The Passing of Roland Hoover, a Design Mentor

Roland Hoover, 1929–2018 (photo via  APHA Chesapeake Chapter )

Roland Hoover, 1929–2018 (photo via APHA Chesapeake Chapter)

Just got the news yesterday that Roland Hoover, a design mentor from college passed away at the age of 89. He was a letterpress printer and designer, known for his fine book and other printing. I knew him as my boss at the Yale University Printing Service where he was the University Printer. He was cranky and demanding, but generous and supportive—you know: a designer!

I learned an enormous amount from him, but my big failing was not studying letterpress printing with him. I thought at the time letterpress was going to be relegated to re-enactments, because of the end of metal-type production and spare parts. I’m so glad I was wrong, and we’re living in a renaissance of craft letterpress printing. (I wrote last year for Wired about why that’s happening.)

Very little of Roland's work can be found online, largely because most letterpress work is in limited editions and handed from person to person or retained by libraries. In more recent times, a lot of letterpress posters and cards can be purchased online, but Roland's work was often perishable or commemorative. Here's a notable piece celebrating Gutenberg.

The printing service was an oddball thing that I worked at as a senior and then for a year after graduation, running its "imaging center," which was what the typesetting department had effectively become. (I had a staff of one: a man 45 years old than me who was the onsite proofreader. I didn't need to do much supervision! Poor Walter, getting a 21-year-old as a boss!)

Roland's role was twofold: To run the place, which had a full offset printing plant and a photocopying and supply arm, and also a print broker arm of in-house staff that arranged for the many larger projects and books (not Yale Press ones) to get printed around the region; and to set a design tone and style for the university, producing and commissioning work as needed, and sometimes designing and printing posters himself. Roland was far better at the latter, and not terribly interested in the former, but had a great "lieutenant," Joe Maynard, who retired a few years ago after decades of service to Yale. Joe taught me a lot about business and negotiation.

Roland and I had a pretty solid relationship, even if I’m sure I drove him nuts. He had little interest in desktop publishing, and I already had five years' experience by 1990 in using PageMaker and then QuarkXPress nearly every day. But we made it work. He was interested in great typography, and so was I, and he taught me a lot of intricacies in thinking about design and how things look on paper. He appreciated the ability to turn ideas into type, but he didn’t always like the type that could be make or the composition that could be set at that time.

I also worked closely with Frank Tierney, the staff designer, and Roland on the re-creation of Yale College diplomas, ones awarded to undergraduates. For decades, a local printing firm produced diploma blanks by letterpress, and kept a Monotype hot-metal system alive mostly for Yale to set all the student names. I believe it cost $70,000 a year to print the undergraduate diplomas (about 1,200 a class at that time), and the outside printer wanted to or said it was going to dump its hot-metal system. We worked to transition to laser printing. This involved design testing and sending resulting work to the college library’s preservation department for age and heat testing to simulate conditions after 300 years. It passed. I spent a lot of time in spring 1991 feeding blank diplomas through a large-format Linotype-Hell laser printer. My Yale College class, 1990, received the last letterpress-printed diplomas; starting in 1991, they were laser printed (and I don’t know if that persisted nor how it’s done today).

Roland inspired my interest in the typeface Albertus, designed in the 1930s by Berthold Wolpe. Roland had a font (or more than one) in metal, and admired it quite a bit. When it came time for my senior project, I wanted to design a font. He and Greer Allen (the previous university printer who lived nearby and was in regularly with projects) suggested reviving Albertus, which at that point wasn’t available in any good form digitally. Greer also had known Wolpe—I’m not sure as well, but one of Wolpe’s kids recalls Greer and his wife Sue visiting when he was a child. (Monotype released an incomplete version that was derived from phototype; it wasn’t until last year that Toshi Omagari’s Monotype revival of Albertus, called Albertus Nova, fulfilled the face electronically.)

I took their advice, and named my version Furioso after the poem Orlando Furioso—Roland the Berserker. It was meant as a compliment, and I got plenty of great feedback from him as I worked up the font for decades. Roland’s inspiration led 30 years later to my trip to London last year and the book London Kerning, which is partly dedicated to Wolpe and Albertus, and which led me to meet Toshi, the revival designer, and Wolpe’s youngest son, Toby, a fellow technology editor and writer.

Roland was a tremendous influence on my creative life, and while I hadn’t been in touch in decades, I still regularly think about the advice he gave me, and use it in my practice.