For the Love of Letterpress
Why one Real Arter has committed to keeping an arcane printing technique alive.Periodically, we like to share insights from the heart of Real Art. Straight from the source, these “wiretaps” feature experts in the Real Art tribe, offering an inside look at the personalities and passions flowing through our home and pervading our work. In this piece, Real Art graphic designer and resident letterpress enthusiast Reka Juhasz discusses her obsession with this old fashioned printing technique.
How the love affair began.
I went to the School of Advertising Art for graphic design and in my first year, during a conversation about business cards and printing techniques, one of my instructors brought in a letterpressed card. It just felt so cool. Letterpress has a certain texture to it so when you hand someone a letterpressed business card, it holds their attention for a few extra moments. I loved that idea of paper commanding attention like that. Feeling that first card in my hand at SAA, I just thought, “This is awesome. How is this made? What is letterpress? How do I do it?” Even while I was at design school, before I got my first press, I didn’t fully understand that the terminology we worked with every day—typesetting, leading, upper and lower case, typeface—all came from this traditional letterpress craft. There’s so much history and meaning in it that I see my letterpress obsession as something that completes my education.
The first letterpress became a gateway drug.
I graduated in ’09 and by 2010, I had Amelie, my first letterpress—I name all my presses, by the way. I looked online at different forums and classified ads and ended up finding Amelie on craigslist. There was this guy in the printing business in Dayton and he’d just tinker with letterpress on the side. He was so excited to sell the press to me, to pass it on to a young person who would really work with it. Now, I have a collection of them in my basement. I enjoy rescuing these old machines, keeping letterpress alive. Amelie is more than capable of handling my press needs, but then a friend wanted to sell a press, and then I saw a little semi-broken one in an antique shop… you can see how quickly this became a pattern. If I see a press just collecting dust in a store or basement, it’s heart wrenching to me. I have one press in pieces currently. There was an inch of dust and grime on it when I got it. Letterpress is an endangered art, really: a lot of the old metal type was melted down for money, wood type was burned for heat and warmth, old presses got scrapped from shops. I feel like it’s become my responsibility to care for these things. And really, I don’t mind.
Knowledge keeps letterpress alive.
With every client I convince to letterpress, with every letterpress workshop I hold, the knowledge gets passed on. It is part of my mission to educate people. During the 3-hour letterpress workshops I run in my basement, I let people get their hands dirty; they get to see just how long it takes to lock up type and clean the press, and I teach all the printing terminology. The best thing I can do to help this technique live on is to teach the next generation and show them how it all works, get them excited that old things can still make pretty things. Get some dirt under their fingernails.
Letterpress is a thought process.
I’m usually on the computer all the time for my design work. I spend hours every day in front of a screen. But once I walk down my basement steps, it’s all analog. Letterpress gives me a chance to unplug, to get away from the digital. I think it informs my work in terms of typography and layout. It helps with that age-old dilemma of “is it good or bad to have limitations?” I hate getting a brief where they say “the sky’s the limit. Do whatever you want.” It’s more fun when there are constraints. I get to figure out the puzzle pieces of how to print with the limited characters I have. Sometimes I am missing a letter E and borrow from the same sized but different wood type I have. Then all of a sudden the limitation turns into a creative challenge. The thing that people think is the negative becomes the positive. And I like knowing that I could light candles and print without a computer, Internet connection, or electricity.
Bringing old school printing into the modern world.
I appreciate how analog letterpress is, but I also want to incorporate my work into the modern world, whether it’s subject (like profanity cards) or process. I’m not one of these purists who only uses old wooden or metal type. I like to push what the press can do. One of the projects I’m working on right now involves mixing spices into ink—my business’ name is “paperreka” almost like “paprika”—but unfortunately, ink has such a powerful smell on its own that it masks the smell of the spice. Nevertheless with this spice project, I want people to be like: “What? This is printed by a machine made in 1906?” Yes, Amelie may be 100-years old, but it’s so cool to bring her into the modern world and make the work relevant and current.
Young designers need to use a letterpress.
With letterpress, you can’t use any kind of Photoshop brush or fancy computer-aided fading. It’s one color at a time. One impression at a time. One piece of paper at a time. It forces you to brake down every design into simple elements where you have to think about hierarchy. What needs to be largest? What’s the secondary message? The color? How much spacing should there be? Computers give you infinite possibilities. With letterpress, you have to stop and think about how to break the designs and layers apart and how to make sense of it.
I wish that every young designer could experience what it’s like to think about their work through letterpress, through these simple forms and terms, and then take what they’ve learned back to the computer. It just helps you take out all the extra junk and trains you to start with hierarchy and limitation of typefaces. I am a huge proponent of designing something with one typeface and really thinking about using the different weights, italics, capitals, and lowercase. Go back to basics. Go back to analog work. Get your hands dirty. I think that’s the value of letterpress.
Letterpress got you hooked? Here’s more:
Reka Juhasz’s online stationery store
7 Gorgeous Films About Letterpress
The Next Web’s guide to movies about this magical printing technique
The Beauty of Letterpress
A digital timeline of letterpress history from Gutenberg to polymer plates