Whether you realize it or not, chances are good that you’ve seen an image created by the Colby Poster Printing Company. The family-owned print shop cranked out posters from 1948 until 2012 and Colby’s signature fluorescent inks and bold, all-caps typography could be found plastered throughout Los Angeles. Some posters read like cryptic Zen commandments (“GIVE THE JOY BACK”), others were comically crass (“BATTLE OF THE BIG BOOTIES!”), others would now be considered coveted and valuable historical artifacts (“SEX PISTOLS AT FAIRFAX THEATER”). Despite becoming an integral part of L.A.’s street aesthetic, the all-manual print shop didn’t survive the digital age, and closed its doors in December of 2012.
Luckily, a new book–In the Good Name of the Company: Artworks and Ephemera Produced by or in Tandem with the Colby Printing Company–preserves Colby’s fluorescent legacy, featuring more than 300 full-color photographs of the company’s prints.
The book comes on the heels of an extensive exhibition at ForYourArt in L.A. last February. “Since they were a merchant print shop, the company didn’t see what they did as art, and never created an archive of their own work,” says exhibition curator and co-author Brian Roettinger, an L.A.-based artist and graphic designer. “At the end of each year, they would throw away everything they had done.”
With co-authors Christopher Michlig and Jan Tumlir, Roettinger helped save the company from obscurity by creating an archive for Colby. He befriended the company’s owners and they helped him compile a visual history of their beloved business. Roettinger also gathered posters from the countless artists who had posters printed by Colby and considered the posters their art.
Roettinger grew up in L.A., surrounded by Colby’s ubiquitous neon. Intrigued by the designs, he one day called the company to see if he could buy posters from them directly. “Uh, we don’t sell posters, we just make them,” he says they told him.
So Roettinger began carefully removing every Colby poster he saw and amassing a collection. “If you wanted one of Colby’s posters, you had to steal it,” he tells Co.Design. His collection evolved into the exhibition at ForYourArt, and then into this book.
Part of what makes the Colby posters interesting is that the employees of the company had no formal training in graphic design–they were members of the letterpress union, the screen printers union, and the typesetters union. “They were kind of naïve, breaking what most typographers would think is every rule,” Roettinger says. They mixed typefaces and consistently used all caps. But this lowbrow approach resulted in a minimal, bold, and no-nonsense aesthetic that was always eye-catching and surprising. “My favorite poster is always one that I haven’t seen yet,” Roettinger says. “Every time I see one I haven’t seen, it becomes my new favorite.”
In the Good Name of the Company: Artworks and Ephemera Produced by or in Tandem with the Colby Printing Company is available here for $26.
[Images courtesy of Picturebox]