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And just as serifs are supposed to help letters stand out from one another, Griffith is never one to get lost in the crowd. He was the first in his circle of friends to get an iPod, though the fingers he used to fiddle with it were usually stained with old printing inks.
"His is not a slick hip; his is a knowing hip," says Ken Bloom, the former head of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, the first Colorado museum to showcase Griffith's work. "His is the original hip."
And Griffith is at every hip event around: shmoozing at gallery openings and design symposiums, serving on the mayor's Create Denver advisory committee, swapping programming stories at Boulder tech meet-ups, roaming the halls at one local college or another (he's taught graphic design and typography at the University of Colorado Denver, the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and the University of Denver). No matter where he is, he's undoubtedly holding forth on one esoteric topic or another — the relative merits of Helvetica, the most ubiquitous modern typeface, and Futura, the most popular; the ongoing relevance of the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich; the comedic perfection of Derek and Clyde, a British act from the 1970s; the physics involved in the original Asteroids arcade game.
"I think what you get from Rick is a kind of impresario in the city," says Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. "He's a new hybrid creative who cuts across the bounds of graphic design work, the art world, the music world, youth culture and the professional world of design. It feels like he is at the center of so many events in the Denver creative community."
Often that creative center seems to overlap with the MATTER studio, a 14,000-square-foot, onetime printing-supply warehouse. (Griffith and his family live in another former print shop in northwest Denver: "My life is easily connected by all these things that have to do with printing," he says.) The space acts like a magnet for creative flotsam and jetsam: A friend gifted Griffith with a malfunctioning, decades-old sandwich vending machine that sits in a side room, waiting to be transformed into a machine that will vend "thoughts," no correct change required. And one day, someone dropped a complete set of tiny metal foundry type, all in Chinese characters, on the counter of MATTER's shop, a storefront where passersby can purchase greeting cards that read "I'm sorry your Cyclops died" and "I've always fucking hated your work."
The "sentiment" cards are just a tiny sample of the work the studio is constantly churning out. Under the brand MATTERIAL, the company produces type-focused apparel such as a poodle skirt decorated with a poodle pooping out "M"s, as well as hand-bound writing pads and other paper products geared toward designers' needs. Fueled by pitchers of latte pulled at all hours from a restaurant-grade La Marzotco espresso machine, MATTER's six employees and two adjuncts work with both the latest technology and age-old crafts. While they digitally film client meetings and tweak corporate logos on top-of-the-line iMacs (Griffith's is the biggest, a 27-inch monster), they're also skilled at hand-rolling ink onto wooden type and operating machinery so unwieldy and treacherous that the mechanical throwbacks are known as "widowmakers."
"It's the kind of place where someone who is motivated will have a chance to do something awesome, and someone who isn't in it for the love will feel overwhelmed," says Peterson. "Everything we do has to be fucking perfect."
That perfection extends to the way people converse. Use of the word "just" is frowned upon because, as Griffith explains, "'Just' is the word that people use when they don't want to recognize your effort or don't want to pay you back." People who employ "font" and "typeface" interchangeably are quickly corrected; typeface refers to a design family such as Arial, Helvetica or Times New Roman, while a font is a particular style and quantity of a typeface. And, as explained in Practical Matters: A Guide to the Benefits and Obligations of Being a Client at MATTER, a 56-page manual provided to the studio's clientele, sarcasm has been banned from the premises except on Wednesdays. "I view sarcasm as a cruel method of communication," explains Griffith. "People shouldn't doubt the words they're saying to each other."
Or the worldview he espouses with those words. "As far as I am concerned, language rules everything around me. Language rules the whole game," Griffith says. "When most designers look to photography or illustration to solve graphical problems, we look to words. Words are the power I choose to wield; words are the tools I choose to use. We have faith in words."
Griffith's favorite time to work with type is when no one else is around. "Amongst all the designer/printers, the letterpress designer/printer is uniquely vulnerable," he wrote in an introduction to Pressed!, a letterpress exhibit he curated at the Denver Pavilions last summer. "Most have been trained and practice in manners which resemble monastic life — entirely reliant on antiquated tools using obscure measurements, large, heavy equipment almost impossible to accommodate, and an ever-shrinking resource of parts and type."