Keeping it real

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[Arianna Orland] I live and work in Brooklyn. We ride bikes. We shop local. Lately we’ve gotten a lot of attention for our artisanal food and microbatches of chocolate. It’s not only locals who buy these, but we feel a special connection to them. Brooklyn is our “creative terroir.” We support each other’s work because we have awoken to the idea of what’s real. Which leads me to why I love to letterpress print.

I don’t know what the Mast brothers were doing before they started making their practically cult status chocolate bars. Or exactly what drove them to craft microbatches of chocolatey goodness in an old convection oven in the first place. But I’ll venture a guess as to why.

I’ve been a UI designer for ten years. I spend anywhere from four to eighteen hours a day using PhotoShop with millions of colors, thousands of fonts and hundreds of layers – all in service of communicating design solutions. A few clicks and I have access to just about any piece of information my mind can dream up. I work, listen to music, and chat all at the same time. I express my vision in photons, pixels and clicks. My work is both created and experienced virtually. No wonder that after countless hours adrift in a sea of possibility, I find comfort in even the tiniest bite of exquisite chocolate.

After so many years of this work, I’ve built up a tolerance. But at the same time I’ve found myself depleted, desperate for a way to create meaningful interaction. There is seemingly no room for the microbatch in an industry whose very foundation is the infinitude of the world wide web. How could I find a way to create my own perfect chocolate bar? Should I knit a scarf? I could give it to a friend, they might use it in the winter to warm their neck. I could bake a banana bread, I could bake several and give them to everyone I know with a note that I’d sign, Keeping it Real. It was this very hunger for my own act of creation that led me to the letterpress.

My father gave me a one-day workshop at the San Francisco Center for Book for my birthday. Right after I pulled my first proof, I was hooked – with all my senses. The individual hewn blocks of wood type polished through years of use. The tooth of the cotton paper gently sanding the tips of my fingers. The clank of the clunky chase on the press bed. And most of all, the faintly sour ink smell that pervades the studio air.

Back in New York, I started printing at Studio on the Square. Technically, I was confronted by many limitations – and I continue to find joy working within them.  There never seem to be enough letters in a case of wood type. This can only be resolved by inspired wordsmithing or a second press pass. There are no undos. If you make a mistake, at best you’ve lost a single print. At worst, you’ve lost a night’s worth of work… or maybe more.

In my nights spent setting individual blocks of type, locking up furniture, walking my prints, and scrubbing ink off my hands, I rediscover a sense of responsibility to the objects I am making. Each print so imperfect, so fragile and yet so definitive. At the end of the night, looking at a table filled with prints, I think, There it is, my idea, externalized in the physical world.

We need things that are real. The real affects our work by affecting us as individuals, by keeping us rooted and reminding us that we can project our human power onto things that exist. We can manipulate small parts of the world with our ideas and our hands. As human beings, we can connect to one another through our physicality. UI design does much to satisfy my intellect, but letterpress printing satisfies my soul.

Photography: 1 – Portrait: Arianna Orland. 2 – Chocolate: Kathya J. Ethington. 3 – Poster: Naomi White. 4 – Press: Rebecca Hathaway.

Arianna Orland is the principal, creative of Activate Studio and founder of Paper Jam Press. An article in the New York Times referring to Brooklyn as Berkeley East inspired her to write this post. Arianna’s letterpress printed posters will be available on Felt & Wire Shop starting next week.

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Comments (4)

  1. Posted by chase carter on 09.24.09 at 11:52 am

    This is amazing! Arianna, you are a beautiful, talented artist and a welcome addition to this world!

  2. Posted by zach lieberman on 09.24.09 at 6:46 pm

    word! now I’m inspired to make chocolate, and letterpress posters too… congratulations on the project.

  3. Posted by Rebecca Hathaway on 09.25.09 at 12:52 am

    Great article! This struck a chord with me. I took my first letterpress class at SFCB as well, and found it instantly addictive for a few of the same reasons–it’s a complete sensory experience, and a welcome break from sitting at the computer all day. I’ve tried my hand at (and enjoyed) many other creative pursuits, but printmaking just feels more right than anything else.

    I’ll be starting a letterpress apprenticeship next week, and will undoubtedly blog about it!

  4. Posted by carola ponce on 09.25.09 at 3:18 pm

    I’m really glad to read about your satisfaction in going back to the physical art world, your posters are both amazing and inspiring!!!!!

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