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Mo Lebowitz is best known for his letterpress studio, the Antique Press, from which his work in hand-set type has garnered him awards too many to count. For 40 years, Mo’s presses have been in daily use, printing the pieces that made his work known to numerous fans. Not constructed for home use, his original press, a 10" x 15" Chandler & Price, nearly did not make the trip from Baltimore to New York. After his own car broke down from the weight, Mo loaded the press in his wife’s car for the remainder of the trip (Loretta’s car made it). An elaborate series of pulleys helped guide the press to the basement, and was installed safely. “I thought the porch roof was going to cave in,” Mo remembers. One press is not enough for an enthusiast, however, and a 25" x 38" Vandercook press (used by the New York Times to pull full-page newspaper proofs) and a turn-of-the-century Franklin-Gordon platen press soon followed. And a press is not a press without type—more than 300 drawers of wood and metal type turned paper and ink into works of art.

The collection consists of Mo Lebowitz’s printed work — ephemeral pieces that celebrate his interest in cigars, food, wine, bluegrass and classical music, literary characters, and acquisitions of equipment for his press. Much of the collection consists of whimsical and humorous promotion of Lebowitz’s shop, travels, and personal life, in the form of announcements printed as cards, broadsides, posters, and pamphlets, as well as on paper napkins and bags, hang tags, sheets of plastic, tissue, and a wide variety of other substrates. Some announcements and invitations document exhibitions of Lebowitz’s work, lectures he presented, and awards that he received from professional organizations. Several pieces in the collection refer to The Design Organization, Lebowitz’s partnership with Al Ross. A few items are dated; most are not, but were produced in the 1960s and 1970s. The collection also includes other design work, set-ups, and correspondence.

In 2004, Mo Lebowitz presented the UCDA Foundation with the majority of his printed materials, and the contents of his letterpress shop to the School of Visual Communication Design at Kent State University.

It is hard not to resort to the words “renaissance man” to describe Mo Lebowitz. His talents lie in art, writing, wine tasting, music, and he is not too shabby when it comes to software expertise, either. His Mac G5 coexists peacefully with his favorite pieces of wood type, and his acclaimed letterpress work resides next to his award-winning design for the Long Island Mac Users group newsletter.

Do these interests present a paradox? Not to Mo. As he approached retirement from full-time design (well, “semi-retirement,” says Mo), he began looking for a new home for his press collection. “These presses were meant to be used, and if I wasn’t going to use them every day, they needed a new home. The best thing I could do is to give them to a school.” He put out feelers for an educational institution with the space and resources to keep the presses running, and the design sensibility to know what a treasure the presses are. When Tadson Bussey, executive director of UCDA, heard of Mo’s desire to donate his collection, he contacted j.Charles Walker, Kent State University’s chair of its School of Visual Communication Design and faculty leader of KSUCDA summer workshops. A guest speaker at the 1972 UCDA Annual Conference, Mo has himself been a member of UCDA for many years. j.Charles and Mo both knew the collection belonged at Kent State. In April, “Mo Lebowitz and the Antique Press” exhibition opened at the School of Art at Kent State. Billed as a “collection of posters, broadsides, and other delightful ephemera,” the exhibition showcased Mo and Loretta’s entire collection of presses, type, and other equipment that made up the Antique Press, and two copies of every piece in Mo’s portfolio. “Well, almost the entire collection,” Mo admits. “I had to keep some of my wood type. I kept some of my favorites from Europe—it’s a thrill just to touch them.” As he has told countless students at his guest lectures at every major art school in the country, “You have to get your hands into type. The computer is fine, but you must learn how to work with type with your hands first.” Mo describes a curriculum of hand-drawing letterforms, over and over, until the hand-eye connection made the letter “stick” in his mind. “If you can see the type in your mind, when you need a headline the whole thing will just pop into your head.” The computer is fine for setting type, according to Mo, but only after someone has learned to set type by hand. “The problem is, if the type doesn’t fit on the screen, people will kern it too tight, or take the type down a quarter point. You have to be very careful about this—maybe your type wasn’t meant to be kerned.” Changing the proportions of a typeface that was meticulously hand-lettered before being rendered electronically can destroy all the beauty of a font. “Of course, there are a lot of dangerous, ugly fonts out there as well,” Mo says. “Take one good font, like Franklin Gothic, buy it in light to extra bold, roman and condensed, and you can go a long way. One good sans serif can be made to fit into almost anything.” His Mac came with 250 fonts installed, and he uses about 10 consistently.

In his “semi-retirement,” Mo devotes time to his other passions: wine and bluegrass music. His quarterly wine column for Drinks magazine, which he has been writing since 1966, highlights great wines for under $10. (Even this interest cannot escape Mo’s passion for design: he has created custom wine labels on his letterpress for a winemaker seeking an unique look. And there are the regular ads in the New York Times for the wine stores Bottle Buys, Bottle Bargains, and Bottles and Cases, all created by Mo.)

Mo certainly doesn’t dwell in the past, but his choice of musical instruments predates the guitar in the way the letterpress predates the computer: his bluegrass tool of choice is the mandolin. He and his wife, Loretta, and their friends get together for evenings of long dinners and bluegrass music.

When asked about his advice to other designers, Mo challenges them to “Make words be the picture. That’s the challenge,” he says. And don’t be afraid to fail. “Saul Bass once told me, ‘The best thing that can happen is you make a mistake,’” Mo says. “I’m always open to accidents. It’s exciting.”

Mo compares knowing type to being an expert on oranges. “After a while being an orange taster, you can pick one up and just know,” he says. “Good use of type gives you that feeling. You just know. I just love seeing a nice page of type,” he adds.

More on Mo Lebowitz.

Gift of Mo and Loretta Lebowitz