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Purgatory Pie Press is a sanctuary for artists,
designers and typographers who are seduced by the kiss of type and
the touch of metal. Founded by Dikko Faust and Esther K. Smith, the
New York-based press has long been at the forefront of publishing
artists books and ephemera. Both proprietors also travel the
country teaching, lecturing and showing off their wares. This past
fall Smith published How to Make Books, a disquisition and
handbook on the D.I.Y. nitty-gritty of this art and craft. We
cornered Smith on a fine, early spring day to tell us how she makes
books, prints stuff and otherwise revels in her art; during our
conversation, Faust offered a few words on his typographic
(from left) How to Make Books cover, interior page and an
illustrated how-to for belly bands.
Heller: Where'd you get the name Purgatory Pie Press?
Smith: Dikko pied [spilled] an overfilled case of 8 pt.
Century Old Style on his first day of Walter Hamady's letterpress
class at the University of Wisconsin—he had waited three terms to
get into that class—and where dropping the class and leaving town
would have been the sensible thing to do, he stuck around and spent
about six weeks sorting and distributing that type. Madison was
cold and he lived far from the art building, so some nights he
slept on the model platform.
Heller: Did you both have experience as printers or designers
before starting the press?
Dikko Faust and Esther K. Smith.
Smith: I made posters in high school and college and also
sewed simple books for creative writing projects. Dikko published a
proto-zine called Cheesewax, Plain or Regular. He watched
Nixon's resignation from the college's in-house offset shop.
We both studied art as undergraduates and both took printmaking;
Dikko more than me—he TA'd the courses. He was involved in woodcut
and etching; I did photo and silkscreen, too. I loved the “have
your cake and eat it too” aspect of printmaking… sent prints to
friends as mail art/correspondence. I editioned Christmas cards,
Xerox'd college graduation announcements… figured out paste-up on a
In college, I couldn't decide between art and English— music,
but that's another story. Dikko started in archeology and still
does music. I began to design and hand-sew clothing in a drawing
class. That led to costume design for theater. I responded to the
Dikko was doing performance art and hired me—my first job after
college—to make costumes and embroider type on a uniform. Our
wedding invitation was our first letterpress collaboration. I
wanted dark red paper. It was hard to find. Looking for it I became
a paper expert, and New York Central Art Supply hired me to work in
their paper department—the longest four months of my life.
Heller: Why did you become so passionate about books?
1995 Toy Book Cube (out of print) by Smith and Faust.
Smith: We both studied William Blake in London seminars,
but two different years. When I talked to the professors in London
about Blake, they'd say, “There was a young man asking those
questions last year.” I sent Dikko postcards wanting info on
Blake's etching techniques. Dikko had experimented with that
approach to etching in London.
We'd both received special permission to work with the actual
Blake books in the British Library reading room. Touching those
books and working in that reading room, where I believed Marx had
written Das Kapital and so many other writers and scholars
had written, was an amazing experience that transcended the dull
paper I wrote for the course. I remember a few years later talking
to someone about the Blake books at a party in Chicago. I told him
I'd looked at several editions of the same book. They were
hand-colored. Blake would reprint the plates—some were from the
1790s, reprinted around 1815. The hand-coloring went from pale and
sweet to dark and intense; figures were even added and obliterated.
He said, “That's your dissertation.”
Heller: Would you describe yourselves as designers?
Craftspersons? Or artists?
Smith: What I love about books is that I don't have to
choose between art and design, words and pictures, art and craft.
As an artist, I'm a designer; as a designer, I'm an artist.
Heller: You've been operating Purgatory Pie Press for a long
time, doing limited-edition books, cards and prints. You've worked
with many talented illustrators to produce your card packs. What
was your motivation in doing this?
