The Letterpress Thrives in an iPad Age
On a March evening in Brooklyn, Donatella Madrigal is standing at a Vandercook Universal press, wiping her ink-stained hands on a denim apron. She has just run off several hundred greeting cards, which she’ll sell online and in neighborhood gift shops for up to $5 apiece. By day, the Madrid-born 27-year-old is a graphic artist who designs ads for clients such as Bobbi Brown Professional Cosmetics, working mostly on a computer. In the evenings, she goes analog, printing cards at The Arm Letterpress, a former garage filled with vintage printing presses rented out by the hour to artisans.
Using hand-set type or plates of her own design, Madrigal places paper stock on the printer bed. She lifts a heavy crank that rolls her card stock across the inked plate with a satisfying thunk. “It’s an excuse to get down and dirty and to get away from the computer, and I’m always learning from the paper,” Madrigal says as she runs her hand across the deep grooves that the image carves into sheets of all-cotton card stock.
In the past decade, letterpress printers have grown into a thriving community. Many of the most devoted members are graphic designers who, like Madrigal, are seeking an alternative to their digital day jobs. An online group called Ladies of Letterpress, “dedicated to the proposition that a woman’s place is in the print shop,” has nearly 1,500 members (including 50 men) and an annual meeting that draws more than 100 people for a weekend of workshops and schmoozing. “It’s almost like artisanal breadmaking,” says Sarah Schwartz, editor of Stationery Trends magazine, a trade publication. “People are returning to things done by hand, and it’s a very tactile art form.”
The market for letterpress items has resisted the downturn in luxury goods that followed the 2008 financial crisis. Kate’s Paperie, an upscale Manhattan stationer, says letterpress products jumped to 44 percent of sales last year from 33 percent in 2010. Etsy, the website that hosts online stores for handmade goods, listed over 22,000 letterpress items in early April, more than triple the number a year earlier. “To spend $4 on a card to send to my best friend who’s just had a baby is not a big splurge,” Schwartz says.
Traditional letterpress printers eschewed the deep impressions in the paper that Madrigal enjoys, known in printing lingo as “punch.” They preferred a smooth finish called the “kiss” that resembles the product of a laser printer. “In the old days, type would wear and you had to work carefully to make sure it all hit the paper at the same level,” says Mike O’Connor, founder of the Amalgamated Printers’ Association, a hobbyists’ guild. “You were considered a craftsman if there was no punch at all. … Now it’s the effect you want.”
Kimberly Austin was a photographer in San Francisco when she caught the letterpress bug. Eight years ago, she spent $750 on her first press, a hand-powered Chandler & Price. Austin Press, her one-woman business in a converted warehouse on the San Francisco docks, has become a full-time job, with three letterpresses churning out greeting cards, thank-you notes, and wedding invitations with illustrations and phrases culled from 19th century engravings. “It’s hard to resist the punch,” says Austin, who sells her cards in her online shop and at the women’s clothing chain Anthropologie. She says she did about $250,000 in sales last year, double the level three years earlier.
Zoe Feldman rents time at The Arm every few weeks to print cards with ironic phrases from 1990s TV shows, and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards for same-sex parents, and sells them on Etsy. “It’s not exactly the Hallmark demographic,” says Feldman. The former Pepsi executive and MBA candidate at New York University’s Stern School of Business says she may forsake corporate life if the nascent business takes off.
The Arm is the creation of Dan Morris, whose great-grandfather was a printer in Ohio. Morris studied art and architecture in Australia before apprenticing to a letterpress printer in Baltimore. Fourteen years ago, he paid $285 for his first Vandercook, a mid-20th century model considered the Cadillac of hand-cranked letterpresses. The same machines sell for $10,000 today.
The decline of the letterpress began at the end of the 19th century, when linotype machines allowed printers to set type as fast as they could tap at a keyboard. By the early 1890s, the country’s remaining type manufacturers had consolidated into a single company, American Type Founders, says Morris, whose bookshelves are lined with type catalogs from the early 20th century. Letterpress managed to hold on through the advent of offset printing, the Xerox machine, and the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Canon. “These presses can last 100 years, and some of my best presses were only built in the 1960s,” Morris says. “As long as there are people who know how to use it, there will be letterpress.”