Arts & Culture

Horse & Buggy goes back to the future

A detail from the Horse & Buggy studio in Durham. The printing company makes books with handmade touches in a digital world.
A detail from the Horse & Buggy studio in Durham. The printing company makes books with handmade touches in a digital world. jleonard@newsobserver.com

When Dave Wofford started up Horse & Buggy Press in the summer of 1996, its name was fitting. A year after Amazon.com went online as the future of mass-produced book retailing, Horse & Buggy was a throwback to the days when printing was as much art as science.

If anything, the Horse & Buggy name is even more fitting two decades later – a time when electronic books make the physical printed manifestation seem like a quaint anachronism. Horse & Buggy doesn’t make anything you’d download on your Kindle.

But while owner/co-founder Wofford remains as committed as ever to the actual rather than digital printed page, that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the 19th or even 20th century.

“One thing I always worry about with the name being ‘folksy’ and all is some people might think I only do everything the old-school by-hand way,” Wofford said. “I’m not a Luddite. I do the majority of my design work on the computer, and some of my most interesting projects have integrated hand-work and craft philosophies with the newest digital printing techniques.

“But when it comes down to the finished product, computers just aren’t as good for long-form journalism or really substantive content. Print may no longer be the dominant paradigm, but I still think physical books are superior to e-books or whatever other gadget there might be to convey content.”

20 years of art

Two decades of Wofford’s work is on display with “20 Years of Horse & Buggy Press (and Friends),” an anniversary show that will be at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum through Aug. 7. The show goes back to Horse & Buggy’s very first printed artifact – a flier for a July 1996 show at Raleigh’s Brewery nightclub, where the bands Hobex, Dish and Lud played a benefit for the anti-Jesse Helms group MAJIC (Mothers Against Jesse in Congress).

“20 Years” includes a number of album covers Horse & Buggy has done for area acts including 6 String Drag (designed by the band’s drummer and Wofford’s Horse & Buggy co-founder, Ray Duffey), that band’s frontman Kenny Roby and John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats. It also has a lot of what Wofford calls Horse & Buggy’s “bread and butter work” that pays the bills, everything from wedding announcements to program guides for art galleries and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

But the show’s most eye-catching artifacts are its limited-run art books, where the presentation becomes part of the artistic statement. Of course, Wofford wishes they sold enough to justify bigger print runs.

“If people are gonna drop $100 on dinner three Friday nights a month,” he said with a sigh, “can’t they be willing to spend that on a book that’s a work of art?”

Getting it right

One of those books is “Maji Moto,” a collection of essays and photographs by Durham scientist Courtney Fitzpatrick, priced at $140. An evolutionary biologist, Fitzpatrick spent 2009-2010 doing field work in Kenya, arriving during the region’s worst drought in living memory.

Watching wide swaths of East African wilderness and fauna shrivel up and die was traumatizing, and one way Fitzpatrick coped was by posting essays and pictures to a private blog she’d set up for family and friends. The next step was to turn the material into a limited-run book. So Fitzpatrick worked with Wofford to create 175 copies of “Maji Moto,” an elegant package of macabre images rendered in vivid, beautiful tones.

“That’s really Dave’s calling card,” Fitzpatrick said. “He creates these tactile, intimate objects, where’s it’s important that you interact with them rather than just put them in a case and look at them from afar. He strikes a balance where it’s not so precious that you don’t actually feel the paper. Nobody puts on gloves to look at these books. That was the impetus for making such a high-quality, and therefore expensive-to-buy, book – to house this work and the whole experience.”

Jefferson Holt’s Carrboro-based publishing company, Daniel 13, has also worked with Horse & Buggy on three books, including record executive Andy Gershon’s “Photourist” – a high-concept book of pictures of people taking pictures of scenes around New York City. Holt describes Wofford as having “mad skills,” and while he’s joking about that, he’s not kidding.

“Dave has hands-on experience with letterpress, lithographs and doing things the old-fashioned way, and he’s also got incredible abilities with computers in terms of translating photographs onto paper,” Holt said. “Photographers can be the pickiest people in the world, and Dave cares as passionately about getting it right for the artist as anybody I’ve ever met. He really gives it 200 percent to make everyone happy.”

A book geek

Horse & Buggy first opened in the Antfarm in downtown Raleigh’s Boylan Heights district, with an early focus on hand-printing. In those days before Wofford was able to make Horse & Buggy his full-time occupation, he would also work weekends as a restaurant cook.

In 2003, Wofford moved the operation to his house in Durham and eventually its current home at Bull City Arts Collaborative. Along with printed announcements, catalogs and the occasional Indyweek cover, Horse & Buggy also does a lot of private memoirs where the audience might be limited to a single family.

“The whole reason I’m set up like this is I’m more than a designer who just knocks things out before moving on,” Wofford said. “I like learning from clients and organizations, which is fun apart from the problem-solving aspect. Plus I was a book geek from a young age, and I love to read. The artists I want to work with are looking for more of a collaborative experience, and they want the special hand-made touches. They like that it’s not a sausage-grinder approach.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

What: “20 Years of Horse & Buggy Press (and Friends)”

When: Through Aug. 7

Where: Contemporary Art Museum, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh

Cost: $5; free on First Fridays and for CAM Raleigh members, children 10 and under, members of NARM and Mod/CO, active U.S. Military members and their families, area college students and N.C. State College of Design students, staff and faculty

Details: 919-261-5920 or camraleigh.org

Special events: Horse & Buggy proprietor Dave Wofford, musician/client Kenny Roby and others will gather at CAM for a “CAMversation” about collaborative projects from 4-6 p.m. Sunday. Similar events are scheduled for July 24 with furniture makers who contributed to the exhibit; and July 31 with photographers Catharine Carter and Rob McDonald.

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