The Modern Face of Letterpress

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Meet Stephanie Laursen. She's a letterpress printer, who wants to set up her own shop one day. She's already apprenticed at three locations. She's practical about what she needs to make it work. As far as I can tell, she didn't fall through a wormhole from 1930. Stephanie is fully rooted in 2010.

stephanie_in_letterpress_shop.jpgStephanie was assisting in the letterpress shop today at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC) in Seattle, where I'm attending the two-day Type Americana conference and seminar. The event is one day of history and one day of hands-on sessions. This isn't a tech conference: half the attendees and speakers are women, only two people have laptops out (I'm one of them), and everyone is paying attention. The subject matter requires a reasonably intimate knowledge of the last 140 years of type design to follow the speakers; I'm stunned by how many young people, SVC and other students, are nodding along.

Today, I've heard about Frederic Goudy, the Bentons (père et fils), and W.A. Dwiggins, as well as the life of Beatrice Warde, the collapse of a preeminent type foundry after a hundred years, and a wood-type museum's resurgence. Sumner Stone (Adobe's first type design chief) reminisced about the history of fonts before and at Adobe.

The school has a beautiful letterpress shop, the cleanest one I believe I've ever stepped foot in, with a full panoply of flatbed and platen presses, metal type, wooden furniture (the blocks used to space elements in a locked-up page), leading (mmm....delicious lead), and the like. It smells marvelous. Jenny Wilkson assembled and runs the shop.

Kate Fernandez, a designer, put together a keepsake for the event, and participants were invited to pull the second color on the poster, which was printed with a combination of wooden and metal type. I was the last to go. Stephanie, a bit north of 20, told me about her career so far, which included a stint in Nashville at one of the oldest continuously operating presses; it makes use of type that goes back generations and slightly more modern printing equipment from the 1950s. That's her ampersand tattoo above, which she had inked after she left the Nashville shop to continue her journeywoman apprenticeships and finish at California College of the Arts.

I said, with my 42 years of perspective, what are your plans, young woman? What will you do with this letterpress experience? She has many ideas, including getting a job at or having work printed by Chronicle Books and opening her own shop in which wedding invitations would form the backbone of income.

I've been discovering over the last few months that that's a viable plan. While letterpress may seem quaint and nearly obsolete, you can buy restored gear or old presses that can be refitted; use a combination of handset type, engravings, and photopolymer plates (created often from pure digital output); and take instruction at hundreds of places: schools like SVC, book arts groups, private presses, and extension programs. It's not a boom industry, but there's interest beyond nostalgia.

type_americana_posters.jpgPhotopolymer plates seem to have had a strong hand in resuscitating letterpress by combining digital design with physical printing, without requiring handsetting all type or engraving all illustrations. Stephanie said a plate for a wedding invitation might cost $40. As noted in my previous item about hard-impression letterpress at the Economist, and the item here at BoingBoing with close-ups of Apple's new letterpress hybrid iPhoto cards, photopolymer plates let you use soft, deep paper, and press hard into it without worrying about damaging your irreplaceable wood and metal type.

Letterpress lets you get your hands dirty and produce unique works of beauty, turning elements of mechanical reproduction to your own ends. You control the process from start to finish, and the results, like all crafts, are as limited or expansive as your own skill. You need no intermediary. Type hits paper. And young people like Stephanie, perhaps for the first time in 30 or 40 years, are thinking about letterpress as a path for a profession.

More photos | Seattle City Arts magazine on Washington state letterpress

The back of Stephanie's business card, with a bit of extra contrast to reveal more detail that requires subtle examination.

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  1. What a wonderful segway into some self-promotion-

    Wanna meet a REAL, PROFESSIONAL, been doin’ this for nine years FULL TIME making a living at it, best in class, cute girl letterpress printer? You are in luck! Amesbury Open Studios is this weekend. I will be appearing in person Saturday 10-2ish (though the studio is open until 4- I need to duck out to go see Grinderman- sorry, I’m a rocker) and Sunday 12-4. There will be wood type, and polymer, and die cutting of beer mats, and a little bitty press set up for kids to play with. There will be stuff for sale too.

    http://www.bdesignsletterpress.com for more info. Love ta see ya. I’ll leave my ego at home.

  2. Katey, really beautiful work.

    With so much communication being done be email, you could really impress someone by sending them one of your pieces.

    Would be worthwhile to keep some of your Thank You cards on hand.

  3. Amesbury, MA; halfway along I-495 between I-93 and I-95 along the Merrimack River in northeastern MA. They have an open studio weekend this weekend, which I’d take my girlfriend to if we didn’t have other plans.

  4. Had almost 20 years of operating Heidelberg, Miehle and Kluge presses and know how much enjoyment the next generation of operators will get, have fun eh.

  5. At the risk of sounding like a caricature from American Psycho, I must say that letterpress business/visiting cards are simply the very best.

