The mind behind the machine

“Alright, let’s see if I can’t make you something really cool.”

Sameer Mohamed, the owner of Fahrenheit Coffee and Toronto’s top ranking barista at last year’s Central Regional Barista Championship, darts behind his espresso machine and begins fiddling with a series of hidden dials and levers. Moments later, he passes me a latte with an elaborate phoenix pattern on top. I’ve seen a lot of lattes, but Mohamed is good.

Drawn into the crema — that reddish-brown emulsion that covers a good shot of espresso — with stark white steamed milk, latte art is an attempt by baristas to achieve design perfection. The heart, the rosetta, the phoenix, the tulip: there are a few others, but for the most part the lexicon of a latte artist is limited and precise. Confidence and coordination are key; if the steamed milk is poured too slowly, the bubbles on top will remain stuck to the sides of their original receptacle and will never make it into the cup, and if poured too fast, all definition is lost.

But that isn’t the only challenge a barista faces. Milk scalds at 180 degrees fahrenheit. At that temperature all the bacteria and enzymes in the milk are obliterated, sterilizing that sweet and desirable lactose. The ability to create microfoam — the white bubbly stuff that forms on top of milk with the introduction of heat, air, and movement — is also lost. Without microfoam, latte art is impossible, so baristas have to use all of their senses to predict if their medium is the correct temperature. The metal pitcher holding the milk becomes too hot to hold comfortably when the milk approaches 180 degrees; the surface of the milk takes on a glossy sheen, and the slight whirr of the steam and of constantly moving milk begins to switch frequency to a low ominous growl.

DAN SELJAK/THE VARSITY

The care and artistry displayed in this preparation reflect the attitude of the high-end independent coffee shop. Mohamed observes that customers “taste with their eyes,” and the unique presentation of latte art adds to their full experience. Despite this view and his own skill at latte art, he is quick to point out that visuals aren’t everything.

“The purpose of latte art to me is basically show that you have good texture in your cappuccino. It’s a showcase for your texture — [it shows] if you’re skilled in the art behind the machine. If you don’t have good texture… your latte art will suck.”

According to Mohamed’s overall philosophy, latte art is a showcase of the product’s quality rather than the product itself. “There’s a lot of importance that’s been given to latte art at the cost of the product; if you can make something that tastes even better than it looks, go for it.”

Mohamed thinks of the independent owner as a designer. “The independent coffee shop is driven primarily by how the [owner] feels about the space. It’s all about how you project yourself into the place.”

He describes how cost, interior design, layout, and location are all choices that must be made by an independent owner to maximize a customer’s experience and the quality of the final product. “Just how a place is laid out can increase output quite significantly. And while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, you have to be able to interact with the people in front of the counter. Basically, it generates a nice flow work-wise, and it doesn’t look too cluttered to the customer.”

Mohamed’s keen focus on designing a functional space that produces high-quality products stems from his extensive experience with the coffee world. What started as a part-time gig almost a decade ago in Montreal quickly became a lifestyle. Mohamed took his passion on the road as a coffee consultant under the name Fahrenheit Consulting, helping launch stores and redesigning existing spaces to optimize them for success.

Ultimately, however, the goal was always to launch his own place, which came to fruition in 2011 when he launched the Fahrenheit shop. “Coffee has been a very educational experience for me in terms of its complexity — how much you can change the dynamism of coffee and how incredibly delicate and complex it can be. For some reason, I think it’s a mission of mine to open people’s eyes to this amazing world if they aren’t aware of it.”

As I gulp down my latte, I think about what the implications of uniquely designed shops like Fahrenheit signify for the future of coffee culture. While maybe of a higher calibre than most, Fahrenheit is not entirely a unique breed in Toronto.

These days, we treat coffee less like a commodity and more like a luxury item, like wine, which has led to a surge in small independent coffee shops dedicated to high-quality product. Sure, this trend may bring about higher prices and a sometimes impermeable layer of pretension, but for the most part, it brings better design and damn good coffee. I scoop up the last remnants of my latte’s microfoam from the bottom of my cup and silently recognize that that is not at all a bad thing.

Kensington needs a redesign

People are reluctant when changes are recommended to the creative neighbourhoods of any city. Proposals are followed by uproar from residents, businesses, and patrons with the usual cries of “We don’t need change,” “Down with capitalism,” and Fuck Starbucks.”

