“I never intended to come [to Los Angeles],” says Kevin Bradley, founder of the letterpress design and print studio Church of Type, which opened this Sunday on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica.
“I was going to New Orleans,” Bradley continues as his intern works the Vandercook Universal III letterpress to make prints of complimentary posters for customers pouring into the store. “I rented a place in the French Quarter…I was loading my truck up, and I was going to get back to painting. The night before I was leaving, the [landlord] called–the river flooded. His daughter had four kids and her house flooded. He said he was giving her the place.”
That's when Bradley called up his friends and headed to Los Angeles instead.
From the bottom crevices of the wall to the ceilings, Bradley's work covers the store. He has images of Conway Twitty and Robert Johnson with carefully crafted fonts. He has Sun Records posters that were featured in the television show Nashville. He has wedding invitations and greeting cards, images of Godzilla and robots — all custom-made and built by hand. What Bradley is creating is not just a store, but a collage of music history, using a medium that is nearly extinct — a journey he has been on since '94.
For 15 years Bradley lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, as co-founder of the design studio and letterpress giant Yee-Haw Industries, churning out fine-art prints, commemorative and promotional concert posters, album art and even wedding invitations, using 200-year old equipment in the same tradition as Guttenberg and the original printing press.
“I am using the old stuff, but I'm making a contemporary print with it,” Bradley says. “I've rescued 200 years of beautiful type as well as plates…I always wanted to make a new print with the old stuff.”
He showcases a set of plates with images on metal. “In these drawers, I have the entire history of pro wrestling and boxing…They would develop the photograph on the metal, put a line screen on it, match it with acid, and then they would mount it on wood for printing…That's how the newspapers were printed back in the day.”
For 25 years, Bradley has been scouring old barns and basements east of the Mississippi for these rare fonts and types from the 1800s and 1900s. He wants to bring to life the way the world communicated hundreds of years ago, only in a modern way — much like how modern folk musicians keep old songs alive, bringing them to contemporary listeners in new forms and textures.
He considers himself a graphic designer, an illustrator, a painter, print maker, editor, copywriter — even a janitor. He has even developed his own type of poetry called Storetry — a form of poetry/stories turned into posters. But at the most basic level, he's a typographer — a last craftsman in a dying profession.
“I've got all this type, and I've got to figure out how to use it and get people seeing it.”
Church of Type is much more than just a printing shop for Bradley; it's a means of communication that steps into the mythology of man, to the campfire, to that archetypal yearning for the power of the word mixed with the smell of ink and wood dust.
Across the walls he has a series of original images — robots, dinosaurs, Godzilla. Each of these images is made with letters, which you can see when you look up close. He's experimenting every day with the form.
“It's a repository of the real stuff,” says Bradley. “It's my Church of Type….The word on the page is a powerful thing. When the power goes out, I will be the king.”