Crafty printers revive Gutenberg's legacy

Jenny Roper
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If Johannes Gutenberg had possessed a time machine, he would have been well-advised to steer clear of the latter half of the 20th century on his travels. Post-1950s, he would have been greeted by sights of his invention's movable type ancestors heading for the scrapheap, superseded by flashier and faster machines and forgotten about by all but a few staunch letterpress devotees.

But the 21st century is shaping up to be a much less depressing place for movable type fanatics. Twitter is abuzz with people exchanging letterpress tips and gossip, coffee tables are strewn with books dedicated to letterpress designs, and the process even has its very own iPad app and film, Linotype: the Film, due to be premiered in the UK soon.

Whereas champions of the craft feared 10 years ago that this skill would be lost, there is now a new, younger crowd keeping it alive. And the craze is certainly not confined to designers and print geeks. With letterpress greetings cards now making the leap from craft fairs to high-street chains such as Paperchase, even those who don’t know their platens from their perfecting are developing a love of letterpress, and printers with the relevant skills and kit are capitalising on this.

Of course, the process will never be used on the same commercial scale it once was. And this, many would say, is the point.

As Gutenberg would proudly tell you, if he were indeed here in his time machine, letterpress was for over 500 years the most functional, commercially viable method of mass communication. But although the process has travelled from 1440 to 2012 largely unchanged, the motivation for letterpress printing is today very different.

Letterpress printing is now not so much about getting the job done in the most efficient way; it is about choosing to take a step back from our highly automated and software-orientated world.

"People who come on our courses invariably sit in front of a computer all day and just want to physically engage with something and be in control of producing something every stage of the way," says Helen Ingham, tutor of letterpress workshops at the St Bride Foundation.

She puts her own discovery of this process 10 years ago down to the same impulse. "I used to be a plate-maker for an offset litho printers and then, after a time out of printing, I went back and had to learn Mac software," she says. "But I got sick of the distanced digital processes – I thought ‘this is turning me into a programmer’. So I started looking at older methods."

William Allardice, director of litho and letterpress publishers Archivist Press, agrees that, whether casual amateur, designer or professional printer, the lure of letterpress is the satisfaction of producing something through a tangible and hands-on activity. "For me as a producer, it’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life," he says, explaining that making money from letterpress was never his motivation when he began experimenting on a tabletop Adana five years ago.

But fortunately for Allardice, both print buyers and consumers were also apparently craving something beyond the mass-manufactured offering at around this time. When Waitrose decided to stock Allardice’s letterpress greetings cards in 2009, he realised he had a modest money-maker on his hands. Consumers too, whether they realised what process had been used to produce their cards or not, were attracted by the kind of results letterpress delivered.

Perfection fatigue
Chrissie Charlton, co-founder of letterpress print and design house Harrington & Squires, puts this attraction down to a desire for items that, due to "quirky spacing and the odd chipped letter", have more character and individuality.

"I think everybody’s becoming a little bit jaded by the flatness and, in a way, the high quality of print these days," she says. "It’s just too polished."

Of course, this fatigue with the uniform aesthetic of mass-produced goods wasn’t and still isn’t confined to print. And as with a renewed interest, first emerging around five years ago, in all sorts of other handmade goods – such as screen-printed cushions, boutique clothes and locally baked cakes – going back to basics is about more than the finished look.

Justin Knopp, founder of letterpress printing workshop Typoretum, explains that with recession came not only a wave of consumers turning their backs on big business and saving money in the long run by crafting their own goods, but also a different consumer mentality. With environmental issues also coming to the fore, spending has become, he explains, more focused on less throwaway, higher quality and locally sourced products.

"I think people are attracted by the fact that they can see Typoretum’s products have been printed in the UK and on paper that is made in the UK, so they know they’re supporting local business" says Knopp. "And we’re receiving more questions from people commissioning wedding invitations, for example, about how we ensure our products are environmentally friendly."

But letterpress’s popularity certainly isn’t confined to consumer items such as greetings cards, fine art posters and wedding invitations. Knopp reports that business cards are a key growth area for Typoretum, with companies using the artisan appeal of letterpress print to project a trendier, less corporate image.

Harrington & Squires’ Charlton confirms that more and more businesses are keen to differentiate themselves from the competition with a letterpress card. "We get asked for quotes from architects, developers, epidemiologists, security companies, fashion designers and all sorts of other people willing to spend a bit more money on a business card that clients are more likely to keep hold of," she says.

Mark Moran, director of letterpress printers Blush Publishing, agrees that business cards are a key commercial opportunity. But he says that the rapid growth of his company is down to demand for a whole range of other products too.

"Our growth over the past five years, from a pedal-powered press in the garage to three units in an industrial centre, has been down to the variety of jobs coming in," reports Moran. "This morning, we could be doing 20 wedding invitations and then this afternoon we could be doing 10,000 flyers, so we’re basically a general printer that just happens to print on letterpress machines."

And the money can be good. Whereas a run of 500 business cards might cost £20 printed digitally or litho, such a set could bring in around £200 for Blush, reports Moran.

And yet, despite the apparent commercial viability of letterpress, operations like Blush’s are still scarce.

"I can probably count on one hand the number of companies doing letterpress on a commercial basis in the UK," says Moran. He explains that the situation hasn’t changed much since he founded Blush, having seen the contrast between the US’s thriving commercial letterpress scene and the gap in the UK market, in 2007.

Which begs the question of whether more letterpress printers could potentially turn their craft to commercial gain.

The answer to this would seem to be: it depends what sort of letterpress printing you want to do. Certainly, most agree, there seems to be sufficient consumer appetite to sustain more companies willing to do letterpress printing on a similar scale to Blush.

But, though a route to market requiring little initial outlay, printing on an Adana press at the kitchen table only makes so much money. Indeed Typoretum’s Knopp warns that his business, despite boasting two hand-presses, a proofing press, two platens and a cylinder press, doesn’t generate much in the way of revenue.

"What we do is really hard work, we’re working all of the time to get the work through, so we have to love it," says Knopp. "The business makes enough money to sustain itself, but not loads, because this is a relatively slow, labour-intensive process."

Passion print
He warns, then, that letterpress printing will always be something that most people do out of a passion for the craft, perhaps making a bit of money on the side. Anyone setting up commercially, he also warns, will have to be just as skilled as someone producing quality one-off prints as a hobby.

Another potential barrier to entry is that there are now only so many letterpress machines and so much type in circulation.

"If you won a million pounds, you could set up tomorrow as a litho printer or digital printer. You could go and buy the equipment off the peg and get it installed," says Knopp. "But with letterpress, it takes a long time to look around to find kit and have it repaired. Even the newest of letterpress machines were made in the mid-1960s, so renovations and significant maintenance are often needed."

So it remains to be seen whether the letterpress craze has reached its zenith or will continue to grow, as more ‘crafty’ types discover this activity and consumers discover its products. While more commercial operations springing up could raise the profile of letterpress further, a finite number of machines and the realisation that there could be more lucrative areas to set up shop in could put a cap on this kind of growth.

But those who have fallen in love with letterpress over the past decade are not too concerned about its wider appeal – or lack thereof. Gutenberg can rest assured: this new wave of letterpress fanatics are in no hurry to give up their craft or stop spreading the word. Letterpress, then, looks set to live another day.


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