So why change something that Toronto loves and finds sacred? Kensington is well-balanced, juxtaposing its own counter-culture with the Towers o’ Finance further downtown. The neo-vintage shops stand beside immigrant grocery stores perfectly, though in a very postmodern and hipster sort of way. Kensington Market, with its unique mix of community, culture, and city planning, has become a nexus in downtown Toronto, linking residential areas like the Annex with the commercial ones of Chinatown and Queen Street.

WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY

We are big fans of this area. We live in and around it, and it’s where we take our visiting friends first — to show them that Toronto is not all CN Tower and big bucks. Kensington’s greatest achievement is that its years of popularity have not stopped it from serving the entire spectrum of economic class. Its bakeries, butcher shops, and supermarkets — that sell far cheaper food than your local chain grocery store — lie beside shops selling your grandma’s now-hip vase back to you for eight dollars.

From an urban designer’s point of view, it is mostly a dream come true: dense, diverse dwellings with short city blocks and a mixture of old and new buildings. The mother of modern context-based urban design, Jane Jacobs, sought her second home here. Kensington’s urban design success is the root of its success as a neighbourhood.

But come nightfall, Kensington shows its dark side. Shops close and the streets are deserted — it’s nothing like during the day. Some find this a necessary evil; creativity seems to spring up most in shadowy places — see ‘80s, ‘90s NYC — but so do crime and danger. Let’s face it, most of us have a weird story about Kensington at night.

As a place so vaunted in the daylight, why shouldn’t it be as successful at night? The principles of urban design can go a long way toward forming the mood of a neighbourhood. Here’s how they could make Kensington safer at night.

Illumination

With its creepy, sparse, argon street lights, Kensington is in dire need of better lighting. New lights should be designed to illuminate wide areas and they should be bright enough not to create shadowy ones. Lights could improve Kensington’s mood and accessibility. If you think of successful “night-bourhoods” like Bloor, Queen, and Richmond, however, it’s not just the streetlights that illuminate the street, but the lights and signs of shops, restaurants, and bars as well.

Store hours

Most shops in Kensington — especially below Baldwin in south Kensington — are notorious for only operating during the day. When the grocery stores close down, Kensington dwindles down to a fraction of what it is in the daylight. If more restaurants and bars stayed open, not only would the streets be better lit but more people would be out and about, giving the area a greater sense of security. Jane Jacobs’ idea of “eyes on the street” finds its perfect application here. Kensington is in a prime location, near the university and other bar districts, and its business owners have the creative ability to capitalize on the hungry and thirsty nightlife crowd. For students, it would be great to have a decent bar close by and more food options than Chinese at 3 am. Still, there needs to be a balance so that late-night bars and restaurants don’t disturb Kensington residents.

Pedestrianization

It seems an obvious measure to pedestrianize an area that is dominated by pedestrians and cyclists and that serves as a tourist attraction. The success of Kensington’s monthly pedestrian Sundays cannot be ignored. However, food stores and grocery shops heavily rely on cars both for delivery and customers, who prefer not to carry their grocery-laden bags for too long. In our opinion, Kensington is pedestrian enough. The narrow streets force cars to drive more slowly, and on crowded days, most Toronto drivers know to avoid the busy neighbourhood anyway. Cobblestone streets, though expensive to install, would increase the dominance of pedestrians by acting as speed breakers for cars. They could also make the area seem more walkable and improve safety by making cars audible at night. Conditions for bikers could be maintained through a tarmac strip as a bike lane.

Parks

Parks are an integral part of city design and are a microcosm of the region where they’re located. Bellevue Park reflects south Kensington’s daytime energy and nighttime sparsity. Redesigning the park to include more communal functions would change the area from a neglected fringe to a focal point of Kensington. A well-lit park, featuring community projects such as an artist’s wall or stage would reintegrate it with the area and make it a more desirable place to walk through at night. This would have a synergistic effect with the adjacent businesses open at night, ensuring more users for the park.

Garbage bins

Also more garbage bins. That will be all.

 

An extended history of Kensington Market

 

Change in the Market is always met with hesitance and public scrutiny.

For instance, the Kensington Garden Car, — albeit a great initiative outlining our society’s dependence on cars and the importance of the environment — caused much uproar in the community when there was chance of its removal. The fear of change is a proper concern in any bohemian neighbourhood. As history has shown, gentrification and commercialization can strip away the very thing that makes an area unique. The proper course of action is not to reject change in all its forms, but rather to embrace and encourage “proper” alterations.

