The Letterpress Monster
Issue 2

Letterpress technician, Ian Gabb, first DJ’d his way onto our radar last year, while hosting an intimate dance party in between the type presses of his basement workshop  in the Stevens Building. Students grooved to vintage electronica, booming from his custom-built sound system. Ian was near-invisible behind the decks, curating the playlist from the shadows. As a technician, Ian may largely operate behind the scenes, but he is a well known member and cherished character of the RCA community, having served at the college for almost two decades. Find out more about his thoughts on retro typography, record hunting and the London club scene in the nineties.

Does the name ‘Letterpress Monster’ accurately describe your personality?

The term ‘Letterpress Monster’ came from when I first started here in 1999. It must have been the first year - there was this Norwegian student that coined the phrase ‘Letterpress Monster’ because I walked into the computer room and she said, “Here comes the Letterpress Monster.” That's where the term came from and it sort of stuck, but I'm more a kindly monster. I can get a bit grumpy, who can't, but I'm not really vicious - not like a pterodactyl or a tyrannosaurus rex.

Speak a little bit more about your personality and how you fit into the community here. Do people come to you for advice. Do you branch outside of your role in any way?

If people come to ask me questions, I try to help them out as much as possible. Even if I don't know the response directly. It doesn't serve me any use not to answer it, I just try to point them in the right direction. I haven't got any strict boundaries. There are certain things I won't do [haha].

I mean you seem like a very approachable person.

Yeah I think I am. Not always, if I'm really busy. The only time I've ever shouted at anyone is when I used to have a studio above the Hockney Gallery and it was coming up to the final show and there was a drip, drip, drip of students coming in. It got to about the tenth person and I finally cracked, but that's the only time. It doesn't serve any purpose to shout at anyone really.

That's a pretty good track record considering you've been here for 19 years.

I've only seen one student cry.

Speaking of anger, there has been a lot of commotion about studio spaces. You just said you were in a different space before.

Do you know the area around the Hockney Gallery, there's North and South, two seminar rooms. I was on this side of the Hockney Gallery. So the typefaces were out in the corridor and the rooms at either end of the corridor had the presses. We had a big room at the back for bookbinding as well.

Do you get attached to spaces? It seems like you're well settled into this room.

I like it down here. In the room I was in before there wasn't really any light coming in. There were windows but it was surrounded by buildings so I didn't really get any light coming in. Down here, I've got the world passing by. I've got some entertainment. I did get pissed off when they moved me down here; it’s the way they behaved about me moving. They didn't consult me properly. I found out I was moving because someone from Buildings & Estates came in the room with a contractor and started measuring up. That's how I found out and I was not pleased. That's not how you handle people is it?

And it seems like they're having trouble with that, with communication. Do you have any propositions for how they should change?

It seems to me that they never used to have these problems. Now they've got all these contractors working for them. They used to have engineers and technicians that used to be part of the college, and they were employed by the college. Now they've got contractors in and the contractors just seem to have a mind of their own. They just walk into the room without asking permission or without telling people. They just do it. Which might not be convenient if you're doing a workshop.

So they're just outsourcing everything basically.

That's how the economy works doesn't it. They farm it out to the lowest possible bidder so that they don't have to pay as much. But obviously the contractor's also always cutting corners, just to make profits for themselves. It’s the same sort of economy they're trying to apply to the National Health Service. You can't do that with people's health, can you? I sort of remember this anecdote. The NHS are buying in gloves that aren't fit for purpose but they're cheap, but they have to throw them away more often. So in the end they're forking out as much as they would be if they bought the other ones.

I guess we're getting off topic. I know you have a portfolio. You have a very particular style I would say.

It's sort of retro, but in a way, letterpress lends itself to sort of being retro. It's the colours I like. They're very chalky, a sort of pastel nature. But maybe I'll change that next time [haha].

Do you think there is sort of a contemporary style that people are starting to create with the letterpress?

Well, there's people who are not into that sort of thing. But I'm into the craft of the letterpress so it's quite tailored I suppose. When I left school, I went to the London College of Printing. It was a teaching college for apprentices as well, so they had printers and designers going to the same college. And they also gave us a reading list. This was foundation. One of them was a book by someone called Emil Ruder who is a Swiss typographer, very structured. That book had quite a big impression on me. I respond to Modernist design from a certain period. After I finished my foundation, there were loads of bookshops on Charing Cross Road that are no longer there. There were lots of art bookshops there as well, and I came across books about these Italian designers from the 50's and 60's. They really struck a chord with me.