Smith: One thing led to another. I wanted to collaborate
with and publish writers and artists who were not well known—New
York, especially in the early '80s when I moved here, had tons of
artists—so we would meet them everywhere, and if we liked their
work and it seemed like it would translate well to letterpress, we
would try a postcard with them. Michael Bartalos was the first
illustrator we worked with and he introduced us to other
illustrators. We collaborated with the illustrators as artists. We
didn't give them assignments, but looked at their work to see what
they were interested in doing. Most of them were not well known
when we started working with them. But after a few years I noticed
that reps would sometimes send us packets of work that looked
familiar, and it would be imitators of the people we'd
Heller: Given the raw materials with which you work are
becoming somewhat extinct, how do you maintain a sustainable source
Smith: The only material that is hard to get is type.
Luckily type is reusable, if you don't kill it with too much
packing and pressure. Anyone who wants to print with letterpress
needs to be a mechanic occasionally. Dikko grew up helping his dad
fix the car and other stuff around the house, so he can usually fix
Heller: Have you ever veered into the new
Smith: We have done some projects combining letterpress
printed type with inkjet pictures. Sometimes for jobs we hand-bind
computer-printed pages. And of course we use computers for
research. Dikko spends time exploring international libraries and
e-turning pages of books that we would have trouble getting
permission to see, even if we traveled thousands of miles.
Heller: What does the letterpress and wood-type experience
offer that other printing forms do not?
Smith: Texture. And the collaboration with real type—and
type designers—from the past is really interesting. I like to play
with negative space.
Faust: Working within the constraints of hand typography
creates its own possibilities and economy of form.
(from left) PurgaSquare Postcards; Fibonacci flower by Susan
Heller: Esther, you've written a book about making books.
Does this come under the heading of hobby?
Smith: Hobby? Hmm. Potter Craft, my Random House imprint,
seems to be aimed at the neo-knitters, crafters, DIY movement.
Since How to Make Books grew from my teaching, I think about
my students and why they take my course, figuring they are the
audience for the book.
Designers—like the ones who later studied at your SVA grad
program—take my book course. They use the structures for promo
pieces and products. Some of my students have gone on to their own
card companies, etc. Teachers also take my courses and buy the
Artists take my courses and have bought the book to learn to
make artist books. The course I'll be teaching in the fall at SVA
is in the printmaking department. Compared to the painting and
sculpture worlds, artist book [making] has been more accessible for
artists. And some people use books as a way to break in.
We Spy USA book by Bob and Roberta Smith.
Heller: Is the book, which some predict will become extinct,
now a remnant?
Smith: I don't think the book is extinct. From what I
read about those alternatives they don't seem to work very well
yet. Even as some books become obsolete, artist books—visual
books—thrive. I just put out a call for artist books for a
presentation I was doing, where people wanted to see other works
than ours, and I've been inundated with replies.
When I'm not writing, I like to read fiction. And I don't see
the leisure book being replaced, though storing books is tough, at
least in finite city apartments. For some expository books, maybe
an electronic alternative will work.
Heller: What—in Purgatory Pie Press terms—is good
Faust: Good typography involves dynamic equilibrium,
tension and release, detail versus totality, texture, rhythm versus
dynamics, negative and positive space, sound versus silence—not
correct typefaces or grids. Good typography is like good jazz.
Heller: What is the most challenging piece you've
Bartalos's dangerous, metal-encased book, Vishnu Crew Stews
Smith:Vishnu Crew Stews Vindaloo Anew, a book
collaboration with Michael Bartalos. Dikko amputated the tip of his
finger cutting the metal. The metal was not available and then we
changed metals and couldn't get that one; finally found some and
the bolts are non-standard, so we can't get more of those. We've
managed to eke out a couple more copies—one to Yale's rare books
Front cover of Smith's next book.
Heller: What's next?
Smith: I'm working on Magic Books and Paper Toys
(November 2008 release). We've done the covers—it has two. It's
right-side up/upside down. We are also designing chapter openers
and title pages for this book. The writing is done except for some
We are doing our third square-postcard subscription series—House
of (Post) Cards—and our instant book subscription. And Dikko is
beginning work on a typography and letterpress book. We think he
will write it “as told to Esther K. Smith,” since he doesn't like
to write as much as I do.
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