PRESS TO PLAY

GIVE HIM AN ANCIENT PRINTING PRESS AND AN OUT-OF-TUNE GUITAR, AND BRUCE LICHER WILL CREATE ART

If you've never witnessed a 50-year-old Vandercook No. 232 Proof Press working at full-on, finger-crushing capacity, then you've never heard a noise like this: SKREE CHUNK KA-CHANK SKREE CHUNK KA-CHANK SKREE CHUNK KA-CHANK. And you've never seen the primitive, industrial sensuality of rollers, bearings, plates, wheels and belts moving in greased tandem to produce a single sheet of letterpressed paper. In today's cold world of computers, watching an anachronistic contraption like the Vandercook is damned near erotic.

Still, it's hard to imagine that a machine so--well, so mechanical--could act as an artist's palette; for Bruce Licher--graphic designer, printer, musician, record-label entrepreneur--that is exactly the case.

Licher is in his Sedona shop (the decor is just a bit too steel-wood-and-ink to be explained by the word "studio"), a facility he describes as "state-of-the-art circa Thirties and Forties," surrounded by the tools of the designer/printer half of his work. There's the gray, hulking Chandler & Price Power 232 press; the Rosback Perforator (patented on August 7, 1888) made in Benton Harbor, Michigan; the Ohio Knife Company Jet-Cut; the leather-belted Redington Counting Machine; stacks of slim, wooden typeface drawers labeled with names from another time: Glamour, Parisian, Shadow, Hellenic, Venus Bold, Unknown No. 2.

What Licher creates here at Independent Project Press rides the line between "art" and "product." The relatively small batches (never more than a few thousand) of album sleeves, postcards, stamps and other memorabilia that he produces are meticulously crafted, and are fed into the presses by hand, piece by piece. His combinations--austere photographic images, disparate mixes of Dada-esque typeface, postage-stamp visions swathed in gold, silver and blood-red--are instantly distinctive. Created inside Licher's design ethos, something as potentially mundane as a business card emerges as a haunting work that seems antiquated yet vibrant and contemporary.

"Over the years, I've gotten more into the ornamental aspects of type," he says. "Lately, I've been getting into minimal design. A lot of things, when they get to the point where I'd like them to be, they look like they're from the Forties, but at the same time, they have a modern quality."

If you're thinking the man has a background in art, you're right. Licher, 36, studied fine arts at UCLA in the late Seventies, and has maintained his work-from-the-heart mentality. "I've come at this from being an artist, in a sense. I didn't study graphic design in school. That's why it's kind of ironic that here I am making my living as a graphic designer," explains Licher with the soft-spoken, absolute sincerity of Mr. Rogers. "Kind of the approach that I have is I want to make a beautiful object, and I mostly want to make it for things that I love, whether it's music or photographs or writing or whatever.

"At the same time, I don't want to make things that look slick; I like the hand-done nature of things."

Doing things the old-fashioned way has not made Licher a rich man, but his work has developed international respect. R.E.M. is among his clients--Licher has designed the band's fan-club packages and Christmas cards for the last four years--as was Camper Van Beethoven. And for good reason. He discovered Camper and released its first album on his Independent Project Records label. Licher has been nominated for two Grammy Awards for album design: the first for For Against's 1987 release Echelons; the second a year later for Camper's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.

His album sleeves may encase pop music, but you'd be more inclined to frame the covers than to set a beer on them. Incident at Cima is IPR's latest release (in stores by mid-April), and one Licher is particularly involved in--the CD is by Scenic, the band he leads. The ambient/experimental music and striking packaging are a perfect introduction to the deliciously offbeat world of Licher.

"Most people's motivation for getting involved in music is to be a star in some way. [But] Bruce just likes what he does; he believes in the aesthetic of it," says Licher fan Jack Rabid, editor/publisher of the 15-year-old publication The Big Takeover, a highly respected underground 'zine.

"There are people who are just as much in love with the process of working as they are with the results. It's more important that they create the work than to have people applaud them; Bruce's degree of care is absolutely phenomenal."

Music is just as large a part of Licher's creative drive as are design and printing. As is usually the case, though, the music doesn't pay the bills. Enrolled in a photography class at UCLA in 1979, Licher began snapping away at punk bands in the burgeoning L.A. music scene. Photos begat rock.

"I really started getting into music and realizing that I could do it myself," he says. "It looked pretty simple to get up there and do that, so I went and bought a cheap guitar and took some lessons. But after about six weeks, I got tired of learning Chuck Berry licks, 'cause I was having more fun just making weird noises on it."

Licher signed up for an "Independent Project" course under the tutelage of Chris Burden (a notorious artist in his own right who once had himself shot through the arm as part of an art performance) and recorded an experimental-sound single as his project.

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