 

Change in a city is an ongoing process: no matter how well the area is maintained change will always trickle in. It’s important to remember that Kensington Market became what it is today through years of change and alteration . The Market’s unique atmosphere comes from generations of newcomers to Canada settling and raising their families in the region. The Irish workers in the1880s, followed by the Jewish immigrants in the 1900s (when the area was called the Jewish Market), and then a subsequent mix of Portuguese, Caribbean, Latin American, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern arrivals, have all left their cultural imprint on Kensington Market.
The Market, therefore, has been built upon the economic foundation of entrepreneurship centred on small family-owned businesses concentrated throughout Kensington. But for such areas of business to maintain themselves there needs to be strong support from the community, and this can be generated either from a specific immigrant group or from a dense residential area — the importance is in having these businesses locally integrated.

 

The problem lies in the significant popularization and commercialization that the area is currently undergoing. When the area becomes a tourist attraction the parts of the Market that are less economically functional are displaced for more profitable businesses (such as retail and restaurants). This will eventually lead to a hollowing out of the economic and cultural base of the region.

 

By the natural process of popularization, the region is in danger of displacing the functions that originally make it a popular destination, thereby destroying much of the community feel. This exact process can be seen in the Greenwich Village community in New York, which was originally an area very similar to Kensington, but is now notoriously posh. By reducing the diversity of uses in Kensington, you not only eliminate the cultural aspect, but you also significantly reduce the community coherence. Too many retail stores, and you lose businesses that are open late; too few family-run businesses, and you no longer have families living in the area; too little residential density and you further lose the community togetherness.
The Kensington Park (also known as Bellevue Square) is the small inconspicuous park situated in the Southern half of the Market. Its day and nighttime atmosphere are a good measure of the region’s urban health. On any summer day you’ll find this park full of kids playing in the wading pool, young urbanites sprawled across the grass basking in the sun, and all sorts of characters practicing their personal hobbies — tightrope walking, juggling, fire breathing (we have witnessed each of these talents being practiced at least once in this park). But as quick as we are to praise this park during the day, we are just as quick to shun it when night falls. Gone are the laughing children and careless teens, replaced by creepy vibes and shady figures; Kensington’s dark side rears its ugly head. It may seem presumptuous to decry this characteristic of the park; you can argue that this duality is precisely what makes Kensington so unique. But in fact, if left unchecked, these forces are more than just a quirky trait, but rather a threat to what we all love about the area. For the park to become a thriving place at all times of day, the adjacent streets themselves need to be properly integrated with the park area. By increasing the density of late night establishments in the surroundings, you not only increase the traffic of regular people through the park, but you also subsequently brighten an otherwise dark region of Southern Kensington. It would in fact result in a self-reinforcing cycle: as the park becomes safer through use, a more diverse crowd will venture there at all hours, leading to a diverse range of establishments, etc., successfully reversing the trend of deterioration in Southern Kensington.

 

These ideas alone are no miracle fixes, but rather are founded in the urban design theories pioneered by Jane Jacobs for a thriving neighbourhood.

 

Concrete canvas

I hear sirens and freeze, bracing myself for the worst — but my companions are unfazed.

“Don’t worry, it’s not for us,” Drips says calmly, sensing my apprehension. Drips is a local Toronto graffiti artist; he and his friend are working on an underpass near Jane and the 401 and have agreed to let me tag along.

For most, graffiti appears out of thin air: one day there is a blank wall, the next a slab of colour — but the transformation process is never witnessed. To the ordinary observer, Drips and his fellow artists are invisible. Our location was suggested to him by another graffiti artist. It turns out the graffiti community is a very small and tightknit group. Although there is a sense of camaraderie, there is also a lot of competition.

“You can’t make a move without someone finding out what you did,” Drips tells me.

Taggable spaces are limited. Erasure and overwriting of previous works is very common and artists often try to upstage one another. Eventually things get resolved because, as Drips jokingly explains, it ends up costing too much money in paint to continue.

“But there are rules. I never paint over the work of someone I respect. If I can see the work took seven hours to complete, I’m not going to do a quick piece over it. I’ll only paint over it if I think I can make it better.”

Bundled up and eager to get started, I follow Drips to a location near the highway exit ramp. The trek to the location is a wet and muddy one. Eventually, we end up beneath the bridge of the highway, which has a large collection of graffiti pieces.

“This is a nice collection right here,” Drips’ friend points out to me. And it certainly is. I never expected such a vibrant gallery of graffiti beneath a highway bridge.

“That’s Poser’s,” Drips says in passing. Some graffiti artists have a character, a marker identifying the artist; Poser’s is a rabbit, and Drips’ is a skull.

Climbing onto a ledge, Drips begins to unpack his equipment: paint for buffing, rollers, and most importantly a couple dozen spray cans. Picking a location near the edge of a ledge, Drips paints over a previous work.

