Snow covers the peaks surrounding the Glarus valley on the Northern fringes of the Swiss Alps. A string of villages mix traditional Swiss chalets with industrial warehouses, whilst crystal clear streams trickle by. Against this backdrop the bandana-clad figure of Dafi Kühne cuts quite the contrast.
Kühne’s studio sits across five rooms on the second floor of an old factory once used to tar ropes for the boats of Lake Zürich, 18 miles away. In any direction, a mountain top can be glimpsed through 100-year-old windows. It’s here that over ten years, Kühne has collected the machinery and tools needed to run Switzerland’s most comprehensive, active letterpress studio.
Inside, the smell of machine oil mixes with freshly brewed coffee, sawdust, hot lead and faint remnants of the rope factory tar. Each room contains a vinyl record player (Kühne admits a penchant for the tangible, vintage artefacts), with The Doors currently on rotation. Inks, paper stock and metal type share shelf space with countless bottles of Tabasco sauce and taxidermy of badgers, ducks, and deer.
As he enthusiastically guides photographer Daniel Infanger and I around the impressive roster of machinery, he’s keen to emphasize the frugality of his purchases. A machine that might cost tens of thousands of Swiss Francs is taken off someone’s hands for a few hundred. Often the cost of transport outweighs what was paid for the equipment. He laughs that being renowned as “that guy that buys old stuff” ends up being very useful.
It’s a remarkable collection. No fewer than three near-identical FAG Control 405 machines are positioned around the workshop’s fringes—he’s not allowed to place machinery in the center of the room, lest the floor collapse.
A huge automatic German Frontex is the most impressive, thanks to its improbable number of dials and knobs. Kühne work his way around the machine like a pro, above the noise of the suction mechanism, which separates individual sheets of paper, and hoovers them into its wheels.
Over a bowl of Matcha tea, Kühne explains how he acquired the Frontex: “A school had this machine, and they said I could have it, but it needed to be lifted over a building to get it out. Then I had a job come in, and they needed 12,000 envelopes. I couldn’t hand-press them so I needed this machine. Luckily that job paid for the transportation.”
His largest machine required a small crane to hoist up into his studio. “I was broke for two years after that,” he says. “When you’re down to zero it takes a while to get back up. If you need to buy paper for a job, you have to have the money to do that.” But the machine allowed him to create larger posters, ultimately necessary to produce work that’s going to be noticed on the streets.
Each of the contraptions fulfils a specific purpose. A laser cutter allows items to be engraved, opening the opportunity for more complex images. The Ludlow allows type to be replicated and enabling a font set to stretch—vital if a page has multiple instances of a single character.
From the ceilings hang collections of Kühne’s work, which displays a restless energy and is often layered with meaning. His commitment to the poster as a form is very deliberate. While he takes on digital elements of projects, Kühne insists on maintaining the letterpress poster as the axis of his work: “It was only by being strict about my own work that I came to a point where I can say, ‘yes, I’m the letterpress guy’.”
Unlike some designers who take a client’s content unquestioningly, he is adamant that the messaging must be strong before he starts work. Typography always plays a central role in the idea, and there’s a clear effort made to break from traditional formatting. Spacing, sizing, and alignment are all frequently innovated, but color and texture are just as important.
With typography so central, it’s no surprise that in the studio’s cupboards are 600 cases of type, including Helvetica, Caslon, and the “very beautiful” Normal Grotesk. It’s immaculately ordered, as it must be: a full font set would contain all characters from six point up, as well as enough spacing material for each size. Naturally, organization becomes critical as it can takes half a day to make a matrix, and three or four hours to put the form back.
Each summer, Kühne invites a small cohort of students to come and spend two weeks with him learning the art of letterpress and his approach to typographic poster design. They come from across the globe, often from design schools, proving an opportunity to use this eclectic space as an inspiration.
Regardless of where you come from, the juxtaposition of vintage machinery and mountain air makes a visit to Kühne’s studio seem somewhat out-of-this-world. Much like his posters, it’s a balance of tradition and progression, and a confounding of expectations.