Screen time is not just a passing fad

By Jenny Roper, Monday 09 December 2013

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That’s the problem with a trend. By its very nature it’s an obsession with the very latest new thing. Great while it lasts, there’s also the inevitable moment when you question why you ever thought wearing dungarees and a backwards cap, or filling your house floor to ceiling with ironic taxidermy, was the only way to go.

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Letterpress printing at Typoretum

So when interest in crafty print techniques really took off a couple of years ago, it seemed demand might not last forever. While certainly pleased with the attention and boosted sales, some who’d been practicing these techniques for years were healthily sceptical about staying quite so on trend.

And yet stay on trend they have. Indeed there are many examples of love of letterpress, screen printing, wood cut and traditional binding in fact going from strength to strength. And while there were worries that, despite buyer demand, most of the people actually creating traditionally printed social stationery, fine art prints, posters and business cards belonged to an older crowd, there are now plenty of adherents from younger generations determined to keep these skills alive.

Which brings us to Dalston, London – home of the young person. With its trendy organic coffee bars and ‘pop-up’, well, everything, it’s certainly the sort of place where a new, even more achingly cool fad is never far away. Which is why when screen printing collective Print Club London was first founded here seven years ago, some may have wondered how long it would last.

In fact those behind the collective, husband and wife team Fred Higginson and Kate Newbold-Higginson, and creative director Rose Stallard, shared these reservations to some extent. 

“I did expect at some point that the workshops wouldn’t keep filling up. I thought in London how many people are going to want to screen print? It’ll be a finite number,” says Newbold-Higginson of the twice weekly workshops the team run, which, as they often lead to people signing up to become regular members, and even sometimes to selling work through the collective, are the “bread and butter” of the business.

And yet demand has remained strong. “We are always full and we teach two workshops every week, and we do corporate workshops as well. Those workshops have 13 people in each so that’s roughly 30 new people a week,” says Newbold-Higginson.

Look at how well the work of many of the club’s members is selling, and it’s clear the desire to buy hand-crafted screen prints is growing alongside the desire to get inky.

In fact some of Print Club’s tutees have even gone on to set up their own studios, as is the case with Peckham Print Studio. (“There are some people Fred’s taught really good techniques to and now they sell that technique to a lot of the big galleries,” says Newbold-Higginson, leading her husband to quip: “I wish at the beginning I’d got everyone to sign an agreement saying I got a certain percentage!”)

Newbold-Higginson adds: “My dad’s friends ran Kelpra Studios, which is where Hockney and Blake were printed. My dad was amazed we’d set this up because he’d assumed, apart from Peter Blake doing stuff now, screen printing had kind of had its day and people weren’t using it. Now it feels like it’s a bit more here to stay and it’s not going to go anywhere again.”

Breaking boundaries

Vital to this latest screen printing wave’s enduring appeal, certainly in the case of Print Club London, is constant experimentation. A more outrageous example is the work of Emily Evans, who printed publicity materials for the film Resident Evil using a mixture of human blood, from the campaign’s creative team, and pigment. (“She knows all about the legal things and the health and safety because she’s a medical illustrator, but is also head of autopsy at Cambridge,” reassures Newbold-Higginson. “We did have to close the whole studio for a few hours though.”)

Then there are the recent prints for Saatchi X and the Marine Stewardship Council using squid ink on rice paper. “That’s a new thing we’re getting asked for quite a bit now actually: printing onto food materials,” says Newbold-Higginson.

Not all experimentation is quite so extreme. Another Print Club artist selling well is Rosie Emmerson, who creates images by screen printing adhesive and then coating it in sawdust or charcoal, to stunning effect.

Such experimentation with both fine art and marketing print making, is the direct result of the medium now increasingly attracting a younger crowd, says Newbold-Higginson. “We did used to have a lot of older people printing in the studio, people in their 50s and 60s, who’d been printing for years,” she says. “Now we definitely have a much younger audience. We’ve still have the odd older member, but generally the demographic is younger.”

