Thursday Spotlight: What’s He Building In There? Daniel Gardiner Morris of The Arm
On a quiet stretch of North 7th Street, neighboring the BQE, in the shadows of rising condominiums, lies a glass-front, converted warehouse space. There’s no signage, no buzzer, and from the outside, it’s unclear what is going on inside: a handful of people hover over large gray machines, operating levers and rolling cranks. With just a little imagination it could be a white-walled submarine or some kind of steel widget factory.
“I’ve never hung a sign out front,” says the founder and owner, Daniel Gardiner Morris. “When I have events, I have a little A-Frame sign that I’ll sometimes put on the sidewalk. It’s almost maybe superstitious at this point that I’ve never put a sign up.”
Not knowing what they do in there is one thing. Not knowing it’s there is another—it’s been at that same location since opening in 2004.
Inside, the space is awash in daylight from the large windows. The room itself is longer than it is wide, and lined with silver and grey metal machines, rollers attached, a few rustic wooden cabinets, and in the middle of the room is a grouping of tables topped with posters and wood blocks and artist tools.
Is it beginning to come together? Yes! It’s The Arm (281 N 7th St), Williamsburg’s longstanding public access letterpress studio, which Daniel Gardiner Morris has owned and operated for nearly 15 years.
“In 2004 it was pretty cheap,” Morris says of New York City. “Well, not cheap, but it was accessible. And this neighborhood [Williamsburg, Brooklyn] was scruffy and weird and that appealed to me. It seemed like a place that could use some printing presses. And I got here, staying with Ian and Matt [of Japanther], and I rode around on my bike looking for signs for rent. Looked at some different things that didn’t pan out and then found this dude on Craigslist who had these ridiculous ads, I had been ignoring his ads because they were totally stupid. He had really really bad Photoshop skills and he would Photoshop some elephants into a warehouse and say ‘a great place to store your elephants—Justin, the loft ninja’ and then I finally checked him out. He was like, ‘What do you wanna do?’ And I told him and he said, ‘I have just the right spot for you. Meet me there.’
“And I got here first and he rolled up on an electric scooter—which in 2004 is way way way more ridiculous than in 2017—and then this guy walking twenty paces behind him unlocks the roller door and puts it up and there was no glass, it was just an open metal roller door and a cage kind of swing out thing that was all rusted and the inside was just raw concrete floors, filth, rat shit, just all one big open room. And I talked to them both about what I wanted to do here and my vision for building it out and they were into it so I filled out the paperwork right away and locked it in and that was the beginning.”
Just a few years after leasing the space and opening up shop, Morris was invited to teach printmaking at Cooper Union and effectively ran the school’s letterpress shop until 2014. “When they switched from full scholarship to a tuition model,” Morris says. “And I opted not to travel along on that ride.”
Morris was “pretty involved” in the protests, what he calls “the rebellion against” the decision that the school would begin charging tuition after operating tuition-free for most of its history. “It felt dirty and ugly and I made it very clear from the beginning that I wouldn’t work there a day with students who paid to be there,” Morris says. “And that day came and I had to go.”
Since then, he’s been operating The Arm full-time.
But it’s been a journey to say the least, starting back in the late nineties when Morris was a high school student in Annapolis, Maryland. Even earlier, actually.
“My family has a history with letterpress printing,” Morris says. “Going back to my great-grandfather. I think he even took over the company from his father. That was my initial exposure to it: going to visit my grandfather at his print shop. As all my friends were getting into making music, I was taking photos and also starting to realize there was a use for printing. So right at the end of high school I did an apprenticeship with a letterpress printer in Baltimore city who worked with hand-composed type and helped him out with some book projects he was working on. He was doing work that was mostly for his church, things that didn’t really relate to what I was interested in, but the tools were the same. I helped him sporadically, as he had projects, for a year or so. He then introduced me to someone who was selling a press and helped me find some of my first type and I set up a little shop in the back of a friend’s machine shop in Annapolis and did some stuff with some friends bands, and packaged some CDs… it was the late 90s! CDs and packaging seem so trivial now.”
