A visit to the Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication in Lyon, France

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of having two days to wander solo around Lyon, France. It almost goes without saying because it's France, but Lyon is a beautiful city! It's full of unique old buildings, Roman ruins, antique book shops and cafés serving fresh crêpes. 

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Before going there, I was looking at a list of attractions and, of course, the Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication (Musée de l'imprimerie et de la communication graphique) stood out to me on the list of attractions. I happily spent lovely June afternoon there learning about books and printing.

Here's what the museum looks like from the outside:

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It was founded in 1964 and is one of the leading European printing museums. It's housed in a beautiful Renaissance building, Lyon’s first town hall. Here's how the courtyard looks:

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The museum has a large permanent exhibit (schedule at least three hours for it, if you're planning a visit) as well as a temporary exhibit (when I was there, it was an Andy Warhol exhibit). Everything in the permanent exhibit is excellently translated into English, but the temporary exhibit was set up mostly for French speakers (English translations were available on paper sheets, but they were a bit hard to understand.)

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There's a gift shop at the entrance / exit and as would be expected, most all the flyers and booklets in their giveaway stand were colorful and gorgeously designed.

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The permanent exhibit at the museum is divided up into the following sections:

  1. The beginning of printing (before 1450)
  2. The invention of letterpress printing by Gutenberg (1450-1500)
  3. Printing and the Renaissance (1500-1600)
  4. Printmaking
  5. Printing in the hand press period (1600-1800)
  6. The industrial revolution (1800-1900)
  7. Photography and printing in color (1850-1900)
  8. The graphic revolution (1880-1945)
  9. The information society (1950-…)
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It was a fascinating visit and I'll just share some interesting facts and photos from the museum, in more or less chronological order. This is in no way a comprehensive look at the permanent exhibit — it's just some tidbits that stood out to me.

Watermarking has been used by papermakers in Europe since the 13th century. The main purpose of watermarking was to differentiate paper from competitors’ paper. The watermark would often be a symbol indicating the paper’s characteristics and origin.

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Until the middle of the 15th century, books in Europe could only be copied by hand or by using woodcuts. “In the latter case each page of text was treated as if it was an image and then printed by hand by rubbing the back of a sheet of paper placed on the inked surface of the woodcut.” The invention of letterpress printing “is regarded as one of the foundations of modern society”. Although Koreans were already using moveable type moulded in sand, Gutenberg in Germany created metal type that was precise and regular in appearance. Because the size of each piece of type was standardized, the final printing surface was perfectly flat and this led to the invention of the printing press in Germany.

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Letterpress printing was born in Mainz, Germany in the 1440s and by approximately 1458 it was in Strasbourg, and 1459 in Bamberg. The first print shop in Lyon was operating from 1473 onward.

Printing spread quickly, and by the end of the 15th century, more than 250 towns in Europe had print shops. The two most important centers of production by that time were outside of Germany: Venice and Paris were putting out the most titles. 

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The work of an early press operator was very difficult. The hours were extremely long (14-hour work days in the summer) and the operator did not need to know how to read. The compositors — the ones putting the moveable type together into flats that could be printed — needed to be sufficiently educated and therefore were paid higher salaries than the press operators.

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Have you ever thought about how many type-related terms have Italian names? This is because Italy had a great influence on the early typesetting and printing industries. The earliest printers in Germany were using Gothic letters (see photo above) based on type styles from medieval manuscripts. However the Italians were quick to create a new "Humanist" style, using lowercase letters invented in Italy in the 8th century (the “Carolingian minuscule”) and the capital letter style seen on Roman monuments. The Germans arriving in Italy began to use the Humanist typeface style as well, and gradually the German printers in Rome created a typeface called “Roman”. “Italics” also came from Italy, although in Italy italics are known as “corsivo” (cursive).

It took more than three quarters of a century for the book to go from a manuscript format to a printed style of its own. Certain elements began to be established, like the title page, and identifying information which indicated who produced the book. Pages began to be numbered; running headers were invented to give guidance to the reader. 

Rags were commonly used for the creation of paper for several centuries. More than 80 kinds of vegetable matter were mixed with rags in attempts to make an affordable paper. Inventors tried thistle, maize, nettle, straw, pinecone, potato and more! By 1870, paper made from wood came into widespread use. At the time, newspapers were flourishing and affordable paper was needed.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientific and technical books were sought after by the educated public. Botany, medicine, anatomy, and history became topics that any educated individual could learn about from the printed materials that were appearing on each topic. Traditionally, skills and knowledge in art and architecture were transmitted only from master to pupil in a workshop, but soon those masters began to have to compete with printed manuals conveying the same information. Skills that were once transmitted orally or by everyday practice were beginning to be transferred theoretically through printed materials. For example, dressmakers' patterns could be printed and distributed with greater ease (see image below).

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So much of what is taken for granted in our digital era was a complicated process in the early days of printing. Re-sizing one image during the 1800s could take several hours on a device like the one below:

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Three-color printing was invented in 1719. This was particularly helpful for making scientific illustrations more readable; previously any color had to be added by hand. But until the 19th century, coloured printed images remained rare and expensive. Only with the invention of chromolithography in the early 1800s could good quality images begin to be reproduced on an industrial scale, using CMYK. Chromolithography really took off in the 1860s and was used until the 1950s.

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As color printing became more popular, the travel industry began to use color posters to advertise trips to exotic destinations like Algeria and Tunisia. (It's hard to even imagine a travel advertisement today that doesn't use color!)

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The industrial revolution led to the graphic revolution. As industrial capitalism grew, the need for marketing, advertising and “brand image” promotion grew. At this time, advertisers and printers began to need the help of graphic artists.

In the 19th century, advertisements had been regarded with mistrust, but by the end of the century, publicity became one of the driving forces behind consumption. Publicity agents became popular in the early 20th century, taking complete charge of ad campaigns. Instead of simply informing customers, their job became to persuade them. In France, the poster was a very popular form of advertising and it remains a more popular form of advertising in France than in other nearby countries to this day.

Posters and graphic communication were also used for a lot of propaganda during the turbulent eras of World Wars 1 and 2.

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The title “graphic designer” became standard only recently, but was invented in 1922 by an American type-designer named William Addison Dwiggins.

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During the second half of the 20th century, graphic communication changed radically as printing, production of administrative documents, and information technology merged. Computers changed the rules of the game. Printers incorporated computers into typesetting and page layout IT networks. Desktop publishing began in 1984 with the launch of the Apple Macintosh. The ability to print in-house revolutionized the printing industry. 

I thought this sentence near the end of the museum's exhibit summarized how radical the changes have been to the printing and graphic communications industry in just a few decades: “Today the simplest personal computer provides even the most modest user with graphic tools far more powerful and productive than the specialized machines and systems used by the printing industry before the digital revolution.” It's a fun era in which to be a communicator, book designer or graphic designer — we've come a long way! And if you're even a "modest user" of page layout software or printers, the Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication is worth your while if you visit Lyon!