    I’ve a handful of personal ones that I usually reserve when meeting someone of import, and they almost always make a great impression.

    Certainly worth it, IMO.

  6. I took a week long intensive at San Francisco’s Center For the Book on letterpress. It was a blast. Laying out type by hand and spacing it out right is really slow going, but you do learn to read backwards pretty quickly.

    I made myself some business cards on one of the Vandercook presses they have. It took forever, but I loved the results.

  7. It is possible to do it on your own. My friend Taylor Ball opened his press recently after school for small print comics and zines: ParcellPress.com, for example.

  8. It would be shear luck to find a position for a letterpress/ windmill operator these days. But it sounds like you may have a unique hybrid of design and direction which cannot be duplicated with todays technology like it was in the past.
    I love letterpress. I had bought one that was made in 1895. Complete with the gold pin-strips on the flywheel. In time, the original owners retrofited it with a 1916 G.E. motor with a belt of double layer cowhide… to drive the printing/impression componants. It was a wonderful machine and worked well for me.

  9. Did anyone else notice the line “This isn’t a tech conference: half the attendees and speakers are women…”? I realize that it’s great to point out that there are a lot of women involved in letterpress (which was no doubt originally a man’s game), but to have it be a defining feature of an event not being a tech conference? Youch.

    Seems like the letterpress industry might serve as a model for other less gender-integrated disciplines, no?

    1. There have been approximately 100,000 articles in the last few years about the gender imbalance at tech-tech and tech-biz conferences. I have attended approximately 14,000 of these. As someone in this milieu, which is well represented in the BoingBoing demographic, I reported on the three most obvious differences I spotted: gender equity in the audience and speaker list, lack of laptops, and attention. I don’t see how that’s sexist, unless it’s also sexist to argue in favor of gender/etc equity in organizing conference speaker rosters, encouraging diversity in the sciences and technology fields.

  10. Nice article, but due to my antipodean antecedents, I had some difficulty with the phrase ‘fully rooted’. English being as variable as it is – the mental image evoked was in sharp juxtaposition to that intended – see koalanet.com.au/australian-slang.html for an explanation…

  11. Chances are if you live in a reasonably sized city you can get your hands dirty learning a little letterpress in a center for book arts, university, or similar institution somewhere. The supplies and machines used in it are relatively simple and durable and there is real design and technique to be learned in it (90% of the people in the letterpress class I took some years ago at the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts were design students or professionals and boy, did the stuff they made look better than mine…). Letterpress will be around for a long, long time and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in printing, design, typography… I feel like anyone interested in reading would benefit just from the physical act of hand-setting a significant piece in movable type. It provides a unique perspective on the history of reproducing text that no amount of reading could.

  12. To me, that’s a pretty perilous placement of a tattoo.

    Could give a literal meaning to the phrase, “ink runs through my veins.”

    Good story, Glenn.

  13. Stephanie is a member of Ladies of Letterpress (theladiesofletterpress dot com), a professional organization for letterpress printers with more than 750 members from all over the world, some of whom are men. We’re even planning a letterpress conference next year. It is a fact that most new shops are operated by women. Why that is is an excellent question, especially because digital and offset shops remain dominated by men.

    One reason could be because many men, and people in general, still see letterpress as dead, or fading away, or too trendy with its emphasis on deep impressions to be permanent. I think it’s great that bloggers and journalists keep “discovering” letterpress; for those of us who do it for a living, it’s great to see it getting coverage for not only being a viable business model but also as something that produces a hand-made, thoroughly analog, product.

    And contrary to the author’s intimation that technology and letterpress seldom mix, or are at least strange bedfellows, the best printers today, male and female, are both mechanically and technologically adept. Today’s letterpress industry is actually a great model for making something old new again, to the benefit of both letterpress printers and the community in which they work.

  14. Stephanie is a member of Ladies of Letterpress (theladiesofletterpress dot com), a professional organization for letterpress printers with more than 750 members from all over the world, some of whom are men. We’re even planning a letterpress conference next year. It is a fact that most new shops are operated by women. Why that is is an excellent question, especially because digital and offset shops remain dominated by men.

    One reason could be because many men, and people in general, still see letterpress as dead, or fading away, or too trendy with its emphasis on deep impressions to be permanent. I think it’s great that bloggers and journalists keep “discovering” letterpress; for those of us who do it for a living, it’s great to see it getting coverage for not only being a viable business model but also as something that produces a hand-made, thoroughly analog, product.

    And contrary to the author’s intimation that technology and letterpress seldom mix, or are at least strange bedfellows, the best printers today, male and female, are both mechanically and technologically adept. Today’s letterpress industry is actually a great model for making something old new again, to the benefit of both letterpress printers and the community in which they work.

  15. Also a shout out toe the great work done at SVC. Larry Asher and team have created a real sanctuary for creative exploration.

