The Modern Face of Letterpress


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.