Print lost a wonderful dimension when the modern printer replaced the letterpress. The old fashioned letterpresses were able to make embossed art and could turn the paper itself into a part of the work.
This used to be regarded as a flaw in the machines—a sign you were a bad printmaker—but in the digital age, that extra level of interaction is a welcomed gift.
“When printing presses were the only means of publishing books, leaving an impression on the page meant that it would show through both sides or even tear thin paper. Printers had to strive for what is called a ‘kiss’ impression—the ink from the plate would just touch the paper enough to leave the image behind, not actually press into the paper,” said Tiffany Smith of Stubborn Press & Company.
“However, today most people recognize letterpress printing by the opposite. That deep impression is what many people want on their paper. I feel like this is because we don’t touch paper as much as we used to,” Smith said.
Smith recently found a letterpress on eBay, which has been a dream-come-true for her. She’s now raising funds through Kickstarter to get the machine up and running, and the response so far has been good.
Technology took a dull turn for efficiency, and the systems have become quiet and fast, flat and dry.
“We have flat screen TVs and smart phones with glass faces. We touch ATM screens instead of talking to people at the bank. Our computer keyboards are quiet instead of the loud clacking of typewriters. Our sense of touch is bored. There isn’t as much texture in our daily lives,” Smith said.
“Cotton paper is thick and heavy. It has grain. It has a definite feel to it. Add to that the impression a letterpress print makes into the surface, and we have to touch it. We like to touch it. It’s novel. It’s refreshing. It’s also very beautiful.”
The artist also has a part in all this. The machine smith uses has a foot-power motor and requires the artist to mix their own ink, align the design, and feed the paper by hand.
Using a laser printer only requires pushing a button. But Smith sees the hands-off process as having removed something from the art.
“I love being hands-on whenever possible in the creative process, whether it be the design of the piece itself or the printing of it. I guess turning to letterpress printing is kind of like a return to my fine arts’ roots, even as a graphic designer who still loves the web and Photoshop on a daily basis,” she said.
“I think that because our lives are so overstimulated in some ways, digital speaking, we often miss out on stimulating our more tactile senses. Something like a letterpress print forces us to stop and touch it, which in turn invites us to pause in our busy lives and appreciate what we’re holding, whether it’s a wedding invitation or a business card.”
She said her clients have shown similar enthusiasm—particularly since the machine can create novel works of art. After a few compliments, “They immediately feel the difference from their card stock paper digitally printed cards. When they get past they paper, people often run their fingers over the impression of my logo and my name. They feel like they simply have to touch the printed part to see if the impression is really there. And it is!”
“Good things slow us down, not speed us up. We’re so focused on hurrying through life sometimes, and we miss out on appreciate the little enjoyable things around us. I like that letterpress printing offers an opportunity to slow down, even for just a tiny moment, like a good, healthy meal or a warm cup of fresh coffee,” she said.
There is plenty of potential in making an old letterpress a main part of a design company—particularly since so few people are doing this.
With a few extra systems, it’s possible to go into mass production with a letterpress. But Smith said she’s not interested in doing anything too big. “There are print shops out there making beautiful things on a mass-market scale, but with letterpress, it still feels limited and timeless.”
“I like art that is limited in quantity and memorable in quality. Life is short, and it’s okay if we stick with limited runs of certain prints. Not that I don’t want repeat customers, but I like the idea of transience in my work. I have a bit of creative wanderlust from time to time.”
She would, however, like to get more involved in the local community—holding classes with students and doing hands-on work with different clients. And further down the road, “I know I’d like to end up accidentally acquiring a few more printing presses … probably some metal or wood type … pretty paper … I hear that once you get into letterpress printing, collecting those things is kind of addicting. I’m okay with that. It should be fun.”
But beyond all else, “We’d really like to build a sustainable, local business. We want to plant roots in our community and help other people grow through what we do. I want to make beautiful things that people appreciate, even if they’re as mundane as a package or a business card or as unique as a custom wedding invitation.”
[box_light]All images courtesy of Tiffany (+Justin) Smith, Stubborn Press & Company[/box_light]