So you must have a nice library of books.

I do. It's not very ordered. It's a bit all over the place. I'm trying to get it into order. As with my records, I don't file them in any specific order. I just find a gap and shove them in [laughs], which is a bit of a pain when I want to find a record again. It's like a squirrel digging a hole to put nuts in, but forgetting where they are.

I guess it makes it a bit of a surprise. You don't know what you're going to pull out.

Yes well then I might get distracted and go off on tangents.

Let’s talk about the Hidden poster series. I really loved that design and it was also a really cool concept to exhibit the work of the technical staff. Is that something that they've done before?

There have been at least three of them beforehand. Initially they were set up by one of the administrators on Design Products and I didn't do the poster for that at all. I just put something in. I have all the dates [looks at posters on his wall]. So that [poster] was the one last year. April 2009, that was the third one. The second one was 2007. So this was the fourth one.

Was it a success?

I think it was a success, but they didn't give us much space. Ailsa, the girl who was part of the Student Union, she organised it. She wants to continue it, even outside the college if the college isn't willing to back it up.

So do you think that it’s important to expose the work of the staff, maybe as a way for the students to relate better?

By and large, I think the technical staff keep their work to themselves. A lot of students don't realize that the technical staff are actually practitioners themselves. I think they need to give them a bit more respect.

Do you think that happened?

I'm not sure how many students got to see it. I'm not sure how many students in Kensington made the trip down.

So maybe they need to do more things like this, maybe a discussion or a workshop.

Yeah, there needs to be more awareness of the fact that...maybe technicians are technicians because they're not gobby about their own abilities. They just get on with their work.

You said they deserve more respect. Has anyone not given you respect?

Not overtly. The majority of students are respectful. Sometimes you get students who get a bit stressed out and some of them think the world revolves around them, but that's probably stress-related. We all get stressed about things.

So, you have another poster series, called Descarga Explosiva. I'm not entirely sure of what that is. I guess it's basically music and dancing, right? Your DJ'ing?

Descarga, literally in Spanish, means discharge. It's like an explosion. But descarga in terms of music is actually a jam session. So it's a Latin jam session, Hispanics playing Latin jazz. Back in the 90's, there used to be a club on Hoxton Square called The Blue Note. Every Sunday afternoon they used to have a Jazz dance session and I used to go to that frequently. That's how I got into Latin music. So I've got a healthy collection from the 60's and 70's of Salsa, Mambo and Jazz. That's the sort of stuff I normally play.

Do you speak Spanish?

I did go to lessons, but I can't remember any of it. I even went to Puerto Rico looking for records. It wasn't until the last day that I found this place where they were selling records. In a way that was a bit of a failure, although I did get a hold of some. Then I went north to New York to look for records.

Did you find some there?

I think New York's been drained completely of records. Like a lot of these things, you've got to know people.

Music seems like it's a big part of your life. How did this all start? When did you get into it and who got you into it?

It's not really anyone specific. I started buying records when I was about fifteen. There was a period when I didn't buy records. I only got back into it in the 90's. It's a bit of an addiction.

Do you play instruments as well?

I used to play the flute. I never really learned to read music. It was all by ear. I used to like Erik Satie. I've got a fairly liberal taste in music. So as long as I like it, I buy it.

Where do you buy music now?

So the Discogs website is basically a community of record buyers and they put all the pressings of different records. Certain records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts, there will be loads of different pressings. They'll have all the details. There's also a market so you can buy stuff on there.

Ian’s playlist:

Jesse Henderson - I did it again

Cuco Sanchez - A prison perpetua

Walt Dickerson - The cry

Coon Creek Girls - Red rocking chair

FAD Gadget - Coitus interruptus

Galaxy II Galaxy - First galactic baptist church

Joey Pastrana - El pulpo

Quando Quango - Love tempo

Myriam Gendron - Threnody

Kain - Black satin amazon fire engine cry baby

Eat Lights Becomes Lights - Habitat '67

Matt Monro - On days like these

Swans - A little god in my hands

          Rachel Yalisove

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