“Grabhorn Press: 1920-1965 and Beyond” at the Grolier Club

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The Grabhorn Press was one of the foremost American producers of finely-printed books from the early 1920s to the mid-1960s. Their fine printing establishment is documented in a comprehensive public exhibition on view at the Grolier Club from May 13 to August 1, 2015. The more than one hundred books and objects on display—selected from a corpus of over 650 books and countless ephemera—offer unprecedented insight into the Grabhorn Press’s remarkable contribution to the art of the book. Curated by Andrew Hoyem, the publisher at Arion Press who was affiliated with the Grabhorns from 1964 to 1973, and associate curator Dr. Simran Thadani, the show is enhanced by important letters, design mock-ups, photographs and other archival material drawn primarily from Hoyem’s collection, and from the archives of the Grabhorn Institute. 

Based in San Francisco, the Grabhorn Press was a descendant of the “arts and crafts” movement started by William Morris in England for the revival of fine printing in the late nineteenth century. Before and during the Grabhorns’ time, there were others in the United States who inherited, practiced, and innovated upon the “arts and crafts” ideals. What set the Grabhorns apart from other Americans of their era were the variety, quality, and quantity of their accomplishments.

The brothers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn came to San Francisco in 1920, with printing experience but scant schooling. Highly intelligent, both had a keen aesthetic sense and were voracious readers; they immediately stood out for their exuberant and adventuresome approach to bookmaking, captivating the city’s already well-established bibliophile population with their imaginative and colorful books. 

Over the course of the next 45 years, their enormously varied output demonstrated the brothers’ keen sense of design and mastery of historic and contemporary modes of typographic expression. By 1921, the Grabhorns had already printed a book for the Book Club of California, the organization that would become their primary client. One of their landmark books was H. M. T. Powell’s The Santa Fé Trail to California 1849-1852 (1931). Powell travelled from Illinois to San Diego along what is now called the Southern Emigrant Trail, then back home via Panama, Nicaragua, and New Orleans. This chronicle was printed for the first time by the Grabhorns. 

Most of their work was contractual, with the proviso that they were entrusted with design authority. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1928) was the second book published by Random House. The publisher, Bennett Cerf, made a casual visit to the Press in 1928, just as the Grabhorns completed printing The Voiage and Traveile of Sir John Maundeville, and was so taken with the book that he bought the entire edition and had the title page reprinted to change the publisher’s name. Cerf commissioned several deluxe limited edition books, including the Grabhorn masterpiece, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1930). Widely recognized as a monument of twentieth-century fine printing, it was a winner of the AIGA Fifty Books of the Year. The 430-page folio volume with thirty-seven woodblocks took more than a year from inception to completion. It sold for $100.00 a copy just before the Great Depression put a damper on fine press printing and rare book collecting. 

The Grabhorn Press was also a publisher, notably of rare Americana and of the plays of Shakespeare. A Midsommer Nights Dreame, the fifth in the series of plays, is a small quarto with vibrant bursts of color to the text provided by Mary Grabhorn’s six square linoleum-block illustrations.

The Grabhorns admired the work of Bruce Rogers and considered themselves his “best students,” although they were never to meet him. They practiced what Rogers called “allusive printing,” in which the selection of type, decoration, and page layout allude to aspects of a book’s contents. They assembled remarkable holdings of type for hand composition, favoring the types of Frederic W. Goudy, who designed the Press’s private type, Franciscan. 

The Grabhorn Press staff was always small: just one or two typesetters and pressmen, plus a bookbinder or two. Considering how few people worked at the Grabhorn Press, it is amazing how many books were produced annually. Its bibliography lists 654 titles—an average of 14.2 books per year, over one a month. These figures do not include pamphlets, ephemera, stationery, and other job printing that was regularly done.

National recognition came early and often: a gold medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (1926); an exhibition at the Huntington Library (1945); and an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution that travelled to Indianapolis, Washington, D. C., and San Francisco’s de Young Museum (1961-1963).

The Grabhorn Press closed in December 1965. The following summer, Robert and Jane formed a partnership with Andrew Hoyem, called Grabhorn-Hoyem, that lasted until their deaths in 1973. The imprint was changed to Arion Press, which has gone on to publish more than one hundred books. Located in the Presidio of San Francisco, the vast and distinctive holdings of type and equipment assembled by Edwin and Robert Grabhorn form the core collection of a working museum of printing and the book arts launched in 2001. Named in their honor, the non-profit Grabhorn Institute is devoted to education and the preservation of the nation’s most complete and fully functioning letterpress printing operation that includes a type foundry and hand bookbindery. The Grabhorn Institute is one of the supporters of this exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, with photographs of the Grabhorns and their associates and ten color plates of Grabhorn Press books. 

FORTHCOMING EXHIBITIONS:

  • September 16-November 21, 2015. “Alice in Translation.” Curated by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum.
  • December 9, 2015-February 6, 2016. “The Grolier Club Collects II.” Curated by Eric Holzenberg and Arthur Schwarz.
Image: Leaves of Grass, Comprising All the Poems Written by Walt Whitman, Following the Arrangement of the Edition of 1891-92. Woodcuts by Valenti Angelo. New York: Random House, 1930. 
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