’s what he’d do when he didn’t like the cover design,” Francesca said.

Jack’s Jackets

After several weeks we packed dozens of boxes full of Jack’s work, his collection, and his reference library, bringing them to the Archive to preserve and share. We proudly join the Bancroft Library, LACMA, and SFMOMA in holding major Stauffacher collections. Supplementing our initial set of wood type prints, this significant addition lets us tell stories of design, typography, and printing history in a way that is uniquely San Francisco and uniquely Jack. We’ll have much more to share as we catalog the collection and make a place for it in our new home.

Jack Stauffacher at his desk. Photo: Mauro Panzeri, 2011.

“Being there, with a man at peace, at ease with his machines and his tools, surrounded by his books, was to sense another era, one I never knew and could only briefly experience. In that way, Jack’s studio was a time machine, always carrying the time forward for new generations.” — Pino Trogu, from his essay in the forthcoming Only on Saturday

Letterform Archive Book No. 3

We’re proud to announce that the Archive’s next book, Only on Saturday, will celebrate Jack’s wood type explorations. Written by Chuck Byrne with contributions from Jack’s collaborators and collectors, and featuring our meticulous reproductions of Jack’s prints (including many never before published), the book will be the definitive story of his development as a printer and modern artist. Stay tuned for the Kickstarter launch in October — and remember that Letterform Archive members get a 20 percent discount during the first two days of the Kickstarter campaign!

Update: Get the book now!

— Stephen Coles, Associate Curator & Editorial Director