Sorry Dante, This Purgatory is Different!: An Interview with Purgatory Pie Press

Baking is different from cooking in many ways. First of all, you don’t really need pastries to make it to the next day. They are all treats (some call them ‘guilts’ but why is that burden really?) you give to yourself and to your loved ones. Baking requires certain imagination, creativity and an urge for the alternative. Art books, in this sense, bear certain resemblance to baked goods. Unlike regular books, they require a further drive for more than ‘just being full’, triggering us to go for something more distinct, charging and bewildering. Esther K. Smith and Dikko Faust, the couple behind Purgatory Pie Press, know about both: scones and art books, enough to entertain their guests at their creative hubs with both sorts of gusto.

Oatmeal and apple scones by Esther herself

Oatmeal and apple scones by Esther herself

Started in 1977 in Wisconsin, Purgatory Pie Press is the lovechild of the couple’s unique approach to print-making, art books and typography. Bringing together some traditional methods and styles in print-making (not Helvetica because Dikko hates it), Purgatory Pie Press has been producing an amusing repertoire of works in print. Museums such as MoMA, The Whitney or The Tate are among the collectors of their editions of wide-ranging prints.

We sat down with Esther and Dikko in their TriBeCa studio where they have been pressing, drawing, sawing and cutting for more than 20 years.

Esther Smith at Purgatory Pie Press' TriBeCa studio

Esther Smith at Purgatory Pie Press’ TriBeCa studio

Osman: The emergence of Purgatory Pie Press (PPP) has an interesting story. Can you talk about that?

Esther: Dikko was studying Paper Making and Book Arts in Wisconsin, and it was the first day of his Book Type course. When he spilled the overfilled type case all around, it was what is called ‘to pie’ in typing jargon, meaning spilling one or two types on the floor; let alone a whole case. Taking him three and half full weeks (we are talking about sleeping at the studio here) to sort countless numbers of types into more than 60 different kinds of characters, Dikko started to feel like he was in Purgatory of pie-ing. Somewhere between a biblical punishment and a strict training, separating these rice-sized micro types back into their places gave Dikko the inspiration on working with them for many years to this day.

Osman: John Waters once famously said, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” What do books mean to you beyond their primal purposes?

Dikko: They are the gateways to another dimension.

Esther: The book as an object has an importance in a way that electronics and technology can’t replace. Online accessibility to any information is great on one hand. The practicality and availability of certain information online is undeniably a big element we admire. On the other hand, paper still is ‘what it is’ when the documental and, furthermore, the emotional aspects are considered. Judith Hoffberg who is an important figure in critical writing once said “I have books from my childhood that I still read today, but I have gone through six computers so far and each time I lost what’s stored in there.” Of course there is “back-up” and different methods to save the information in your electronic device but still, emails, texts or any electronically written material have ephemeral existence, making paper and whatever we write on it unique and valuable.

E-books should simply be for books you’re embarrassed to be reading (you know what they are) and James Joyce’s should be on bookshelves. The cover of a book is like a door, the endpaper is the hallway, and then you’re in another dimension. Books are four-dimensional with the intimate and sensual charge they transfer us in this sense. Even with an artwork on the wall, you are restricted by certain elements like the framing, the positioning on the wall and even the direction of the light. A book, on the other hand, is something you can touch, play and explore all by hand.

Harvey Redding, Harvey's House of Beauty, 2000; artist's book on queer identity

Harvey Redding, Harvey’s House of Beauty, 2000; the artist’s book on queer identity

Osman:  Esther, your infamous book How to Make Books is a guide on how to ‘make’ books, and E.K. Smith Museum is a conceptual project you have been working on for a long time. How did these two come out?

Esther: I had an obnoxious student at Cooper Union that made me think I could just turn this course into a book so that I wouldn’t have to deal with nerve-wracking people. Each class could be reflected to a chapter in the book and more people, not just students, could read it. In 2005 I was contacted by a former student who had started working at Random House’s Potter Crafts imprint, and she asked me if I could send her a presentation that night! I prepared a table of content on the uptown train the same day and sent it to her. They loved it. Dikko handled the typography and another former student of mine did the graphics, and we had How to Make Books on the shelves in November 2007.

E.K. Smith Museum, on the other hand, came out as a result of my way of receiving artist made postcards from Artists Postcards Inc. Dikko was working there and I knew they were sending artist design postcards to museums to create funding. The only way to get one was to be a museum so I created one; however I still couldn’t get a card because Dikko is a frank man.

Dikko and Esther in front of their traditional Peerless Gem paper cutter

Dikko and Esther in front of their traditional Peerless Gem paper cutter

Osman: Do you follow a curatorial approach to your future projects? How does ‘the museum’ relate to this approach?

Esther: I have always been interested in museum studies but I had a degree in Literature. Getting my dream museum job was not as easy as I had hoped it would be. When I was living in Chicago, I started an interest in aprons between my trips to thrift shops and antique stores. I started to collect aprons and exhibit on my living room walls. Aprons for me have an usual place in design and textile. They used to be mostly made by housewives that didn’t really have an important role in the professionally creative circles. They symbolize a different sort of aesthetic and creative drive compared to the widely accepted norms on design. They were made to wear on fancy 50s style dresses that no one wears anymore so they are purposeless at this point, turning them into historical objects that depict a certain lifestyle and culture. E.K. Smith Museum is not a physical museum that has a documentation aspect; it is a conceptual project and a blog. Linda Montano asked me to be a part of her Seven Years of Another 21 Years of Living Art project and I am using the idea of domesticity and aprons in this project as E.K. Smith Museum. Here at Purgatory Pie Press, I can say I also function as a curator in the contemporary sense, working with artists, determining the concepts and bring everything together.

To visit Purgatory Pie Press please click here.


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