Hero photograph
Photo by Chris Hinton

A Word in Your Ear: Lesley Smith

Eryn Makinson —

Eryn Makinson interviews the Lesley Smith, publisher of Tara McLeod: A Typographic Journey

How did the idea for the book Tara McLeod: A Typographic Journey come about?
I was introduced to letterpress printing at a typography conference in Seattle about 10 years ago. On my return to NZ I sought opportunities here to carry on so I started volunteering in the printing section at MOTAT in Auckland. The majority of the volunteer printers there come from a commercial print background and so might be considered to be technicians however Tara McLeod was an exception and clearly an artist. Although Tara’s work is known and respected and to be found in many special collection libraries around the world it remains a very niche market. I thought this book would make it accessible to more people and be influential to the development of up-and-coming artists, contributing to the resurgence of interest in letterpress. Being a very modest man Tara took more than a little persuading, his wife Christine was cajoler in chief.

How did you get involved?
With letterpress printing I fell in love with the tactile nature of the process after sitting at a keyboard for thirty years. I acquired three old presses of varying size dating from 1841 through to about 1950. So far as publishing is concerned I have been involved in the industry for over 30 years having started in the UK designing arts and music magazines. At one time I was design editor for Apollo Magazine (an excruciatingly high-end publication). In New Zealand I worked on a stable of magazines, then for the New Zealand Herald and then as director of an art gallery where I developed the publishing side of the operation. I have produced botanical and horticultural books as well as poetry, but the bulk of my publishing work is art related.

How were the contributors to Tara McLeod: A Typographic Journey chosen and how closely did you work with them?
Tara and Christine McLeod were my principal collaborators, writing the first section of the book as well as consulting closely on all other aspects of the production. It was vital to me that, as a fellow designer/typographer, Tara had to be happy with the look of the book. The other writers were all known to me as being people aware of Tara’s work and appreciative of his artistic integrity, having, in all but one case, worked in collaboration him. So far as the photographers are concerned I had worked with them both on previous publications, both accomplished artists in their own right I was confident they would capture the work and the studio environment. I am very pleased with the result.

How long did it take from conception to publishing and were there any difficulties along the way?
The book was a very ‘slow cook’ – three years – the slow pace compounded by moving from Auckland and building a house in the middle of the project. The costs of production were helped by grants very generously provided by Copyright New Zealand. In fact the book progressed extremely smoothly with the only real setback being the impact of Covid-19 on the distribution and marketing of the book.

Tara McLeod — Image by: Liz March

How well do you know Tara McLeod as a person/printer?
I know Tara well, we have been friends for about 10 years. I own a good few of his works and I respect the sensitive interpretation he gives to the printed word – the words of philosophers and poets.

What can you say about the book design process
My husband tells me that my signature design is understated good taste – this may very well be correct. For me it is important that my designs respect and do not outweigh the content, and with only a few exceptions (such as pop-up books) simplicity of form is paramount. As an example, think of all the power points you might have sat through that use, overwhelmingly, every single visual effect. 

It is fundamental that the book or magazine has to be easy to read or otherwise interpret and I believe this is the absolute responsibility of the designer. A good designer can also add to the editing process picking up errors, stray footnotes and the like.

How many other books have you been involved with designing and publishing?
Designing I have lost count but publishing under my own imprint about 30 ranging from small poetry chapbooks to larger glossy numbers. You can visit my website for the most recent list.

How did your publishing business evolve?
We started publishing in 1996 when my husband and I decided, just for fun, to produce and market a trade directory for the UK arboriculture industry. We financed it ourselves, selling advertising as well as the directory itself, it ran to a second edition in 1998 around the time we moved to New Zealand. After some years when I was a gallery director and also designing and publishing as an employee my husband gave up his work in the environmental field and we reassigned the company ‘Katsura’ (named after a tree) to publishing. We are very small and it would be generous to describe us as a niche publisher.

Lesley Smith Tara McLeod: A Typographic Journey — Image by: Lesley Smith

Where is the book available?
Tara McLeod: A Typographic Journey was a small print run as each copy has a limited edition McLeod print tipped-in. It is available for loan from Dunedin Public Libraries also for sale directly from my website

What other works do you have in the pipeline?
No books are in production at the moment but interesting proposals are on the table, all dependent of funding of course – so in this climate who knows…