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Hand Werk & Make Do Image Making — Q&A with Peter Nencini

Ryan G. Nelson: Our paths first crossed in relation to a Max Bill poster [fig. 1] — perhaps this is a good place for us to start. You’ve mentioned how that poster finds a nice balance between a machine-aesthetic and a hand-craft-method. The same could be said for this poster of Bill’s [fig. 2] (designed […]

Ryan G. Nelson: Our paths first crossed in relation to a Max Bill poster [fig. 1] — perhaps this is a good place for us to start. You’ve mentioned how that poster finds a nice balance between a machine-aesthetic and a hand-craft-method. The same could be said for this poster of Bill’s [fig. 2] (designed for another, earlier Konkrete Kunst exhibition) which was a linocut print and which also showcases a high degree of printed precision and formal consideration. With this Konkrete Kunst poster we see Bill’s first use of an experimental version of a typeface that was later named, and officially released in 1949, as Architype Bill [fig. 3]. This initial version of the typeface, apparently designed in 1944, seems to be testing the waters in terms of how far these letterforms can be distorted before affecting readability (i.e., the inverted ‘N’, the ‘u’ that looks like a ‘v’). This is all brings me to your Make Do Type. Can you talk about the experimental nature of the making of your typeface and of the “distortions” that evolved within some of the letterforms and characters you designed?

Left to right: fig. 1,  fig. 2,  fig. 3 (image via),  fig. 4 (image via)

Peter Nencini: Make Do Type began as an attempt to make a typeface out of the natural limits of my drawing hand and its memory. By ‘memory’ I mean the awareness of type before one knows anything of typography. I love [Paul] Renner’s ‘Futura Book’; it’s the one I recall liking when very young (without knowing what it was) because it was so satisfyingly geometric and obviously mechanical. It also sat close to those first handwriting exercises (in a contrasting way to the archetypal French, cursive style). Alongside, via ubiquitous decimalisation fever in my early years, was the centimetre square. So Half-Seen-Futura plus Learning-To-Write plus Metric-Muscle-Memory equals a core form.

So Make Do Type starts with the most simple, stupid scale and proportions, on a 5mm grid with a 0.5mm line weight, monospace. Then a rule to work it through with as few tweaks as possible. If this is an incremental thing, then the lower case ‘o’ is at zero on the ‘x’ axis. I go right to make ‘p’, ‘d’ and so on; I go left to make an abstract concentric shape, then further to make a figurative eye. So this is, in fact, “Make Do Image Making.”

The nicest bit is when the glitch (or distortion as you call it) occurs. On the journey to the right, it becomes mildly apparent in ‘k’, then evidently in ‘i’ or ‘m’ and unquestionably in ‘s’. Because there is the urge to optically correct and to turn off ‘Snap to Grid’ — or to not do so — it is tucked between wrongness and rightness. The ‘s’ sticks out because it involves two more decisions than any other character. So, virally, it leads to growths (on a ‘y’ axis) of offset attributes elsewhere in the family.

On a secondary and more corrupted level, there is the will to graft attributes from a patchy set of types, culturally imprinted on the retina; a slab from Wolf’s ‘Memphis’, a stroke from Wolpe’s ‘Albertus’, a thick-and-thin from Brignall’s ‘Countdown’. This equates to tapered line weights, cross-hatching, stippling being co-opted into the pictorial attributes.

Finally, the left (pictorial) and right (typographic) find other routes back toward one another, in forms characterized by both. A major influence here is Koloman Moser’s Wiener Werkstätte monogram set [fig. 4].

So it never ends as a set. I’m now tackling kerns and set-widths, which risks a kind of slickness and not Making Do. It’s Explicit Learning. Open Ended. Limited Language.

Above: Make Do Type specimen

RN: Bill’s typeface was surely influenced primarily by the principles of Concrete Art and, probably less so, by the medium (linocut) he was working with. To what degree is your Make Do Type influenced by your use of it within the medium of letterpress? Have other factors or concepts shaped the way in which you’ve designed this typeface?