DRIPS/THE VARSITY

“You see here, it has water damage,” Drips says while pointing out an area where the paint has faded. “It had a good run.”

While Drips works, I ask him what graffiti means to him.

“What doesn’t it mean to me?” he answers back with a smile.

For Drips, graffiti is about self-expression. For others, it’s synonymous with vandalism.

“There are rules. Don’t do it on private property: not on cars, houses, schools, or churches. There are these scums of the earth who just tag anything and then all of us are labelled punks and vandals … [There was] one guy who used to draw swastikas around the city — that’s not graffiti.  Those are scribbles.”

Drips also adds that graffiti is particular to specific environments.

“Graffiti doesn’t belong in a place like Rosedale. It belongs to neighbourhoods like this one,” he says, pointing out the billboards that surround us.

“You can’t walk around them. If you have money, you can put up an ad. People don’t get a say in what they see.”

DRIPS/THE VARSITY

For Drips, graffiti is self-expression for those who don’t have the money to have their voices heard. Graffiti, he says, belongs in public spaces. He calls it the biggest art movement since the Renaissance.

Three hours in, my limbs are completely frozen, while Drips continues to paint with his black latex gloves. Drips and his friend discuss escape routes in case the police show up, the mere thought of which gets my blood flowing again.

I ask Drips if he sees graffiti as an art form. For him, the answer is a resounding yes. He tells me of a recent and rather embarrassing incident during Rob Ford’s anti-graffiti campaign. In a bid to rid the city of graffiti, the anti-graffiti team buffed out a piece commissioned by the city itself. Putting the irony of the incident aside, the very act of commissioning graffiti lends a hand to legitimizing it. Drips does not argue that all graffiti is art; he simply asks for a more honest and complex dialogue about it.

“The major problem is that people don’t even try to get it. They dismiss it right away. People are just told to see it all as vandalism. There is no discussion. Look at the States. Some dudes just chiseled some faces into a mountain; did they ask the Natives if they wanted those faces there?”

As I adjust to the cold, I pick up a can of spray paint. The front has a drawing of a boy in a baseball hat, pointing a spray can at a brick wall covered with colourful, stylized letters. As I turn the can around, the irony of the warning on the back strikes me. “Product was designed for artistic work. Any use of this product for acts of vandalism will be subject to severe legal penalties.”

Perhaps in the future the line between art and vandalism will not be so hastily drawn.

Embarrassing tattoos

Tattoos in foreign languages are pretty hip, especially if they are in a language with wicked characters that scream manga, samurais, and gomoku all at once. However, those looking to get some Japanese calligraphy under their skin should tread carefully — mishaps such as the misspelling, inverting, omitting, upside-downing, and general grammar-butchering of the language are more common than one might think.

 

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

Hailing from Nagano, Japan, Maru is a tattoo artist at Imperial Tattoo and has seen his fair share of unfortunate Japanese tattoos. Armed with a long calligraphy pen, he explains some common mistakes made by tattoo artists who don’t speak Japanese.

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

Getting lost in translation is a global phenomenon. English tattoos are becoming increasingly popular in Japan — also foreign, also sexy, and also the breeding ground for potential mistakes. Maru himself already had a tattoo in English before he learned the language. Thankfully, his “PAIN IS TEMPORARY” tattoo is free of spelling mistakes.

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

When certain characters are not drawn close enough to each other, their meanings change. In the picture above, the tattoo on the left means “little sister.” The one on the right, distinguishable only by the space between the characters, reads “female market.”

Home brews

Bud Light and Molson Canadian might be two of the most consumed brands of beer, but drinking them is equivalent to eating McDonald’s hamburgers or reading nothing but Dan Brown.

Why settle for the lowest common denominators just because they have contrived, patriotic advertising and are easy to find?

The craft beer industry is big in Canada, and small brewers have found success selling in their local regions. For the particularly adventurous enthusiast, brewing beer at home is becoming an increasingly popular way to experiment with flavour and to learn more about the process behind beer production.

Chris Maddison, a U of T student, and Andrew Gordon, a recent alum, have spent the last few months perfecting the art of home brewing. Their latest batch is fermenting in a closet in Andrew’s Kensington Market house. That doesn’t sound too glamourous, but this batch will yield 5 gallons (19 litres) of beer.

That’s an impressive result for an investment of $40 in ingredients purchased from Toronto Brewing, a primarily online-based store that sells how-to books, equipment, starter kits, and all the ingredients required to brew.

