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Rick Griffith has designs on Denver. Bold ones.

Rick Griffith has designs on Denver. Bold ones.
Cover photo by Eric Magnussen
Rick Griffith

The admonition greets visitors as they arrive for MATTER's eleventh annual print sale and party. High on a wall of the design studio's cavernous warehouse space on Market Street, the two-color screen-print poster warns in severely modified Helvetica Bold: "You may not steal the font library here, nor may you bring any janky, knock off, free shit up in here. This is a fucking business."

There's nothing janky or knock-off about the crowd that's shown up here — hipsters in skinny jeans, plastic-rimmed glasses and thrift-store dresses. As for any of them stealing MATTER's font library? Not if that library comprises the eight-foot-tall plywood letters that stand like sentinels around the studio, each decorated with various prints for sale for $100 and up.

"The burden of knowledge is action," reads one four-color print tacked to a giant letter "S." Nearby, an uppercase "D" holds a poster that's been printed with historic letterpress plates advertising bygone circus attractions. On some posters, comic-book-style word bubbles frame bold statements; on others, words and letters climb around one another like elements of an architectural facade. Nearby, T-shirts for sale pronounce "Shut up and eat your Helvetica," while $15 ladies' underwear declares, "Do you think this kerns itself?"

Eric Magnussen
MATTER art director Jeremy Peterson is in it for the love, helping to create works like Rick Griffith's typographic  experiments.
Eric Magnussen
MATTER art director Jeremy Peterson is in it for the love, helping to create works like Rick Griffith's typographic experiments.

Drinks in hand, guests admire the gargantuan wooden letters like they're taking in sculptures at a museum. In the studio's print shop, they marvel at century-old printing presses and drawer after drawer of wooden and metal type in all shapes and sizes. And they line up for a chance to shmooze with Rick Griffith, the graphic artist and typographer who's the owner and driving force behind MATTER. Dressed in his signature sportcoat, jeans, black boots and gold pirate earrings, Griffith is happy to oblige. He works the room, greeting guests with warm grins and drawing them into scholarly tête-à-têtes. No topic is off limits; if he ruffles a few feathers along the way, so be it. And every now and then, he breaks away from a conversation to help the bartender refill a giant fish tank brimming with homemade mojito mix.

Usually this mad scientist's laboratory is off limits to everyone save clients and colleagues; the annual party is the only time all year that MATTER throws open its doors and offers its wider body of work for sale to the general public. And these days, people are increasingly interested in what's happening behind those doors. Not only is the studio doing commissions for major corporate brands, but Griffith's work has been included in the national design archives of AIGA, formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Butler Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Columbia University. The Denver Art Museum recently purchased 26 of his pieces for its permanent collection; a book of typographic images he produced was named one of the 100 best-designed books of 2005 by AIGA; and the 59-word "Definition of Graphic Design" he spent eighteen months crafting now appears on T-shirts and pillowcases around the world.

"We just might be the last great graphic design studio," the 41-year-old Griffith likes to say in moments of exuberance.

At 9:15 p.m., and again at midnight, the music dies down as drumbeats and electronic squeals echo through the party and musicians in ski masks, helmets and sombreros stream through the studio's garage door, followed by dancers in a Chinese dragon costume. As the cacophony of Itchy-O, Denver's avant-garde marching band, builds to a crescendo, filling the room with strobe-light flickers and smoke-machine fog, party-goers crowd in and dance to the frenetic beat.

From the vantage point of a second-story loft, Griffith nods his head to the music. Smiling, he watches over the festivities, making sure that no janky, knock-off, free shit manages to sneak in.

After all, this is a fucking business.

******

If Rick Griffith were a typeface, he'd be a reversed-stress slab serif. That's according to Jeremy Peterson, MATTER's long-haired, shaggy-bearded art director. That typeface features letters with thicker horizontal strokes than vertical ones, the opposite of most type, which Peterson thinks fits his boss because "it's kind of a 'fuck you' to how type should be constructed, but it's beautiful and it works."

Jessica Wurtzel, Griffith's wife, believes her husband would be Mrs Eaves, a contemporary reimagining of an eighteenth-century typeface, because "it's a reference to classical ideas," she explains. "It's modern and it's got a twist." MATTER designer Allison Clayton figures Griffith would be Poster Bodoni Italic, which "is big and kind of funny-looking, but it makes a lot of sense," while Nick Sherman, a typographer who runs the popular blog Woodtyper.com, pegs him as Cooper Black, because "it has this history of being misused, it has a little bit of a cartoony feel, and it has a really bold and strong style." Then again, Jim Sherraden, manager of Hatch Show Print, the celebrated 130-year-old letterpress shop in Nashville, says impishly, "I would say a round typeface, 'cause his head is round, and the cigarettes he rolls are round." He's referring to the hand-crafted smokes, packed with Peter Stokkebye Danish Export tobacco, that Griffith lights up every now and then.

Whatever typeface people suggest for Griffith, everyone agrees it should be one with serifs, the little tabs that adorn the tops and bottoms of letters. That's because the man has two pointy tufts of hair sprouting from either side of his head.

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