On the way back from a wedding in Wisconsin four years ago, Justine Nagan discovered the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum by happy accident. Her husband wanted to stop for an ice-cream sundae in Two Rivers, original home of that all-American confection. Besides the sundae, Nagan found a block-long warehouse that housed 1.5 million pieces of wood type, handcrafted relics of a bygone era.

Inspired, Nagan soon started work on Typeface, her first full-scale film for the local documentary company Kartemquin. Her 63-minute movie, which she made on a $100,000 budget, tells the story of how the art of typography struggles to find its place in the digital age. It also chronicles the Hamilton’s own fight for survival. "This place should be wildly successful," says Nagan, 30, whose quirky film sold out two preview screenings at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will soon embark upon the festival circuit. 

A far-flung type museum may seem like a strange subject for a documentary, but Nagan’s project resonates because it combines moving portraits of former Hamilton employees with a plea to preserve a centuries-old art. When the film is finally released, she and members of the graphic design community hope it will be cause to rally around the museum. "It’s truly a landmark that needs to be saved," says Scott Thomas of The Post Family, a Chicago design collective. "People are losing the vernacular of the hand." 

Just as her film comes out, Nagan is taking on a new high-profile role:  executive director of Kartemquin, where she has worked since 2004. A native of Minneapolis and a film grad from the University of Wisconsin  and the University of Chicago, Nagan succeeds Gordon Quinn, who founded the business in 1966 with two University of Chicago alums. (Quinn, who is responsible for such critical successes as Hoop Dreams and Stevie, now assumes the role of creative director.) Quinn recalls that the search committee initially wanted an older person with considerable prior experience. Then a supporter asked him, "How old were you when you founded Kartemquin?" He was 23.

Photography: Lisa Predko