Brewers use a large pot to boil the ingredients, a fermenter (a large bucket to hold the soon-to-be beer as it ferments), and an immersion chiller, which quickly cools down the hot “wort” (a not-so-fancy word for the liquid extracted from malted barley).

The number of steps in the process varies depending on the type of kit you buy and the ingredients you begin with, but despite the clear instructions, home brewing isn’t for those averse to risk.

If you’re doing things correctly, your brewing day will go something like this: you’ll assemble your ingredients (malt extract, hops, and yeast); sanitize all equipment and the space you’re using to brew; make your wort; boil the “brew water”; rehydrate the dried yeast; add malt extract and hops; shut down the boil; cool the wort; pitch the yeast; add cooled wort; and store the fermenter.

A single screw-up in the process can ruin a batch, and it’s often hard to tell if a batch has been compromised until you’ve actually had a taste, typically three weeks after brewing day. Oh, and on brewing day, be prepared for a strict regimen of sanitization, some heavy lifting, and a very messy kitchen.

Chris and Andrew put down about $200 as an initial investment for equipment. Their most recent yield is equivalent to two 24-packs of beer.

While there’s a chance Chris and Andrew will make a mistake during the process and wind up with 5 gallons of really shitty beer, they’ve gained enough experience to know what they’re doing. In fact, they’ve already made it through the most arduous and risky step: brewing day.

But it took some trial and error to get to this point.

“The first batch I did was in September and it came out pretty terrible,” Andrew recalls. “It was from one of those really easy kits that’s just hops, malt extract, and sugar. It was supposed to be an IPA [India Pale Ale], which is a hoppy beer, but it just came out as something weird that didn’t taste like much.”

Brewing day requires many steps, so it’s hard to pinpoint where you went wrong if you wind up with a bad batch, especially since you won’t know if you did something wrong until you taste the beer weeks later.

“We probably screwed a bunch of things up,” Andrew explains. “I think we pitched the yeast before we put the sugar in, and you’re supposed to do it the other way around.”

But sometimes a screw-up doesn’t equal a wasted batch.

“The second batch we did, we accidentally diluted it with too much water. It still turned out really well,” Andrew says.

If you’re doing things correctly, your brewing day will go something like this: you’ll assemble your ingredients (malt extract, hops, and yeast); sanitize all equipment and the space you’re using to brew; make your wort; boil the “brew water”; rehydrate the dried yeast; add malt extract and hops; shut down the boil; cool the wort; pitch the yeast; add cooled wort; and store the fermenter.

SAM BOWMAN/THE VARSITY

Sounds a bit complicated, right? Well, it’s probably because home brewing is not a process many people are familiar with, but Chris compares it to cooking and following a recipe.

“You can get a book and learn why every step is important,” he says. “That will make you a better brewer, but anyone can go out and get a kit.”

Following a recipe is easy enough to do, but regular cooking doesn’t usually involve so much heavy lifting. Brewing day gets intense, and Chris and Andrew recommend having a brewing buddy.

“You have to time things right and it’s hectic, so it’s better to do it with another person,” Chris explains.

Patience is also a virtue on brewing day.

“You’re basically heating up three gallons of water on a kitchen stove, which takes about an hour,” Andrew says. “You have to time the addition of the hops and time how long you’re steeping the grains. It’s kind of like cooking, but you have to be really clean and it’s a lot more complicated. You also end up making a huge mess.”

After the brewing process is finished, the fermenter needs to sit in a cool place for about three weeks. The amount of time varies depending on the type of beer that’s brewing. Ales take only a few weeks while lagers require more time to ferment. Lagers also need a colder temperature to properly ferment.

According to Chris, some types of ale are more finicky than others, but they’re still what a beginner brewer should attempt first.

Bottling day is comparatively stress free, although it can be tricky too.

“You add a bit more sugar to the beer and you put it in bottles and cap it — that extra sugar is a bit more food to the yeast. Another by-product of fermentation is carbon dioxide and that’s how you naturally carbonate beer,” Chris explains, articulating the finer points of the process with the confidence of a genuine beer scientist.

“When it comes out of the fermenter, it’s flat. You put a little bit of sugar in, put it in the bottle, cap it, and then it ferments and creates carbon dioxide that gets trapped.”

Andrew explains that bottling day can get a bit sloppy too.

“The first time we bottled, we were using a funnel and measuring cup to take the beer out of the bucket and put it into bottles,” he recalls. “That took a long time and there was beer all over the floor. Then we got this thing called a bottling wand. You attach it to a siphon and then put that in the bottle, and it does it more automatically.”