PN: Sensibility to any material necessitates embrace of its natural limit. So letterpress is like clay; you have to go with it. The type is lasercut out of plywood (and other materials to create varied patina out of the same inked colour), so it has to be simple or large enough to cut; and robust enough to survive the press. And any other added functionality, such as letterspacing, has to work within this physical system. So some synonymity between the form and the tool exists, as in Cuneiform.

I’m interested too, in an emergent desktop publishing, onscreen material logic. Looking a lot at lost dog posters; smileys; that kind of thing. The free ‘amateur’ will to stretch or pimp a designed typeface. The tear-off telephone number poster is a great late C20th piece of design. Somehow, this will grow as a factor in Make Do Type.

Left to right: fig. 5 (image via),  fig. 6 (image via),  fig. 7 (image via),  fig. 8 (image via)

Aside from the influences mentioned above, I have to cite Eva Hesse. Recently went to see the Studiowork show [fig. 5], featuring only her small sculptural test pieces. I read somewhere, Robert Morris [fig. 6] described ‘anti-form’ as a basis for making art works in terms of process and time rather than as static and enduring icons.

Also, the ambition to work with a stock line weight (as a pole for formal play) comes from Sol Lewitt [fig. 7], Donald Judd and Dick Bruna [fig. 8] (yes, Miffy).

Making something makes you want to make another.

Above: Various posters for a series of lectures at the Camberwell College of Arts, designed and printed by Peter Nencini, utilizing the Make Do Type

RN: In regards to your use of the letterpress, you seem to be embracing the technology and its component parts to create type and image in a way that I have rarely, if ever, seen (I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that letterpress printing using movable parts, more often than not, invokes visuals of antiquated wood and metal type). Instead of using a more convenient and modern form of letterpress printing that uses a photopolymer plate, you use custom-lasercut woodblocks (as you mention above) and forms/type from acrylic sheets. These movable printing parts are intricate and have a digital-like-precision; and in a post on your blog about your Handwerk print you refer to the object quality that the woodblocks take on after being inked [figs. 9–10]. Of course, the lot of red acrylic shapes and typographic parts also have this object, almost toy-like, quality (perhaps owing to the fact that the acrylic material is red and not simply black, gray, white, etc.). Does the permanence and object-like quality of these printing parts influence how you use or reuse them? Also, can you talk about how you began to work in this way (with letterpress and the custom-lasercutting of materials)? Did your work/methods demand this technology? Or did you, so to speak, stumble into the technology and adapt your work/methods as a result?

figs. 9–10

PN: It’s true that, in using letterpress, I want to escape a nostalgic aesthetic or pick-and-mix C19th display woodblock compositions. I’ve seen other people using lasercut to make solid-state plates; but an accumulation of moveable types garners the possibility of designing on the press, in the workshop. As a stage beyond digital. It’s enjoyable in printmaking, or making of any kind, to let one’s hands change one’s mind.

The object-quality is significant. For a long time I’ve looked at explicit process in buildings and furniture and art. Oozing and imprint on the shuttered concrete of Dennis Crompton’s Hayward Gallery (and other South Bank Brutalism) correlate with the variable slivers of white ground at the butting-up point between two block-printed shapes.

The woodblocks are the byway to a more object-based process in the future, I hope. I’m in the middle of making an edition of 50 boxed ‘Hand Werk’ kits [figs. 11–17]. Herein, the cut forms are grouped with printed fabric, ceramic and found-discarded things to constitute a kit for ‘muffled’ play. It’s based somewhat on Friedrich Froebel’s ‘Gifts and Occupations’ (1837) for the early Kindergartens. By ‘muffled’ I mean a silent decision-making, both for the grouping of forms and their manipulation. They are for other people but motivated by a need to assess my own object-literacy.

I first used the cutting technology commercially, for a series of television sets. In each, the image-vocabulary was developed to be cut and etched in brass, perspex, timber, etc. on a large scale. I think pictures of any kind in architecture have to bear relation to the fabric and proportion of the space, rather than an ephemeral tickling of the surface. So it was useful to work with image-as-structure.

figs. 11–17

RN: Speaking of kits (albeit, a kit of a less physical kind), how did your Gelb project, which you describe as “a growing image kit, a kind of ode to Berlin,” come into existence? And has the project grown or been applied in any way since you first posted about it on your website and blog?

