The Colby Poster Printing Company is running their final job. I am their last client. For 67 years, they’ve printed signs, posters, billboards, and show cards for a variety of clientele. I’ve somehow been lucky to witness all three generations of this family-run operation. My father first brought me there in the 1950s.
He was especially in the automotive business and Colby was his printer of choice. I met Herbert Colby then. He had been front running Los Angeles printers since the 1920s when he joined the union. The end of the second World War, he and his bride Zelda struck up on their own and started their own business. It was a modern type of joint – on Pico Boulevard on Los Angeles. Herbert had come up printing circus and the like..these were huge ornate posters hung on the sides of theaters.
They were meant to catch the eyes of people walking by. Children would lose themselves in ornate, shadow detailing.
Colby specialized in letter press printing. Inked impressions on paper, loose words, individual phrases and illustrations, a letter imagined essentially remained unchanged since Gutenburg pioneered moveable type. Herbert Colby could take a client’s concept, print it, turn it around, and it would be posted in the street in a matter of hours. At the time, nothing could beat the speed and efficiency of letter press printing. Herbert and Zelda started their business at a time of great change. In a city on the brink of the future, the autoscape. People are traveling at 65 mph.
The information needed to be conveyed quickly and efficiently. You had to see it on the run. Colby created that game. Swift, graphic science was the essence of its trade. So they went to bigger words, brighter colors, and catchier design motifs. The oldest Colby poster that I have is from a gig in Bakersfield in 1951. You can already see this change happening. To say that Colby was entirely responsible for this streamlined style would be an exaggeration – it was happening everywhere. There was something unique about what Colby was doing. It was their use of color, day glow ink, those highly toxic tensors that produce bright colors and impossible to miss on a freeway offramp. Pink, white, and blue. Colby’s signature. Green, white, and red – popular for Spanish language job. When the reggae scene erupted, they added yellow in the middle. The principle concern was always the efficacy of the message. Did people read the poster? Did it get their attention.
Typically clients would come in and convey the details of the job verbally, perhaps it would be written on a napkin, who, what, when, where, how much. It would be up to the typesetter to turn these words into a captivating advertisement. When Herbert’s son-in-law took over the business, he introduced a polycoded stock that helped outperform that of all competitors.
I’ve taken down posters that have survived three years of desert exposure, and they still retained rich, luminous black colors while the background colors bleached long ago. There you have one of the great contradictions of Colby posters. They’re built to last, yet at the same time, they’re intended to be utterly disposable. They have a specific purpose, and were tossed to the trash. That’s how I came to use Colby posters for my own purposes.
My father would have spare posters and I’d use them as paper. Drawing on the backs, cutting them up, making collages out of them. Years later, after getting my own presses and printing for myself, I would continue to commission Colby to do designs for me. I’d put them out in the desert, off Route 66 – never to be seen or heard from again. If you lived in Los Angeles, you got so used to seeing these squares of color everywhere. They draw your attention to forgotten vistas, and unlikely patches of grass fenced next to the freeways, to telephone poles, to dead end street barriers. You would know that you weren’t the first to appreciate a colorful telephone pole. All of this –the outdoors didn’t just belong to Coca Cola or Wells Fargo. Boxing bouts, rodeo, and reggae concerts had the equal opportunity to catch your eye. All of this implicated the desire to leave marks of my own – ones that suited the city I lived in. For Colby, it wasn’t about art. It was about printing.
Getting the job right, getting the job done on budget. But right and wrong, it was the Colby way. So I found myself here at the press on December 31. Print was called adios. For some reason it seemed to fit. I spent over half a century coming into the Colby Poster Printing Company, looking for excuses to continue printing with them. I liked the process of watching their press. As I stood there with Herbert’s grandchildren, on the final day, as the press was dragged down to the street, none of us had any words.
The street corners will be adorned with other …printed by other printers. Passing Angelenos will not recognize the difference. For me the economy and simplicity of Colby was always a great thing. And I don’t think Los Angeles street corners will ever look quite the same. Colby Poster Printing, Los Angeles, Calif., family run since 1948.
The family-owned Colby Poster Printing Company has printed vibrant, eye-popping show posters and billboards visible on L.A. street corners, crosswalks, and major venues since the 1940s.
It's now part of the historic makeup of Southern California's vibrant poster and letter printing scene.
Over the years, the printing magic was churned out of a building on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Founder Herbert Colby's vision was to use bold lettering and a signature blend of fluorescent, rectangular colors to attract just about anyone's attention.
Colby specialized in letter press printing, inked impressions on paper, including individual phrases and bold illustrations for circus and concert-goers.
Take a look at the legacy Colby left behind, as well as some of the most iconic Colby prints that still exist today.
Featuring Interviews With:
- C.R. Stecyk III, narrator