Chris and Andrew had a friend design labels for their last batch. The words “Scribbler’s Brew” are pasted on every bottle. They plan on keeping the label design for their next batches.

WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY

Andrew describes his exploration of home brewing as the natural extension of being really interested in beer.

“At first, you find different beers you want to try and eventually, you start to wonder what it’s like to make it yourself,” he says.

“Before I started doing home brewing I had no idea how the different flavours were achieved, and now, I have a better idea of how that works.”

Chris’s motivation for trying home brewing stems from an interest in local industry where there’s a lot of variation.

“I think [variation is] a big part of the craft beer industry in North America,” he says. “People really feel proud of local breweries and locality is a big thing. When I go travelling now, I get excited and I look up breweries that are located in the place I’m going to go. I might tell my friends ‘I’ll pick up some beer for you,’ things you can’t get anywhere else.”

While exploring the craft beer industry will likely enhance appreciation for the beverage, home brewing takes that appreciation one step further and deepens the understanding of the creative and technical processes behind brewing. You don’t want to wind up with 19 litres of cloudy water that tastes like rotten cheese. Yes, it’s been known to happen.

The art of the book

Nestled between Innis College and a sparse row of townhouses is bpNichol Lane, a narrow, concrete road. I have passed by this unassuming little street nearly every day for the past four years, thinking it was nothing more than a deserted alleyway. But now, amidst the gasping winds of an unseasonably rainy January, I head down the street for the first time in search of Coach House Books.

The small publishing company is located at the end of bpNichol Lane in a small brick building that was once used to store horse-drawn carriages. I can hear the hum of a printer through its blue doors and walk along a pathway that leads to the front of the premises. Two hulking antique printing presses greet me as I step inside. At the top of a narrow staircase is a cozy room with a large window and creaking wooden floors. Densely packed bookshelves crawl across the walls, reaching the tips of the triangular ceilings. A plush armchair rests by the window beneath a hanging sign that proclaims it the “magical sleeper chair.”

I have come to Coach House Books to talk to Stan Bevington, the company’s founder and long-time publisher, about the evolution of book design. Although its appearance might suggest that Coach House is nothing more than a quaint printing shop in a secluded enclave of the U of T campus, it is in fact a respected and established authority in the Canadian publishing industry.

“Our shop was the first to buy Helvetica … when it first came out,” he says. “[But] the lead and the brass moulds for the type were so expensive, we could only have two typefaces.”

Coach House has been at the forefront of technological innovations in publishing and printing since its foundation in 1965, and it has printed the works of many famed Canadian authors, including Margaret Atwood, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Anne Michaels, and Michael Ondaatje. Bevington himself has been honoured with a slew of awards recognizing his contribution to the field of book art, including membership to the Order of Canada.

As I sit down at a wooden table near the stairwell, Stan walks into the room, carrying a large stack of books. He takes a seat across from me and begins to tell me about the early days of Coach House. Suddenly, he slaps the surface of the table. “I made this table!” he exclaims and then laughs. “And these benches too!”

When Stan began publishing with Coach House in the ’60s, the process of printing books was almost as painstaking a task as crafting furniture from scratch. Each word of a book had to be typeset by hand and each page printed manually using the antique printing presses that now sit in the entrance of the building.

“[At that time], a lot of printing was done with letterpress — that is, little lead letters that were raised — and the top of the letters got [brushed with] ink, and then that ink got pushed into the top of the paper,” Stan explains. “So we had to have a collection of little lead letters.”

A few years later, Coach House purchased a photo-offset lithography machine, which allowed images to be transferred photographically to aluminum printing plates. Oil-based ink adhered to the images on the plates, which were then used to print the pages of a book.

“Being starving students as we were, I bought a $5 camera at an antique store, which is that one right over there,” says Stan, gesturing towards a box camera nestled into one of the shelves on the wall behind me. “That camera was used to photograph illustrations and turn them into negatives, and then the negatives got exposed to the photo-offset aluminum plates that would print the illustrations.”

He shows me a book that Coach House printed in 1967 on the early work of Jack Chambers, a contemporary Canadian artist whose paintings are now on display at the AGO. On one page, a black and white picture is positioned between two paragraphs of type. Stan explains that these paragraphs were typeset by hand, photographed, and then pasted next to the picture. The composite image was photographed once again, transferred to an aluminum printing plate, and finally run through the printing press.

