NZ 'letterpress in the city' hopes at risk as COVID-19 strikes

Apr 18, 2020 at 03:06 am by Staff

Drawing on inspiration from Minnesota, London and San Francisco, the Wellington Centre for Book Arts brings letterpress history to the city in the first centre of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

Operational since last November, it occupies the basement of the Woolstore Design Centre in Thorndon Quay, Wellington, and was officially opened on February 15 by associate arts, culture and heritage minister Grant Robertson.

An open day and book arts fair that day had introduced the concept nurtured by the Printing Museum over years, to extend "well beyond printing" and foster much greater artistic and cultural diversity closer to a target audience of students and lovers of art and design.

Museum president John Nixon says it's a far cry from the pastoral setting of the Museum's facility at Mangaroa - still the home of much of its stored and functional collection - but its success will depend on expanded membership and income, tested further by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Museum and WCBA has also been involved in the international rescue mission to save the bulk of the Monotype collection from the now defunct Melbourne Museum of Printing.

Failing attempts to find (and fund) a building for the museum in central Wellington, the WCPA concept aims to showcase its appeal and to create publicity for the wider cause of a permanent home.

Nixon says the attitude expressed at the annual meeting in 2018 at which the idea was given the green light, was that the Museum, "couldn't afford not to do it".

The Book Arts Centre has come to life through the efforts of five key contributors, Nixon, vice-president Michael Curry, John Randall, and secretary-treasurer Dan Tait-Jamieson, joined by new Monotype apprentice Nick Heaphy. They built, wired, plastered, wallpapered and painted for months and then had to move everything in.

The centre is split into three areas - a composing room with six cabinets of metal type and three of wood, a commercial photocopier and "the usual comp room paraphernalia"; a printery with a Vandercook SP-15 proof press, a small half-sheet foolscap Albion press, Arab treadle platen and a Heidelberg platen; and a working bindery relocated from the General Assembly library in the New Zealand parliament. An Intertype Model C linecaster "somehow made its way into the mix" and a large Harrild proof press - "perfect for large posters" - is yet to join the party.

The centre will not however be restricted to just letterpress and bookbinding, and will embrace "the wider book arts" with classes in calligraphy, lettering and allied crafts, and later other complementary crafts.

Nixon says strong support has been expressed by instructors, and a range of alternative activities are being explored. Upcoming classes include a reprise of Graham Judd's two-day Heidelberg masterclass - which was preceded by a treadle platen workshop and letterpress introduction - while Clint Harvey from the Bacon Factory in Brisbane led a workshop on the Vandercook proof press on the opening day.

These ambitions are of course, on hold, with the centre closed during the COVID-19 shutdown, but hopes are that the project - representing the hopes and aspirations of many years - will soon be back in business. They're deserving of any support you can provide. Contact the Museum through its website at or email:

Peter Coleman

Pictured (from left): John Nixon, Grant Robertson, Dan Tait-Jamieson; the WCBA, and scenes from the open day (Photos: The Museum)


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