From Tattoos to Black Hearts
“A printer’s blood is black as ink” claims Kon with a devilish grin. I’m instantly captured by the poetry laced through macabre words. Meet Konstantin Grab and Alex Kasavin – the pitch black attired duo of letterpress and specialty printer Coeur Noir and secret romantics at heart.
A walk through the Coeur Noir workshop is a step into history, straight back to the 50s and 60s - the golden industrial-ridden age of the printing press. The smell of freshly inked paper mixes with that of oil and machinery. Over the assaulting drone of the metallic monsters spitting out print jobs, Alex and Kon talk origins of Coeur Noir.
“We were big fans of Harry Crosby and the Black Sun Press and we loved the iconography. With the black heart thing, we went through a thousand other iterations. Finally we actually stumbled across the Harry Cosby iconography of a little black sun and we said: That’s Amazing! What if we did a little black heart?”
But despite the intent to creatively name their upstart with an image, their research uncovered some problems. “We came to the realisation that we couldn’t officially file a company with as an image. You have to have an original Name.”
“So we like OK, black heart. What the hell do we do with black heart? Joan Jett had taken care of copyright on everything that said black heart up and down.”
“So then you went French?”
“Actually we had given up on it, and we were listening to a song by a band called Death in June. You familiar with them? Kind of post-apocalyptic fascist folk music. But in one of the songs, a line goes: Il est dans le coeur noir. And we were like: There you go, Coeur Noir! But of course impossible to spell and no one remembers what it is.”
“Unless you understand French and then it has a nice ring to it.”
“Yeah! Well, it can. Not for everyone you talk to. Venders are like: coyer-noyer? And I have to spell it twenty times a day to customers. But it’s worth it, it sticks, and I think it was Arnold Schwarzenegger that said that the harder your name is to pronounce, the harder it is to forget or something like that. So that’s how we got to the black heart.”
With the backstory behind Coeur Noir, Alex and Kon show me around the floor, giving insight behind projects and each piece of machinery. The walls of their printery are lined with type specimens dating back to the mid-1940s and they admit that despite the bygone years, the prints still continue to inspire.
Yet nostalgic professionalism is hardly their idyllic world. Recent developments in the New York printing scene has seen the unfortunate proliferation of under qualified hobbyists. They capitalise on the rediscovery of letterpress printing, “mucking things up for trained professionals by way of unseasoned price quotes and sub-par standards of quality.” The result? Artists and designers growing weary of specialty printing.
Nonetheless, the duo have drawn an extremely high expectation of quality, and they’ve held that line taut. Today, their reputation precedes them, guaranteed by their prints landing in prestigious galleries including MOMA. Coeur Noir also prepares to successfully celebrate their official 10 year anniversary come August. But for now with a fresh print order coming in over the phone, I leave the team to man the machines and I arm up with my camera to explore their Williamsburg workshop.
Gabriel: What brought each of you to NYC?
Kon: Alex originally moved to NY to pursue a career in the publishing world. I moved out a couple of years later to open Coeur Noir.
Gabriel: So going all the way back, what’s the story on how you two met?
Kon: We met at a friend’s house party in high school. Alex and I are both Russian by ancestry and we got into a conversation about the tattoo of the Russian Imperial Eagle I have on my arm while drinking 40ozs on the porch.
Gabriel: When you first opened Coeur Noir, you said it had an authentic 50s look. What did that look like?
Kon: Our palate was battleship grey, black and wood. All the furniture were carefully curated 50′s modern (Jens Risom floating top walnut desks, Eames conference table and fibreglass chairs, etc) to match the era of our equipment. We also framed and hung period-appropriate type specimen sheets around the studio that were published by paper companies to show off the quality and printability of their paper.
These specimen sheets were some of the earliest examples of modern graphic design by the likes of Eric Gill, Hermann Zapf and W.A. Dwiggins, who is actually credited with coining the term “graphic design”. We hung them to inspire us. We told ourselves that we would not hang any of our own work on the walls until we did something that was worthy of hanging next to the work of these masters. We’ve yet to hang any.
Gabriel: It was music inspiring the printery name correct? Does music still continue to inspire your work today?
Kon: I don’t know if music inspires our work today per se because being a trade shop, our job is to faithfully realise the creative visions of the designers with whom we work, but from metal to experimental noise to 90′s Bay Area rap, there’s always something blaring in the background to help us while away the hours.
Gabriel: What’s so exceptional to you about machines, ink, and paper?
Kon: There’s something very visceral and satisfying about commanding a massive piece of machinery and meticulously coaxing it into producing something as fine as a line of perfectly inked type on a pristine sheet of paper. The process is almost violent, but the finished product can be very delicate. I find that dichotomy to be romantic in its own way.
Gabriel: What are some inspirational items here in the printery?
Kon: A newly acquired broadside that was given to us as a gift. It’s a reproduction of Beatrice L. Warde’s famous “This is a Printing Office” broadside originally created to showcase Eric Gill’s then-new titling face Perpetua in 1932. It’s not so much the broadside itself, but the quote that inspires me.The second is a quote on one of the aforementioned type specimens that’s hanging in the studio for a font called Bulmer, originally designed and cut for the printer William Bulmer by William Martin at the Shakespeare Press in 1786. The quote goes:
“Of all the arts, printing may be said to be the most conservative since its function is to conserve thought and thus serve another art. Its governing conventions are not merely “time honored” but evolved from practical considerations. Within these, there is boundless scope for the application of taste and the sense of order, but little place for the exercise of the oddities so frequently mistaken for originality.”
IMHO, every graphic design student should be required to memorise this quote before they’re allowed to graduate.