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

In the 1960s, this was cutting-edge technology. According to Stan, offset lithography was a tremendous step forward in the publishing industry because it “drastically liberated” the process of creating printing plates. But the text of a book still had to be typeset by hand, which left publishers relatively restricted in other areas of design. As Stan thumbs through additional books that were printed using offset lithography, he laughs and points out that they are all set in the Helvetica typeface.

“Our shop was the first to buy Helvetica … when it first came out,” he says. “[But] the lead and the brass moulds for the type were so expensive, we could only have two typefaces.”

Oh, how the times have changed. Since switching over to new printing presses in the early 1980s, Coach House has digitally typeset all of its books. The advent of digital printing technology was also accompanied by a plethora of new typefaces, giving Coach House the freedom to both select and create fonts that would enhance the overall design of its books.

“We look for a font that’s appropriate for the job at hand,” says Stan. “We have an almost unlimited range of choices. What we’re more proud of is having encouraged Canadian type designers to design type.”

Stan walks over to one of the bookshelves and pulls out a catalogue that Coach House printed for the Fisher Rare Book Library. He flips through the pages so I can see the font.

“This [catalogue] was the first showing of a type called Cartier Book,” he explains. “It was used for the Canadian Bill of Rights, and it’s used for historical plaques in Canada, but we at Coach House used it for many, many books. We helped the designer polish up the design of the face … until finally it [was established as] a really solid typeface.”

Advances in printing technology have also dramatically altered the nature of book cover design. During the years that Coach House used a photo-offset machine, it was incredibly difficult to print a book cover using more than two colours of ink. Stan excitedly shows me the fairly ambitious cover of Michael Ondaatje’s Rat Jelly, a book of poetry that Coach House published in 1973. Made with four different colours, it features a rather sinister looking baker holding up a tray of cakes. Each colour is marbled with lighter shades and outlined thickly in black, making the cover resemble a stained glass window. It’s a lovely piece of book art, but Stan tells me that it took an entire week of darkroom work to create the four-colour aluminum plates required to print the cover.

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

Stan pulls yet another book out from the pile sitting next to him on the table, this one made entirely with a digital printing press. About half a dozen colours are swirled together in the background of the book’s glossy cover. The pattern glides neatly around the cover’s crisp white lettering. In fact, Coach House’s digital press is so accurate that it was able to print the background design around the outline of the white lettering without any colour bleeding into the text.

Because Coach House can now print such intricate designs with relative ease, the staff are able to focus their efforts on creating covers that encapsulate the essence of a book’s content.

“We’re now able to make full colour covers on anything we want,” says Stan. “We’re usually looking [for a design] that will, at a glance, describe what a book is. If you pick up a book, look at the front cover, look at the back cover, and if you can get the gist of what the book is about, that’s a win.

“Each one of the books reflects the taste of the author, reflected through the professionalism of a good editor and a good typographic designer,” he adds. “But generally, we try to make a book cover that has individuality. There’s not a particular house style that makes them look similar.”

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

To illustrate his point, Stan shows me a book that describes the holdings of Chinese studies in the U of T libraries. The cover is floppy, and the paper inside is so thin that it could only be printed on one side.

“This book was made [with this paper] because in the Oriental way, they printed on rice paper,” says Stan. “So we chose the thinnest paper [available].”

He tells me to turn to page 32 of the book, where there is a beautiful Chinese illustration coloured with delicate strokes of red ink.

“In the history of Chinese printing, they only had that red, which was a vermilion pigment,” Stan explains. “So I printed this book with black and vermilion [ink].”

Although Stan has always welcomed the progressions in printing technology that have allowed Coach House to expand its repertoire of book design, he admits to being somewhat baffled by the ever-shifting nature of the industry.

“I think of how reassuring it must be for a craftsman who’s a bricklayer, because the materials haven’t changed. We’ve been on quicksand. We have to keep making the things look like books, but they’re always made in a different way.”

Yet there are some aspects of book design that Stan refuses to change. While most publishers now print their books on recycled paper (“post-consumer junk,” as Stan calls it), Coach House still uses the same type of paper that it commissioned from a Quebec paper mill during the ’70s. This paper is made from fresh, young trees and sized to fit the Coach House printing presses in order to cut down on waste.

BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

 

“We asked [the mill] to make the paper a little thicker … and we asked them to put a laid finish on it,” Stan says, holding a book up to the light so I can see the grids of parallel lines on its pages.

“Why?” I ask him.

He looks at me for a moment, as if wondering why I would ask such an obvious question. “’Cause it’s a tradition,” he replies, “A tradition in papermaking.”