“Because we don’t have such a long history we don’t say ‘you can’t do that, that won’t work’. I don’t think I’ve told anyone not to do try anything,” adds Higginson.

Print Club London is also testament to other craft printing techniques still experiencing a surge of interest. And it is testament to this renaissance happening not just in trendsetting Dalston, but much further afield too.

The collective has just gone into partnership with Urban Cottage Industries (UCI), a lighting design and now letterpress company, based in Yorkshire. The letterpress printing arm of the outfit was established in 2011 when UCI bought the company that had been printing its packaging when it was threatened with closure. 

Today this printing arm, which consists of six Linotype and two Intertype typecasting machines, four Heidelberg platen presses and a range of Adanas, is thriving. 

“We’ve definitely expanded since 2011,” reports technician and spokesperson James Wilson. “When we started and we put the print and lighting all together in our old trouser factory premises, the three people on the print side did other jobs, like the packing and shipping of lighting. Now there’s so much demand for our print we have people who are exclusively printing.”

Starting out in 2011 doing mostly business cards printed on reused cereal packets, now the most popular product UCI produces is Moleskine notebooks. “That’s an incredibly popular product. We get one-off orders for books personalised with people’s names on for Christmas presents, but we also get bulk orders from commercial operations,” says Wilson. “So KKDC, a big lighting company, recently ordered 250, and Volvo UK ordered 100 odd recently. There’s a whole market out there for company gifts.”

Added to this product portfolio now are personalised greetings cards, designed by Print Club London’s members and then printed on UCI’s Heidelberg 10x15 and personalised using UCI’s Linotype and letterpress kit. The range was launched at a party at MC Motors warehouse in Dalston last month. If the hip, thicked-rimmed glasses-clad crowd flocking to buy cards and glimpse the shipped-in Linotype machines, and if the nicely growing sales since are anything to go by, the trend certainly hasn’t moved on yet.   

Passing on skills

Of course, vital to keeping these revived craft techniques going will be ensuring that they are passed on. Print Club London already seems to have its brand of fine art screen printing secured in this way. And there’s a sense that screen printing, with its relatively low-tech kit, was never in too grave danger of disappearing completely.

More of a worry, as recently as a couple of years ago, was whether the knowledge about how to operate, and crucially maintain, complex and often temperamental letterpress machinery, for example, would be passed on. The real draw for the UCI/Print Club London party crowds was afterall watching in awe at how Linotype operators of 40 years dealt expertly with the machines’ fantastically complex looking matrix paths and levers, and occasional squirts of molten type metal.

But UCI offers positive news not only on the sustained demand for letterpress front, but also regarding training too. UCI’s “old-timers” David Evans and Phil Nichols are currently training up two apprentices, and always have a student on work experience at the Trouser Factory at any given time.

There are encouraging signs of this happening elsewhere too. Justin Knopp, printer at Colchester-based letterpress workshop Typoretum, had reservations about how long the letterpress resurgence would last, when interviewed a year ago. “I’m almost prepared for the bubble to burst, but I’d carry on anyway. It wouldn’t really matter to me,” he said at the time.

Now however, in response to a recent surge of interest, he’s taken on a couple of apprentices in their mid 20s. “It’s amazing how many younger people are involved in the renaissance. When I got into it and started collecting things and learning the process and trying to keep it going, I really felt it was something that would have been lost,” says Knopp.

Strengthening what the likes of Print Club London and UCI are finding, he adds that demand is high for him not only from creative types wanting hand-crafted posters for their arty abodes, but for corporate and marketing materials too. He cites the example of the letterpress ‘for sale’ notices and name badges he recently printed for a digital conference aimed at web designers.

So it would seem crafty print techniques are set to stick around. Whereas in the past letterpress, linocut and screen printing were very much the domain of a, mostly older, few, now they’re anything but. Whether used to create marketing materials, beautiful stationery or prints at the cutting edge of fine art and design, traditional print advocates are proliferating nicely. And with plenty of youngsters now keen to take up the mantle, craft print seems to be turning from craze back to classic. 

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