  16. Re: “…wedding invitations would form the backbone of income.” You have my sympathies, Steph ;-) Since there’s little chance of repeat business, efforts to educate the customer fall on deaf ears. You, OTOH, will learn plenty. Like, did you know that prepress charges don’t apply to brides? Or that 1″ square 72dpi RGB web graphics blow up to 3″ line art with perfect clarity (CSI effect)? And if the watermark on each slipsheet isn’t perfectly located in the upper left corner, the bride is not required to pay? (She’s not required to pay for press proofs either, nor cleanup fees.)

    And then there’s the MS Publisher files….

  17. I love this! And I love the fact that while mass-production “print” is dying, small-scale craft printing is alive and well and thriving.

  18. This is so great to see happening! I learned letterpress when I was in high school, in the mid-1970s. we had a full printing shop with everything from letterpress to linotype to offset. (Computers? We didn’t have no steenkin’ computers. We had PressType!) The platen press was from the 1930s, a cast iron monster that smelled of oil, rubber and ink. I printed invitations to school events with it, getting my fingernails dirty setting up lead type and feeding the sheets by hand.

    I had no idea it was still a viable trade. You go girls!

  19. Nice article, Glenn. Letterpress is a great companion to design training, if for no other reason that to know the origin of so much of the language of typography. Leading? Oh yeah, it used to be lead!

    For me it also satisfies my hunger for the kinetic and tangible artmaking in an increasingly amorphous world of bits and bytes.

    I noticed the comment about woman and tech, too, but wasn’t offended by the reference. I’ve thought of suggesting that SVC offer tech classes aimed specifically at women. In the last 2 web-oriented classes I took, I was one of only 2 or 3 women in the class, and they moved at the pace of the more-tech-savvy, (and younger) men.

  20. 14,000 tech-tech and tech-biz conferences. Wow. Superbusy. Well, Glenn, like anonymous, and unlike Banana, I was offended by your comments. I would have replied sooner, but in my role as a female techie, I was superbusy this weekend myself with a full on upgrade. I take pride in my work. I work extremely hard, keep myself as well-informed as time allows, use my skills voluntarily in my local community, and have the respect of my colleagues and superiors. I work in this field precisely because several years ago, a techie guy made the comment “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a chick”. Well, guess again!
    There may have been 100,000 articles about gender imbalances at conferences, but the ones you should be reading are about gender differences in education and how even the most well-meaning teachers will be more attentive to male students in the traditionally ‘male’ subject areas of maths, sciences and technology. It’s something that’s embedded in society as a whole and as a guy, you wouldn’t have experienced it yourself, so maybe you wouldn’t see anything wrong in perpetuating the stereotype with a comment which basically reads “Tech = male/non-female.” I hope you don’t see this as a personal attack, as it certainly isn’t meant to be, but I hope it might provide some food for thought. I look forward to reading your further articles, as I otherwise enjoy your writing. Take care.

    1. I really don’t mean to offend, but I believe what I wrote is being read inside out.

      I was involved in tech conference planning for years, and we worked and worked and worked to be inclusive, and often had 40-50% gender balance on stage. We wanted women on stage to encourage women to attend and women to enter the lucrative (?) and rewarding fields covered by the conferences (Web design, marketing, advertising, and others).

      I was extremely pleasantly surprised to attend an event that was once a man’s field (all the old guys when I was kid who designed were men, and women were typsetters or proofreaders or production people), and shifted so radically in both the industrial part, the design part, and the academic part that it’s just not an issue: the conference naturally brought great people together, and it happened about half of speakers and attendees were women.

      I have worked with many women over the last 20 years getting involved with design, editorial, and technology fields (as I myself worked through them), and saw it as my job to be the guy who doesn’t patronize and doesn’t make excuses. I never hired someone because of his or her gender, but I also often find the guys I interviewed exaggerated their abilities and references said they didn’t play well with others. I rarely had that problem with women I’ve worked with.

  21. Great article! While i originally found it via Twitter, I kept reading because my mother happens to be a Seattle letterpress printer! She is in fact good friends with some of the people mentioned. (Shameless self-promotion of mom: Bonnie Thompson Norman at the Windowpane Press: thewindowpanepress.com)

    While I would shoot myself if I ever had to distribute type again (a chore that should be given to all bratty teenagers), I appreciate the beauty of a well-printed card, broadside or book and am delighted that so many others do as well.

  22. Having spent nearly 40 years working with solid and molten lead, breathing in lead dust and fumes as a matter of routine on a daily basis, having faced the risks of severe burns from molten lead, cuts from all sorts of saws, and bruises and other damages from dropping heavy lead objects on feet and fingers, having worked in non-air-conditioned foundries in unsanitary and extremely hot conditions, I feel no nostalgia for letterpress processes and say hooray for computerization of the printing industry. Hans

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