I am looking for comments and ideas about how/why letterpress has become so popular in the last several years. specific ideas (that include dates, references, and etc.,) are welcome, along with more abstract, overarching cultural trends, notions, and the like.
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Martha Stewart’s attention to the work of Julie Holcomb is certainly part of the increased public awareness, but the expansion of Book Arts classes to many different colleges and other institutions is probably responsible for the increase in practitioners.
I think it’s certainly partly a reaction to the overwhelmingly digital nature of life nowadays. With many things being reduced to pixels (books, etc.), people begin to value a beautiful physical object made by hand. Consider steampunk as well – giving modern inventions an old world look.
Ironically, I’d also say it’s this increased access to modern technology that has helped, as I would think the majority of letterpress printers use photopolymer plates from computer files.
Being 24, I have grown up with computers- not around them but actually with the computer industry itself. I still learned cursive but I also played games on floppy discs. I think a lot of people my age and slightly older feel conflicted about technology. I most definitely have a love/hate relationship with electronics. That’s why I love going down to my basement, mixing up some ink and printing with type that was made before I was born on a press that was made before my grandparent’s were born.
Well, I’d say it has very little to do with letterpress per se; seems across the board for most of the “crafts.”
Some likely possibilities: unlimited and unrestricted worldwide web access that provides both information and disinformation (without critical discrimination), turn-of-the-century “future shock” (similar to the 20th century), the prevailing “cult of the amateur” (wherein anyone can do anything and should not be judged or criticised), technological change (primarily digital)…
Pick one, or another, or all. This all has nothing to to with the movers and shakers in the letterpress world.
Firstly this is my opinion, I may well be entirely wrong, but here’s how I see it. (I may be wrong, and quite often am!). Apologies in advance if this is a bit long winded.
There’s a lot of things at play here, but the combined effect has got us to a kind of tipping point, and that is what is driving the resurgence.
Theory 1. - Young designers.
There’s a good proportion of younger people like me who are Graphic Designers who want a more hands-on approach to our craft (everything being computer related these days). Much of design is romanticised - (older designers always taking about the good old days, bromides, letraset etc.) Letterpress one of the few areas where the actual thing at the end lives up the promise of the nostalgia. When everything is always identical, it’s nice to be able to have subtle variations across the run and control of those variations.
Theory 2. - The Rise of Craft Markets
Over the last 4-5 years there has been a steady increase in the growth of independent craft markets, lots of funky young things are looking to make stuff, and they’ll use presses in all sorts of way that would make a press man cranky.
My pet theory on this, is that this group of people are a mixture of designers and other people doing white collar jobs who want to make something and feel validated by selling it. (If you’ve never worked a white collar job it’s hard to explain how meaningless it can feel - which leads neatly to….).
Theory 3. - The need for meaning.
There is a desire for the handmade, and there is a desire for the custom which a lot people feel a need for - it’s easy to buy something off the shelf, and it’s more rewarding to find something that really speaks to you personally and that there is only a limited amount of that thing available. I think that implies meaning and value beyond the material costs.
Theory 4. - The Commercial Imperative
A few years ago you couldn’t give away some of the letterpress gear (especially the big heavy presses) and now it’s getting extremely competitive and virtually everybody knows the value of the equipment.
This, coupled with the fact that many forward looking craft printers and designers have identified the trend (and help sustained the trend and the commercial need for,) and started selling letterpress as a product again.
Some are doing well, others not so much, but there’s a viable industry that has sprung up once the terms of reference had changed (the modern print industry is pretty cut throat and a modern letterpress printer doesn’t compete in that sphere anymore and there needed to be some distance between the new industry and the craft of letterpress to make it easy to make the case to customers why it’s worth paying extra for letterpress).
Theory 5. - The old guard did not give up.
Letterpress was dying - a lot of specialist knowledge is still being lost every day - I think there are lots of people who will quickly gloss over it as a fad, and forget about it, but there’s also a lot of people who have developed a love for the craft and want to protect it for the future.
There have been some stand out craftspeople who have protected it and shared it enthusiastically with the young turks. It’s the old guys protecting the craft and their enthusiasm for sharing it which has set the tone for the younger generation of printers - their enthusiasm has been infectious. I was given a huge leg up with advice from another Australian letterpresser (Poppy Letterpress), and I happily share what knowledge with other folks and now help out the instructor teach the letterpress course at my local Polytechnic. Swings and roundabouts I think the phrase is.