PN: Gelb [fig. 18] is becoming a series of bookworks for a few reasons. It makes sense for it to be spatial and sequential and portable, because the language came about on foot and on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn in Berlin. I loved the sensation of neither stepping up nor down to enter a subway train (unusual for a Londoner) and the fact that they ran for 24 hours. So there was total fluency in transit and therefore the feeling of constant movement through the space. This was stabilised in the memory by colour and form, especially hues around oxide-to-mustard yellow and duck-egg-verdigris. So I’m sourcing and collecting found coloured papers to create some lived-in, dissonant colour palette as a page-ground. The ingredients’ line character is something to do with corruptions of the DIN standardized typeface throughout the cityscape and modernist U-Bahn clocks with over-ornamental replacement hands. This character has then been applied to anonymised forms peppered from memory of food, building, temperature, surface and so on.

fig. 18

RN: Coming back your ambition to work with a stock line weight. I’m wondering how the notions of standardization and constraint — as they would be inherent with the use of a stock line weight — find their way into any one of your works and if you see them as underlying themes that guide your aesthetic decisions? Or rather, do you see them as set of principles to work by? I ask because, in regards to your work, you often mention modularity and the adherence to a grid (which can also bring to mind standardization and constraint). We’ve seen how modularity is used in your Make Do Type as well as in your Handwerk and To Haiti With Love prints. Aside from those works, in which their modularity also plays a functional role in their making, how has this idea translated into your recent foray in working with knitting and stitching?

PN: I draw on screen and I draw by hand. I draw by hand much more, as a daily habit. The habit tells me to be surprised by the way things look. Familiar things become unfamiliar (or non-standard) through observation. It doses memory. The option then, of observed and remembered drawn things, takes me to screen. The screen drawings use the limit of grid, lineweight and radius to adopt a non-standard form into the family. So there is a familial way of imaging non-familiar things.

Grids are still something of a revelation to me. I have no formal typographic training (studied Illustration), so somehow the unsolicited finding and reading of [Emil] Ruder, [Armin] Hoffman, [Wim] Crouwel, and [Anthony] Froshaug undirected, gives the sense of patchy understanding and mystery. I respond well to dogma. Or to books that behave as parallel manuals — Umberto Eco is very good for narrative imagemaking — which offer indirect working principles. The nice thing about grids is that you can break them.

Last year, a group of us built 30 ‘Autoprogettazione’ tables, as specified by Enzo Mari. Mari is similarly offering me, the amateur, a route to understanding made furniture through basic handling.

For knit and stitch [figs. 19–21], the behaviour of the material and inherently the grid of woven coarse linen for example, determines a limited scaling and mark. You have to go with the material in the same way you do a graphite stick and let the matter breathe. Each embroidering by Sally (my partner and collaborator) leads to a conversation about, and digestion of, what works; and I can feel the stitch much more in recent drawing-designs. In terms of a ‘manual’, Elsie Svennas’ Handbook of Lettering for Stitchers carries as much weight as Ruder for typography. At the last stage before Sally embroiders, I often hand-draw the design onto the fabric because it better matches the inflection and natural arc of hand-stitch.

figs. 19–21

RN: Perhaps we can move on to talking about your blogging presence for a moment. One of the aspects that I enjoy the most from what you present and write about on any of the blogs that you contribute to is that many of the ideas, movements and conceptual approaches, that you go on to explain in very relevant and concise ways, are not aimed at a specific audience of creatives. They would seemingly have wide appeal to artists, designers, illustrators, photographers or anyone who is presented with the challenges of producing form and representing content. With these posts I sense that you are presenting topics that are genuinely a part of the research and process of discovery that defines your own practice at that given moment (i.e., your posts on Anti-Form, Wabi-Sabi, Play, Make-Do-Modernism, Counterform, Author-Designer & Reader-User, etc.). Have you utilized blogging (specifically, the act of shaping together a blog post) as a means of helping, or even forcing, yourself to more fully realize how those ideas, movements and conceptual approaches are influencing and shaping your work and philosophy? Or has your blogging been more about the act of publishing and disseminating those topics for the sake of such audiences as your colleagues and students?