As I walk back down bpNichol Lane later that day, I catch a glimpse of Coach House’s digital printing press through the windows at the back of the building. I can’t help but smile at the thought of such a cutting-edge piece of technology whirring busily away in the back of an old carriage house, and I find myself hoping that some aspects of Coach House Books will always stay the same.

How to build a storefront

If you’re a storefront designer in Toronto, rare is the opportunity to fill a half block–spanning window with something as eccentric as a giant abominable snow bird — unless you work at Sonic Boom. The record shop features a different album every month and is known for its quirky, iconic windows, designed by Tim Oakley. Sonic Boom’s storefront designer for the past seven years, Tim Oakley gave The Varsity the lowdown on what exactly goes into designing the storefront installations…

***

① After choosing Guided By Voices as the featured band of the month, the next step is to study the album cover and break it down. “Yellow and wood were the main reference colours here, with [a few] weird splashes of white. It’s a pretty simple, minimal cover … Robert Pollard is a big collage guy — all of their covers are sort of ripped out of National Geographic so I tried to use one of his signature [styles].”

② Though Sonic Boom doesn’t approach its displays from an advertising perspective, the store does have some techniques to attract the customers’ attention. “Sometimes I think if it’s a classy window they don’t do as well as if it’s a little scrappy in some way. Somehow, slickness just makes it fade into the architecture of the building.” Tim added a three-dimensional touch by filling the bottom with beer bottles, giving the window depth, and referencing the fact that Guided By Voices is a notorious party band.

③ The next step is making the window installation unique to Sonic Boom. “I try to think if there’s anything [new that I] can add. I try to encourage myself to develop new techniques if time and money allow. We found out that when GBV play live, they have a sign that says, ‘the club is still open,’ which is a lyric from one of their songs. We ordered one of those from the States — it has nothing to do with the album cover, but anyone who’s a fan of the band will get it.”

④ Constructing the storefront is as much about practicality as it is about design; all four walls must be accounted for, along with the floor and ceiling. “That’s the hardest part; if I like something [for one wall], then I have to start thinking about how I’m going to do the rest of [them]. That’s always been the struggle.” It just takes a small detail to bring an installation together. Tim fleshed out the rest of the GBV installation by adding a few non-specific ’80s records.

***

⑤ On the festive side of things, the Sonic Boom holiday window was not inspired by an album, but rather, a few happy coincidences. The displays often feature one object or element that takes the bulk of the display. In this case, it is a massive bird. “I don’t even know how I came up with it. A friend made me make a bird mask a couple of years ago… Then I was making this Santa’s village, it sort of had no plan, and everyone was like, ‘Hey, bird houses!’ so I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll put some birds on it — that was fully intentional.’

WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY

⑥ Piece by piece, the random fixtures find a place and a theme comes together. “I didn’t want it to be so Christmas-specific, especially now that we’re in Honest Ed’s and that’s their thing… So I made it this mythical Christmas; kind of like a 1600s Scandanavian interpretation of it. Maybe [the bird] is their Santa.” Typically, the displays take a couple of weeks to build. In the new location, Tim’s job also includes constructing walls and a great deal of carpentry — and then there are the little things. “Every one of those feathers I had to hand-glue onto him, and it took days. I actually gave up — that’s why he’s wearing a sweater.”

We asked some Toronto bands…

Ben Cook of Fucked Up/Marvelous Darlings/The Bitters:

Island Life by Grace Jones

“This cover blows my mind every time I look at it. It’s just stunning, controversial, and sexy, and everything I like in a record cover.”

 

Doug Paisley:

Sweet Daddy Siki Squares Off With Country Music by Sweet Daddy Siki

“It always brings a smile. Country Music Sweet Daddy Siki has got to play the guitar but Wrestling Sweet Daddy Siki wants him to know that he’s got his eye on him and if he doesn’t get back to wrestling soon, there’s going to be trouble. It’s all on the cover!”

Daniel Lee of Hooded Fang:

Steal Your Face by Grateful Dead

“I grew up on my older brother’s Grateful Dead album covers and T-shirts. They always had the best logo and iconography.”

 

Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene:

Orgy In Rhythm by Art Blakey

“That red on the black and white made me want to buy this album – such a simple and bold design. The photo of Art is terrific, obviously: wonderful sweater choice, great expression on his face. Perfect symmetry.”

 

Jeremy Rossetti of Bravestation:

Helplessness The album: Blues by Fleet Foxes

“I very much enjoy the earth tones and if you look closely, there’s a kitty! And who doesn’t like kitties?”

The Varsity Magazine (Archived)