Out of character

We are surrounded by disposable imagery, but some designers are desperate to put the heart back into print projects. Garrick Webster talks to creatives who are embracing the traditional, tactile craft of letterpress

’It’s so easy to press a button and print a perfect 40-page book, but where is the heart?’ asks Mikey Burton, a designer, illustrator and proponent of letterpress printing.

Based in Ohio, Burton is part of a global wave of designers reviving letterpress. To him, ’heart’ means setting up the press, messing around with ink, and hearing the bite as the paper is pressed down on to the print bed blocks. Some compare the sound to that of a kiss. ’Your back is aching because you’ve been standing there for six hours, not sitting at a screen pushing pixels around,’ he enthuses. ’There’s an action and a real beauty to it. Also, there is something relaxing and meditative about the repetitive action of printing.’

Designers are drawn to letterpress because of its powerful aesthetic as well as its physicality. ’It’s ideal for things that need some sort of tactile, sculptural impression,’ says Ben Levitz, of Minneapolis-based Studio On Fire. ’Things like line work, text, areas of pattern things that make a sculptural impression on the sheet.’

Traditional letterpress printing uses wood or metal block type, and sometimes engraved image plates. It’s a look championed by the likes of Alan Kitching in the UK and in the US by Hatch Show Print, with its traditional-looking country and western-style posters. It is a skilled craft, and using more than a couple of colours can be very difficult technically, since each impression stretches the paper, leading to difficulties with registration. Large areas of flat colour often come out mottled.

’The nature of letterpress makes designers think more about what they are doing,’ says Manchester-based designer Graham Jones. ’You have the bare minimum to work with solid colours, type and shapes so you can’t rely on any fancy, layered design pyrotechnics to make the design work.’

You have a bare minimum to work with – solid colours, type and shapes – and can’t rely on design pyrotechnics

Graham Jones

As with screen-printing, designers who use letterpresses are gleeful about imperfections like inconsistent ink coverage and lapses in registration. No two prints are ever the same, and when used with thick, cotton fibre-based papers a highly tactile quality is achieved. Business cards and invitations are traditional strongholds of the letterpress, but its use is spreading into corporate and promotional materials, posters and quirky showcase projects. ’We’ve recently been seeing a lot more large-scale projects as clients become interested in letterpress as a production method because it has staying power when it lands in somebody’s hands,’ says Levitz.

Last year, Glasgow Press invited local designer Kerr Vernon to come up with a project to showcase the virtues of letterpress. The result is Impressive Print, a cassette-sized box of six music-inspired cards that, via various blogs, have come to worldwide prominence. The project had the desired impact. ’Glasgow press has seen such a huge increase in commissions that it is moving into bigger premises, has bought another press and taken on another member of staff. That reinforces how powerful a tactile piece of engaging print can be,’ says Vernon.

Letterpress will never again be the dominant printing method, but around the UK, small print shops are putting refurbished letterpresses back to work, and a number of courses are now available. ’It provides the pleasure of touch and the smell of ink,’ says Jones. ’People have an innate interest in touch, and design is just as much about stock and texture as it is about which font you use. That gets overlooked a lot these days.’

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