After meeting some Australians while traveling in Italy, Morris was inspired to move to Australia for university and started studying architecture. But in that field Morris felt like he was “boxing himself in” and he shifted towards design, taking art and textile classes. When he finished school, in 2004, he moved back to the United States, but rather than Annapolis, he came to New York City. “I had been away so long there was no other place where I still knew people. And my Australian friends were piling in here too.” But the first thing he did was bring all his letterpress equipment up from Maryland.
In the early days, Morris was “filling in the gaps” at The Arm letterpress studio by doing things like offering button making for bands, and helping to set up someone else’s letterpress studio in the city.
Over the years he’s maintained a welcoming, successful space for people to make work and express themselves, even as those expressions change and evolve. “Whatever interests I have or whatever changes exist in society there’s always a need to express words,” Morris says. “And these tools can do it in a way that suits how my mind works. Like, in the George Bush era we were printing all sorts of crazy posters, having weird events here, trying to rally the troops in a way. And that was great. I feel like during the Obama administration it felt a little cozier, so I feel like the type of printing changed a lot. The work happening here felt a little more commercial. It didn’t feel as aggressive… maybe complacent? Now, all of a sudden it’s fury again but these tools are great for really doing anything as long as you want to make some posters… They’re not really reinforcing an aesthetic, it’s just a set of tools for expression. I feel like I always have things I want to express. And I want to always be surrounded by people who are thinking and acting on ideas. It’s almost more than the printing, it creates an environment full of people who I really want to be around, who are making things that are finding an audience or market and, yeah, my days at work are great. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life where I couldn’t really say that. But here I get here I make some coffee, and I look on the calendar to see who’s coming in to work and pick out a record and the days are great.”
For nearly 14 years, Morris has operated The Arm in Williamsburg as the entire city changes and evolves around him. “It used to be that this neighborhood was full of artists and weirdos,” Morris says. “And now those people have been pushed out and priced out and the people who are arriving are crossing the river to go to work at jobs that have pretty conventional structures. Some of those people want something weird to do outside of those hours…’”
That said, Morris is the first to admit there’s always room to change it up. He doesn’t see a lot of younger people coming in anymore. “It’s important that it continues to connect with new people because being in New York, as you know, a lot of people come and go,” Morris elaborates. “There are people who print here once a year, there are people who print here for a very long time and then have kids and disappear on me forever, there are people whose jobs transfer them to San Francisco, so I do have to work to engage with a new audience just to keep it healthy.”
On most Sundays The Arm offers a six-hour class as a general introduction to the studio and the tools, with the goal being to get people confident enough with printing that they can come in with a project of their own during open studio hours (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) and reserve time and print projects. And there’s always someone on hand to help or assist.
Dan has helped people print everything from political posters to wood type prints to baby announcements and wedding invitations. “We used to see a lot of business cards jobs from digital artwork that gets trimmed down at the end, but people don’t seem to be networking as much with paper business cards. I feel like I get two inquiries for business cards in a year when I used to get two in a day. With design and art, people network more with their Instagram accounts than they do handing out cards.”
According to Morris, the vast majority of people printing at The Arm are designing digitally and sending their art files out to a plate-making service and then bringing in relief plates and paper, mixing in-house inks, and printing on their presses. “And that means that they can arrive here with something ready to go for the press,” he says. “And they aren’t limited by our type collection. And they don’t have to put the type away when they’re finished printing, they can just recycle their plates. It also means they have total control over what their art looks like and see a digital proof.”
In the coming months, The Arm will also be offering Risograph printing workshops and booklet printing workshops, after acquiring two identical Risograph printers.
That said, you’re most welcome to handset your own metal type to print with from The Arm’s extensive collection of typefaces. Morris jokingly points out a massive cabinet with a dozen drawers holding countless letters. “Different sizes, italics, bolds,” he says. “That’s 800 pounds of Perpetua.” He turns to another, larger cabinet and laughs. “That’s 1,200 pounds of Bembo. Hope you really like Bembo!”
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