The Hamilton Wood Type Museum in rural Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a struggling industrial town on Lake Michigan about an 90 minutes north of Milwaukee, houses over 1.5 million wood letterforms. Currently, these letters are not behind glass or partitions, but are instead organized and available for the layperson or artist to consider, hold, and if they attend a workshop, use for printing. The Museum occupies a portion of the original Hamilton Company type factory building, residing there free of charge to heighten Two Rivers’ cultural status.
The Wood Type Museum’s existence has become critical to a subset of the international art and design community who is passionate about the history of typography and its function in the contemporary field. While people have been zealous about printing since Gutenberg’s first press, the scenario at the Hamilton Museum illustrates an intriguing convergence: the historical transformation of a craft having evolved from a practical, commerce-driven commodity to an object of aesthetic inspiration and academic study. Through the museum and workshops in Two Rivers, wood type now has a direct influence on today’s contemporary art and graphic design. This museum is a regional institution of particular importance to Illinois’ artistic community, especially in Chicago. One weekend each month, the quiet of Two Rivers and the sedate atmosphere of the museum are interrupted as carloads of artisans drive up from Illinois. The museum comes alive as monthly printmaking workshops led by, and filled with, some of the region’s top creative talent descend on the sleepy enclave and set it awhirl.
Stacey Stern, a printing instructor at Columbia College and the owner of a small Chicago letterpress company, leads workshops at Hamilton whenever she can. “It’s such an inspiring place—so much of the creativity I feel there comes back with me into my Chicago studio. I hope we can keep the workshops going.” This story will provide insight into a fascinating chapter in American design history, touching on the often-amusing culture clash that regularly takes place in this small Midwestern town, and examining the complex roles that museums play in our society.