The net effect of this friendly culture of sharing and the rise of internet (especially sites like Briar Press) has lowered the barriers to entry to the curious.
Theory 6 - The equipment.
The equipment is often quite beautiful. People appreciate well made machines, and I think this comes back to the idea that people are looking for more meaningful things for their lives. It’s hard not to romanticise the artform when the machinery is so beautifully designed. I’m proud of my presses and I’m proud that I saved at least one from being turned into scrap. It is my hope that my presses are well looked after and that I help preserve them for the next generation. My C&P is older than any member of my family - that means something to me for some odd reason and I feel now it’s my responsibility to help protect that legacy.
The days of cheap machinery going for virtually nothing are gone, the urge to collect is a pretty powerful thing, and once you buy a little hand press, you buy another, and soon you’re looking up freight costs to ship palettes across the country! ;)
As I said at the start - I don’t think it’s one thing, but the combination of meaning, craft, friendliness of the community, appreciation for the aesthetic which signifies something more than mass production and a rich history and mystique that captures the imagination.
I think funnelbc has it right, there are many factors influencing the popularity of letterpress technology.
As for me, it has always been the craft emphasis and the challenge to utilize the tools of that craft to obtain work which gives me pleasure and can be enjoyed by others.
I was pleased to read in a couple of the responses the word “craft” being used as a descriptor. Arguably the design aspects of the greeting card market, for instance, might be called “art”, but the printing itself is very much a craft.
I have, perhaps, an unusual perspective for a modern letterpress printer. I see the process as a very predictable one. The process is very much based on the science of image transfer. If the machinery does its job, being properly adjusted and using tested materials, there is no question of the outcome. This is particularly true when using photomechanical printing surfaces such as copper, magnesium and photopolymer plates.
The craft comes in the adjustments. Makeready, the technique of adjusting minute variations in pressure to ensure adequate pressure for transfer of the ink film to the substrate, is certainly part of that craft. Ink adjustment on the press is another. Knowing just how much ink to use to get a good image and maintaining that ink level throughout a run is a skill which is acquired through practice.
As a kid, I was enticed by the literary aspects of being able to set and print small newspapers and booklets, and cash was required for reproduction of these. Letterpress equipment and type were available and inexpensive, and gave me the means of production which I could operate myself. These were the days before desktop publishing, and laser or inkjet printers.
My interest started over 45 years ago, and has never flagged. There must be something magical about letterpress printing to keep my interest for so long.
i had forgotten about the julie holcomb/martha stewart angle, that was pivotal in the late 90s. along with a major introduction in the wedding stationery sector at that time with the letterpress/engraved album produced by dickesen’s in atlanta. i think the line has still ceased production, but those two, holcomb and the dicksen’s line (can’t recall the product line name just now, but it was designed by the nyc firm m&w) jump started the letterpress interest in the new york stationery show back in the late 1990s.
to many: the high-touch/low-tech angle is also compelling.
As a printer that started in the early 60’s with letterpress, it was a real art and craft do print every job, not everyone could do it.
Than the kids came a long, and designed the computer world of today. But, with all the graphic designs and computer games etc, of this new kid world, the feeling of the craft of making somethings was going away.
People no long play sports outside are work out to loss weight. We play computer plays to give us the feeling of doing something. But we are NOT doing anything, but pushing buttons or jumping to watch a computer screen tells we are doing something.
The art of letterpress, artwork, books, a note pad etc, is REAL. A person did it and did it with their own hands, NOT some computer game etc some 18 year old wrote in this living room and sold to a computer company to make for him to become RICH.
LETTER PRESS IS REAL, A PERSON(S) TOUCHED THE ITEMS, MOVE THE TYPE AROUND. PUT REAL INK ON PAPER ETC.
That is why letterpress is coming back. It is real!
Look at Etsy and the success of its sellers. It is a kind of art
The desire to craft or create, to meld the new technology with the old, to be able to hold, feel, see, hear and even smell the experience of making an idea and possibly to share it with others that appreciate it! and how it was accomplished!
Letterpress printing may have an endearing physicality that draws to it those mentally fatigued with virtual reality and the humdrum of the digital world but to term a technological process itself “art” is somewhat off base.
Even to term it a craft, to me is quite odd, since craft is dependent upon practice.
Art and craft might more rightly by thought of as qualitative measures—rather than as categorical terms—that are not dependent upon a means of production.