These are the people in our neighborhood: Peter Koch, printer

September 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our neighbor Peter Koch, printer, publisher, book designer and cowboy surrealist, opens his door to visitors by appointment only. We were lucky enough to get an appointment to interview him. He graciously gave us the grand tour of his shop, and told us stories about books, printing, pioneers, the West, and everything in between.

Sign in Peter Koch's shop

You have been warned!

Peter Koch was born in Missoula, Montana; he is the fourth generation of a family of cowboys and bibliophiles — his great grandfather was one of the few literate pioneers. Peter Koch told us about the mountains there, the peacefulness of the summits, the cold, snowy winters he looked forward to, and  the maverick artists and craftsmen from which he hails. In Missoula Koch founded Black Stone Press and Montana Gothic: A Journal of Poetry, Literature and Graphics and opened a letterpress printing office. A self-styled “cowboy surrealist,” Peter Koch learned  typographic design and published the art and writings of his friends, in small editions — a modus operandi he still follows today — then moved with his press to San Francisco and became Adrian Wilson’s apprentice, working at his renowned press in North Beach.

Peter Koch's Hidelberg Press

Peter Koch's Hidelberg Press

After closing Black Stone Press, Koch changed his press name to Peter Koch Printers and moved to the Fourth Street corridor in January 1990, right after the Oakland earthquake. Koch says he likes the location: it is close to his home, there is good food for his clients — Peter Koch recommends O Chamé as a “very high quality” restaurant and Café Rouge for the drinks and the oysters — good coffee for him, and, he can walk to the ocean! We too have been delighted by the combination of nature and culture in our new neighborhood.

As a publisher, printer and book designer, Peter Koch works mostly for a public of bibliophiles: libraries, museums, universities — rarely private parties. His projects are sophisticated and difficult. Peter Koch press has published and printed books of philosophy, poetry and  Ancient Greek literature, as well as some works on the lighter side of the literary. His books and artworks have been exhibited in prestigious places such as the New York Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library and the Widener Library at Harvard University.

Poem by Debra Magpie Earling, from the Lost Journals of Sucajewea

Poem by Debra Magpie Earling, from the Lost Journals of Sucajewea

Book cover, hand-made paper

Book cover, hand-made paper, drying on Peter Koch's wall

He showed us one of his latest projects: The Lost journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling, Native American writer, Professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, and Peter Koch’s personal friend. The book is what you may call hand-made, and a true work of art: poems on fine paper, in sophisticated types, black and white pictures of buffaloes and Native Americans, on a paper so thin and fine the images almost seem like ghosts. On the wall, odd-looking brown sheets are drying: leather? No, hand-made paper specially designed and created for the project, as a binder for the poems. Peter Koch pulled out a finished example of the book: the poems are inserted in the leather-looking folio, bound together with bullet cases. Peter Koch explained the story: contemporary Berkeley poster artist David Lance Goines has a gun — they occasionally shoot together — Peter Koch’s wife shot a target with it, the bullet cases are now on the book, and the perforated target hangs on Peter Koch’s door.


The target, hanging on Peter Koch's door

Book cover with bullet binding

Book cover with bullet binding

When we asked him how long it might take to make such a book, Peter Koch answered never less than a year and up to ten. Debra Magpie Earling’s took five years and only sixty five copies were made. What Koch likes about his job is meeting incredible people like Debra Magpie Earling, and working with them on a project, taking the time — making a work of art, together.

Peter Koch is also a collector. Like VEP, he goes foraging to find treasures. Throughout the years, he has acquired different presses such as a 1899 Chandler and Price jobbing press, which he used to print on the back of VEP’s greeting cards. Peter Koch has drawers full of typefaces: old letters, images drawn from newspaper cuts, Italian engravings. He is especially fond of anything that has to do with cowboy kitsch. Peter Koch even created his own typeface involving Greek letters: he admits himself that typeface creation is an “arcane art,” only a few printers still do it. Peter Koch cares about preserving this history, art and heritage — he explained to us that letters and graphic design are older than the Greeks.

Typefaces from newspaper

Typefaces drawn from newspapers

Chandler and Price jobbing press, 1899

Chandler and Price jobbing press, 1899

For that reason and because, according to him, “the history of the book is a work of art,” Peter Koch created the CODEX foundation whose objective is “to preserve and promote the hand-made book in the broadest possible context as a work of art and to bring to public recognition the artists, the craftsmanship, and the rich history of the civilization of the book.” The CODEX foundation organizes a book fair and a symposium every two years on the Berkeley campus. There, exhibitors and speakers from all over the world meet, talk, educate the public and exhibit their work.

To learn more about Peter Koch, visit his website.

Peter Koch Printers sign

Here at Vintage European Posters, we are open two days per week, and by appointment. We ‘pop-up’ one weekend per month. To receive invites to our special event, please visit our website, call us at 510 843-2201 or if you are in the neighborhood, by all means knock on our door. We are always happy to open our shop and share our collection of over 1,500 original posters from Europe and the US with all ephemera nuts, interior designers and those curious enough to seek us and our poster museum out.


Interview with Peter Koch by Elizabeth Norris and Candie Sanderson

“The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses,” curated by Koch, Trujillo, Roth / essays by Bringhurst and Koch, Stanford University Libraries, 2011.

CODEX foundation website

This post authored by VEP Intern
Candie Sanderson
Student at la Sorbonne Nouvelle
Edited by VEP Owner
Elizabeth Norris

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