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The Art of Letterpress

Posted by Judy on Apr 13th 2022

Pick up a letterpress card or print, and you will know right away that you are holding something special; the colors have an extra intensity, you can feel the impressions where the ink was pressed into the paper, the paper has a distinctive softness and texture. Letterpress is both a visual and tactile experience. It is a throwback to an old-fashioned method of printing, and a tribute to today’s artisans who have revived and reimagined the craft.

Letterpress printing works by pressing raised letters and artwork into the paper, leaving an indentation. Originally developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, it remained the primary method of printing until the second half of the 20th century when offset printing made it obsolete. With the advent of the new technology, most of the old letterpresses were destroyed or left to deteriorate in barns and warehouses.

In the 1980s, artists began rescuing and rehabbing the old presses, setting up shops as specialty letterpress printers. They still follow the labor-intensive practices of the earlier era. First, a metal or polymer plate with a raised design is created. Each color requires a separate plate. Ink is hand-mixed according to the formula in the Pantone color guide. The ink, plate, and paper are put on the press and the first color is printed. For each additional color printed, the press must be washed, and a new plate set up before printing the next color.

All that hands-on effort produces some remarkable products. Modern letterpress goods are enjoyed by an older generation wanting to connect with an earlier era, and a newer generation seeking an antidote to the fleeting quality of modern correspondence.

Made in the USA by Real People Using Really Old Machines

There are five letterpress companies that we find particularly delightful. Each one has a distinctive point of view. Every company makes its products in the USA.

SATURN PRESS: Since 1986, Jane Goodrich and Jim van Pernis have been creating extraordinary letterpress cards based on Jane’s designs and Jim’s printing expertise. Drawing on her extensive collection of vintage designs, Jane creates the images that go on the cards, then separates them into the colors that Jim will use on the press. Many of the designs are multi-color, requiring repeated trips through the press.

Goodrich and van Pernis bought their oldest press, a 1932 Miehle Vertical V-45, in 1985 for $850. It is still running, although its drive belt had to be replaced in the late 1990s. Said van Pernis, “These machines were made to accommodate 500-year-old technology, which no one expected would change, so they built the machine to last.”

INK MEETS PAPER: In 2008, Allison and Jamie Nadeau discovered a love for the craft of letterpress printing with a printmaking class at a local studio. They purchased a 1,000-pound Chandler & Price printing press (made in 1923) and introduced their greeting card line in 2010. They believe in making the world more human one card at a time. They describe their work as "real people using really old machines"

ARCHIE’S PRESS: Archie Archimbault says that he learned everything he knows about graphic design by messing around in a letterpress print shop; most of the rules for modern graphic design owe some debt to letterpress, and he follows them in his current work. Archie specializes in prints that make complex information simple and attractive. He prints on a Vandercook SP-15, one of the most common flatbed press for doing larger letterpress prints because it is reliable and bulletproof.

ALBERTINE PRESS: Shelley Barandes, a sometime-architect and paper fanatic, created Albertine Press in 2005. Her connections to printing run deep – grandfathers and great-grandfathers on both sides were printers and press operators. With designs ranging from classic and elegant to witty and irreverent, Shelley’s work is inspired by a love of urban architecture, minimalism, and playful puns.

A.FAVORITE DESIGN: The mission at a. favorite design is to encourage long distance warm fuzzies through snail mail. Good design, often sweet and sometimes cheeky sentiments are their specialty. The company was created in 2005 by graphic designer turned letterpress artist, Amber Favorite, who has always had a passion for design and typography. Her love for vintage typewriters, wood block type, old signage, flea markets, her sweet home Chicago, soulmate Tom, and the magical number 33 are prevalent throughout her work