Chuck Byrne Remembers Jack Stauffacher

Jack Stauffacher became interested in typography as a teenager growing up in San Mateo, California. Throughout Stauffacher’s early life he was deeply influenced by his brother Frank, who introduced him to the concepts and aesthetics of modern art. After the Second World War Stauffacher opened a press on Sansome Street in 1948, where for a period he worked with another great San Francisco printer and designer, Adrian Wilson. In 1955, with his family, he began a three-year stay in Italy on a Fulbright Grant. There he became friends with Jan Tschichold and met members of the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule faculty in Basel. Shortly after returning to the US in1958, Stauffacher became an assistant professor at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. He brought Hermannn Zapf to the school as a visitor and they became life-long friends. It was at Carnegie that Stauffacher began a small series of typographic experiments exploring the potential of metal type and letterpress printing by carefully altering basic craft practice. Stauffacher returned to the Bay Area in 1963 as Typographic Director at the Stanford University Press, where he spent the next three years. During this period he also taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, from 1964 until its design department was closed in 1966.

In that same year Stauffacher reestablished The Greenwood Press in San Francisco at 300 Broadway, where he spent the next 50 years working. Here he combined his design studio with letterpress printing to produce outstanding books, catalogues, posters, announcements and broadsides. Around 1969 he undertook more typographic experiments using large 19th-century wood type he had been given. Combining his understanding of the aesthetics of modern art with an appreciation of printing craft, this work fulfilled his interest in moving away from the traditional approach to the two-dimensional space of the printed page. These experiments helped create Stauffacher’s unique aesthetic and ultimately led to the production of typographic monoprints and print portfolios. In the early 1990s these examples of pure expressions of type and space devoid of literal meaning began to be acquired and exhibited by museums.

In his lifetime Stauffacher established a worldwide reputation and extensive friendships. As a member of the Adobe Type Board, he played an important role in the transition to computer typography and took up the use of the Macintosh, admittedly with reluctance, in his own work. In 2004 he was awarded the AIGA Gold Metal. He died in November 2017, a few weeks short of his 97th birthday.

At one time or another during Jack Stauffacher’s 50 years at 300 Broadway, just about every graphic designer and printer in San Francisco, regardless of age, felt drawn to ask if they might visit The Greenwood Press. This practice also extended to like souls from around the world. Often they were famous, but just as many were unknown, and of course there were students. They were all equally welcome.

Each of these visits began with Jack stating his philosophy, his beliefs about his work and life. Sometimes these soliloquies were quiet and clear, and at other times they were like an ancient god hurling metaphysical thunderbolts. On one occasion I saw him, standing among the type cases and presses with a guest, suddenly reach down and grab a 72-point Univers bold piece of metal type, thrust it up to the face of the visitor and loudly proclaim:  ”This —is what it’s all about!” After letting the statement sink in, he turned to me and broke out in a huge grin, and with blue eyes glistening said, “Of course he understands!”

After an hour or two of conversation and viewing, visitors would usually depart with a discarded proof from his wood type prints that Jack would unearth from the piles of paper filling the crowded studio. He would then carefully wrap the piece in tissue so that the happily departing visitor’s prize was well protected.