Soon he discovered another way to give voice to his rebellion. While working at a record store in suburban Virginia, his boss showed him the album Sound on Sound, by the new-wave band Bill Nelson's Red Noise.

Instead of the tidy, proper letterforms Griffith was used to seeing, the words on the cover were built from pieces of electronic music equipment — speaker cords and headphones and radio antennas. "The album was a knock-out punch," he says. "From that point on, I found myself moving towards graphic design."

Any illicit substances he was on at the time probably didn't hurt.

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.

He moved to New York, where he made a name for himself first designing punk-show posters at the Kinko's where he was the night manager. He was soon getting gigs with the likes of FCB/LKP and InterBrand, some of the biggest creative agencies in town.

By the time he landed in Denver, in 1995, he'd started his own design firm — a move he punctuated with a bizarre typeface he designed during the O.J. Simpson trial, with upside-down and sideways letters. He screen-printed the type onto four-foot-long specimen sheets featuring massive knives in the background, then encased the work in plastic bags so that it looked like crime-scene evidence, and sent samples to the six biggest design studios in town. "It never occurred to me I was sending a gigantic knife," he says. "I immediately got on people's radar."

He's been on their radar ever since, continuing to explore the power — and subversiveness — of type. "At some point in the early or mid-'90s, when I looked at what my skills were, I realized I could recognize on sight almost every typeface I encountered," Griffith recalls. "And when you look at a skill set like that, you say, 'What do you do with something like that?'" Since there seemed to be no other typographic authorities in the region, he decided to become such an authority himself — and MATTER was born.

Griffith began amassing a library of type-specimen books and buying up all the lead and wood type he could find. Recently, he's been making regular "typographic pilgrimages" so that he can work at letterpress meccas around the country: the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin; the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection in Austin, Texas; Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Tennessee; and the print shop in Gordo, Alabama, of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., the man Griffith calls "the other black printer in these United States."

Over the past decade, letterpress printing has come back into style. "It's being found again, and I think it's because as human beings, we are hard-wired for process," says Hatch's Sherraden. "The simplicity of letters pressed into paper with ink in between is magic to the typical graphical design student. It's the antithesis of digital design. Digital type is just so simple. We are reading it so fast, we are hardly reading it; we are just glancing at information when we read on the computer. You can't read this banged-up wood type on there, but you can on a nice poster. It's very refreshing to see type pressed, big and bold."

As non-digital graphic mediums such as screen printing, lithography, stencil printing and graffiti have become increasingly cool, Griffith has gotten very hot. His work has been cited by Print, Dwell and Good magazines; his designs were featured in Shepard Fairey's Manifest Hope exhibit held in Denver during the Democratic National Convention. And Griffith has helped organize a variety of type-oriented events around town in addition to Pressed!: an evening of "typography tomfoolery" at the Denver Art Museum called "Typo"; a screening at Starz FilmCenter of Typeface, a documentary about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum; and a show in the jury-selection room at the Denver City and County Building titled If (Silence = Golden) — Then — Get Rich Quick, Now: New Works Designed to Inspire Quiet Meditation While Waiting for Jury Service.

"What I think someone like Rick does is bring a certain confidence in his own style and what he does with that around town, and I think that encourages people to be creative and put their own take on design out there," says Charles Carpenter, president of AIGA Colorado. "He is saying, 'Be out there, be bold.' It adds to the texture and flavor of Colorado, and it encourages people to have their own voice, to be their own self."

Or, as Griffith likes to put it, "I'm a big, fat black cheerleader for design and design practices."

And one day, some of the cheerleader's designs will be hanging on the walls of the Denver Art Museum. "I don't think there is anybody else in Denver doing anything like this," says Darrin Alfred, DAM's design curator. The museum has purchased a number of Griffith prints over the past two years; Alfred's favorites are a series of images taken from Seeking New Suprematist Forms Through Typography, a forty-edition book of typographic creations that was recognized in AIGA's "50 Books/50 Covers" competition in 2005, copies of which have been sold for hundreds of dollars.

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