PN: It’s really important for me to define a practice around idea and method, rather than Specialism. Specialism, in the sense of an intimacy with and experience of process, is valuable but in another sense it can be inhibiting, hierarchical and ultimately set an obstacle to natural correspondence between like minds. Posting allows ideas to self-aggregate, in rhythm with studio work. This is much more satisfactory that attempting a definitive ‘artist’s statement’ or somesuch platform. Doubt is such an essential in day-to-day work, so terms of expression need to match.

In terms of audience, it’s all of the above. I’m lucky in that my students often feel like colleagues; their quality and intelligence has it so. The conversations we have lap in and out of those held with correspondents through the blogs, maker-friends and in my own head. The posts create a precedent before meeting another practitioner for the first time, so we have had a head-start and can get to the detail.

I have met-but-not-met people who form a community of thought, reference, inspiration, galvanization at a day-to-day rate. For me, the catalyst (and my homepage) has been Andy Beach’s Reference Library.

Regarding art and design school. Something is happening. There is a discourse there between people who are in some way, shape or form becoming custodians, even at a relatively young age, of these cultural enclaves in a time where the exploratory nature of this environment is at risk, as the activity becomes more accountable to commerce.

The ideas themselves are often ill-disciplined in terms of synthesis and format. But they are published, which is better ventilation for the head; a better place for something to incubate.

[Editor’s Note: Peter’s blog posts are published on his own personal blog [fig. 22] as well as on Camberwell Illustrator [fig. 23] and Key Ideas [fig. 24]; two blogs from the Camberwell College of Arts.]

fig. 22 fig. 23

fig. 24

RN: Lastly, in what way do you expect your work and/or projects to evolve this year? Are there any particular projects, activities, events, life happenings, travels, etc. that you anticipate having some significant measure of influence upon what direction your work is headed toward next?

PN: The Hand Werk boxed edition is now in Poundshop, a shop-experiment curated by Household. This project is leading me towards made as opposed to found furniture, with information embedded in the framework as well as (and sometimes instead of) the upholstery. I’m looking for a book on the perfect, blank, default wooden chair as a pole-start. Shaker, [Marcel] Breuer, [Enzo] Mari and some 1959 anthropometric seating data diagrams are the nearest I’ve got.

Sally and I are making for children’s chairs for an upcoming event, Kids.Modern, and for commission. Some have a tailored, functional aspect which is exciting because it provides 50% or more of the aesthetic and most of the narrative life. I’m also making activity/bookworks for children, using a Risograph copier-duplicator. I will self-publish and distribute more through the year using the same technology, with Gelb in this category.

I know that in time, the vocabulary itself has to come to the fore, without application or direct function. I will be putting it into space, in response to space, at a larger scale, extrusion and weight. This is perhaps most important for me to show.

On travel, the Down coast of Northern Ireland and the Souss-Massa-Draâ coast of Morocco have been and will be a regular inspiration. I intend to return this year to NYC and further into USA/Canada; so much good correspondence and parallel thinking has come from across the Atlantic, over the last year.

RN: Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your work with us, Peter!

— See more of Peter’s work at

  • Hand Werk & Make Do Image Making — Q&A with Peter Nencini –

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Dakota says:

    Really great interview, Ryan.

    I can’t wait to read through Peter’s work/blog.

  • tonyacook25 says:

    Design » Hand Werk & Make Do Image Making — Q&A with Peter Nencini: So Make Do Type starts with the most simple, s…

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Hey Dakota! Thanks for checking it out.

    Yeah, I definitely recommend taking the time to visit each of Peter’s sites/blogs. So much great content to pour over and worth multiple visits.

  • ieTweets says:

    Check it out: IE Unit member Peter Nencini interviewed by Ryan Nelson for Walker Art Centre

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Great Q&A. Re-imagining of wood type and letterpress is something I could see growing into all facets of craftsman design. The process seems born out of the blue collar process, but the execution feel contemporary, and by proxy, more engaging as “tools to make” as opposed to tools to use. Awesome stuff.

  • glennnnnn says:

    Peter Nencini and @walkerartcenter

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • freddygrl says:

    hand werk & make do image making – great interview with Peter Nencini on the Walker Art blog

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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