UCDA is saddened to hear that our good friend and colleague Mo passed away peacefully on June 25, 2017. Our thoughts are with his wife, Loretta, daughters, Ronni and Judy, family, and his countless friends and fans.
Mo Lebowitz plays bluegrass music. He writes wine reviews. He’s a big fan of Mozart. But above all, Mo knows type.
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 letterpress type.
Do these interests present a paradox? Not to Mo. 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.
Mo Lebowitz, the proprietor, or “Prop,” of the Antique Press, established in 1960.
Mo Lebowitz was born in Washington, DC, and earned a BA degree from the University of Maryland. He worked in the Washington area as an agency art director, and then moved to New York in 1960, where he served consecutively as art director for American Machine & Foundry, Savitt Studios, and Needham, Louis & Brorby. In 1965, he joined Al Ross as a partner at The Design Organization.
Mo then opened his own design office, specializing in, among other things, the promotion and packaging of wine. However, he may have produced his most creative work in the basement of his North Bellmore, Long Island, home as the proprietor, or “Prop,” of the Antique Press, established in 1960. With an eclectic collection of letterpress equipment and fonts of metal and wood type, he produced a steady stream of broadsides, pamphlets, invitations, holiday cards, posters, and other ephemera that were widely collected by his friends and acquaintances in the graphic design community.
Mo Lebowitz working with the Antique Press.
Left: Mo early in his design career. Right: Mo as a guest speaker at the 1972 UCDA Design Conference.
In an interview published in Print magazine in 1964, Mo made this observation: “This idea of craftsmanship is, I think, the secret of my passion for the press. Craft has gone out the window these days. You find relatively few people who are interested enough in types, in papers, in production methods, in wanting to be all-around craftsmen. In the everyday graphic world in New York, there isn’t the time to let a man sit down and ‘noodle’ something, to work meticulously and lovingly on a job, carrying it through from beginning to end.”
As he approached retiring from full-time design, 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 the University & College Designers Association and the UCDA Foundation, 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 and 1977 UCDA Design Conferences, Mo has himself been a member of UCDA for many years. j.Charles and Mo both knew the collection belonged at Kent State. In 2004, “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 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.”
“Mo Lebowitz and the Antique Press” exhibition opening at the School of Art at Kent State University.
Loretta and Mo Lebowitz with the Antique Press at Kent State University.
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.”
Continuing his philosophy of giving back and wanting to get this amazing body of work into hands of students—to study, learn, and be inspired—copies of the work produced by the Antique Press have been donated to universities as well as the UCDA Foundation. Richard Jividen, the foundation’s president stated, “The UCDA Foundation is proud to be entrusted with this amazing collection and to be able to share it with UCDA members and others for years to come. Mo Lebowitz has a way of marrying concept and execution with unhurried graphic care. Plus most of the work is just so damn funny!”
The collection consists of examples of Mo Lebowitz’s printed work, consisting of 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. He regularly employed display types and nineteenth-century ornaments and illustration cuts, in addition to articulated elements, die-cut papers, and applied objects including beans, wine corks, and commercial antacids.
Some announcements and invitations document exhibitions of Lebowitz’s work, lectures he presented, and awards that he received from professional organizations. Folders of letterhead, invitations, and announcements reveal work produced for friends and clients. 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 the 1960s and 1970s. The collection also includes a copy of Folio Ten: The Antique Press / Mo Lebowitz, Prop., an undated booklet about the presus published by the Sanders Printing Corporation in New York.
“I started to live the way of my press,” Mo remembers. “It’s not just printing I am interested in, it’s living. People ask me how’s my wife, my kids (Ronni and Judy) and my press—the three most important things to me.” His wife Loretta has been standing and working by his side for all of it, from typing out addresses for his mailings to playing bluegrass music. Loretta and Mo enjoy some picking and singing whenever they get the chance.
“Nobody ever told me how to print,” said Lebowitz. “The press changed my whole life. It gave me a chance to write and to speak to people and keep alive a dying craft.”
The UCDA Award, created in 1995, is presented by the UCDA board of directors in recognition of those who have donated their valuable time, service and support to further UCDA’s goals. Individuals receiving this award have significantly contributed to this organization’s success. In 2013, UCDA presented the award to Mo Lebowitz. Mo accepted the award during the annual UCDA Design Conference—41 years after Mo first was a guest speaker at the same event. (See video presentation of Mo and his work from the 2013 award presetation.)
Left: Mo Lebowitz accepting the UCDA Award at the 2013 UCDA Design Conference. (photo by Matt Lester). Right: The UCDA Award among Mo's other awards on display at his home.
Left: Mo and Loretta take part in a printmaking workshop as part of the UCDA Design Conference, 2013. Center: UCDA and the UCDA Foundation Executive Director Tadson Bussey with Mo and Loretta (photo by Matt Lester). Right: Mo talking about type.
In his “semi-retirement,” Mo devoted time to his other passions: wine and bluegrass music. Mo certainly didn’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 would get together for evenings of long dinners and bluegrass music.
Mo, Loretta, and three of their bluegrass friends provided their own entertainment for the opening of the Kent State exhibit. Mo sang lead vocals, rounding out the image of a man who not only knows art, but can create and perform art as well. 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 added.
Mo, Loretta, and three of their bluegrass friends provided their own entertainment for the opening of the Kent State exhibit.
Below are just a few of the hundreds of works created by Mo Lebowitz and the Antique Press. Works shown are part of the UCDA Foundation’s Mo and Loretta Lebowitz Collection. Gift of Mo and Loretta Lebowitz.
Left: The Complete Sherlock Holmes (A small segment of the book of Sherlock), size: 11" x 17"
Right: Fish and Bull.
Left: EADG (The notes used in tuning our new fiddle. When Mo plays, it sounds more like EGAD), size: 12.25" x 16.25"
Right: Food & music, a natural combination.
Left: A Fish for Dinner (When the Prop. and wife visited Los Angeles, they poached a dinner from Mr. & Mrs. Saul Bass), size 17.5" x 22.5"
Right: A Blind Taste Test (Even the experts look like fools at a blind tasting)
Above: Two of the countless invitations Mo would design and print for his daughters Judy and Ronni.
Above: 12345ETC (Mo Lebowitz is now working all by himself...), size 4.5" x 11"
Above: “What hair?”
Left: Wood (Mo has been gathering and sorting various wood types and naming them.) Size: 11" x 17"
Right: Move the tab...
Left: Cough, size: 8.5" x 11"
Right: The Prop’s social set...
Above: 1969 Was A Very Good Year (Any way you look at it, it look a good year at the Antique Press), size: 17.5" x 22.5"
Photos and images courtesy of the Mo and Loretta Lebowitz Collection, UCDA Foundation, and Tadson Bussey.