[Nancy Wu] Letterpress: My first exposure to this remarkable form of printing may have been in design school when the wonderful Jim Rimmer came by to do a demo on linocuts, which led to my visit to his printing studio. And the rest is history. I got hooked on the process of putting an impression of type or art into thick, textured paper.
That traditional look was typically something best left for serious, elegant or literary projects … or so I thought. Letterpress printing has always been around and continues to stay alive through the passion and perseverance of many print artisans, craft-focused designers and typography-lovin’ kind of folks like these …
My first letterpress card was given to me by Rimmer. Using a combination of hand-set metal type from his shop (including Goudy, one of his favorite typefaces), it was designed and printed for his friend James McIntosh, who ran a cozy bookstore called Colophon Books situated beside Rimmer’s old print shop in Vancouver’s Gastown. Theirs was a long friendship (over 30 years) based on a mutual love of printing, fine books and heart.
At Rimmer’s memorial last year, McIntosh shared how they often worked together on limited-edition prints and custom books. Their working relationship, he recalled, was based on a simple handshake. I visited McIntosh at Colophon after leaving Rimmer’s studio and got to look at some very exquisite books the latter designed, did the linocut illustrations and line drawings for, and printed on his letterpress. Incredible. I left with my purchase of a Japanese import book on business card design, which also happened to have the card above glued inside.
Fred Forster was one of my favorite illustration instructors at Capilano University and still teaches there. He taught me how to see as an illustrator and get things down on paper quickly and with precision. I crashed into him a couple years ago, and we exchanged cards. The card above is an example of where a deep impression on a textured sheet can flatten out the surface; something that digital printing hasn’t conquered yet.
I was impressed by the three-color letterpress quality and wondered if Rimmer had a hand in the printing. Indeed he had, as he and Fred were also long-time friends, once sharing a studio together in Gastown … and they also both liked drawing airplanes. Six degrees of separation? Oh, there is a pattern here. I’m not done yet. One more .…
Once Rimmer moved his studio into his home, Sandhill Press took over his old space, continuing to produce outstanding letterpress work. I had the pleasure of working with Alex Widen for my wedding invitations; he is a meticulous craftsman with an eye for detail … and was a dear friend to Jim. He also made some nice business cards for himself that he shared with me during my press checks.
The first was his “serious” version, printed on a variety of papers (do you recognize the S and P of Sandhill Press as the same letterforms in Colophon Books?). The second is my favorite. It features his Heidelberg press and his dry sense of humor in the text (the type is set in Jim’s typeface, Alexander Quill). Alex has since relocated, along with his printing equipment, to the small town of Clinton, B.C., where he continues to print and hand-bind private-edition publications of the highest quality.
Moving along, here is another letterpress printer’s card from someone with a huge heart. Michael Osborne, president and creative director of San Francisco-based Michael Osborne Design, opened One Heart Press in 1991. The latter operation is responsible for some of the most beautifully crafted print materials coming out of the U.S. today. I’m impressed at how appropriate the rough, layered logotype is for letterpress while remaining quite readable. Michael works on so many different projects with his own firm, the press and Joey’s Corner (for nonprofit projects that matter). Yet he also takes time to work on great print projects with other big-hearted people like Felt & Wire’s Alyson Kuhn (more to come at the end of this post).
A commercial illustrator based in San Francisco with fine art and fine detail in his blood, Dugald Stermer’s tasteful card is elegant, restrained and appropriate for the kind of precision work he does. The deckle edge at bottom also adds visual interest and textural quality to complete the design. Note how the little red accents in his name match up with the application on his website (although the typefaces don’t match). For something so simple, it’s truly quite lovely, and its classic style won’t age quickly.
In the early ’90s, my paper rep came for a visit and showed some really cool promotional pieces with a distinctive typeface used throughout. I eventually tracked down the creator of the typeface and the foundry behind it. Experimental typographer and designer Rick Valicenti of Chicago initially launched Thirstype to publish his Bronzo font series (now known as Ultra Bronzo), and I had to be the first one on the block to own it. While ordering the font, I also requested some business cards and was pleased to get not just one but three unique designs. The fine detail in the letterpress printing and registration is quite impressive. Thirstype has since grown into something much bigger, and is now being run by one of the best independent typeface distributors online, vllg.com.
Shelley Gruendler is the founding director of TypeCamp, an exciting annual event that helps graphic designers stretch their typographic muscles through knowledge, inspiration and creative self-discovery. The inaugural TypeCamp was held in 2007 on Galiano Island, off the coast of Vancouver. It continues to call on typographic powerhouses as instructors (Shelley included). Now in its fifth year, TypeCamp will be spreading further afield to Rome, California, the Bauhaus and India. Holy cow, I want to go.
But back to the card: At my first meeting with Shelley, she gave me one of her usual printed cards while I gave her three of mine to choose from. Then she pulled out the big guns, saying that the above card is the one she’d rather give out, but they were more expensive and limited in quantity. Letterpressed with two colors on gorgeous, heavily textured paper, it feels as good as it looks, trust me!
Painter, poet, book designer, illustrator, writer and publisher of fine-press limited-edition books, Charles Mayrs is also a friend to fellow designer and letterpress printer David Clifford. Clifford’s studio, Black Stone Press, is located on Vancouver’s Granville Island, conveniently a stone’s throw from an artists supply store and a local art and design university. It was on a visit with David that I discovered Mayrs’ super simple and super beautiful letterpress card. Lightly pressed on a thick sheet of watercolor paper, this two-color card tells you everything you need to know about this man who does it all. The back of his card (not shown) is equally simple, with his e-mail address in the same Bodoni font as his name. This card demonstrates that even a thicker illustrative line can have a beautiful quality when expressed with letterpress printing.
As mentioned in my previous article, at my first design conference I took photos of work I liked and wrote down addresses for cool business cards I saw, in anticipation of designing my own card someday. Daniel McClain kindly responded to my polite request, and I still love his card. The simplicity of this design reminds me to keep communication simple and aptly demonstrates that sans serif type can give the “old-style” printing of letterpress a fresh look. It was only many years later that I thought about this card again when traveling in Berlin and saw those stylized crosswalk men that everyone talks about when visiting Checkpoint Charlie.
At another San Francisco design firm I am a fan of, Joshua Chen’s team continues to create outstanding print design work, publications (including 2006’s Fingerprint and the upcoming sequel coming out this fall) and letterpress projects. I asked him for his card at an AIGA conference and was not surprised to receive something with a tactile design and beautiful use of type. Search him online, and you won’t be surprised to find numerous links reflecting his deep love for letterpress, his skill and experience with the medium, and his extensive knowledge of printing papers.
I love Louise Fili’s work, and in 2009 I discovered some recent projects that had a beautiful flowing typographic line and illustrative quality throughout. Don’t get me wrong — I think everything from Fili’s studio is beautifully and elegantly designed, with rich detail and sensitivity to color. However, while searching for packaging design pieces to add to LovelyPackage.com (for which I am also a contributing writer), I got in touch with their senior designer at the time, Jessica Hische (yes that Jessica Hische!), who kindly confirmed details on some package designs. I took the opportunity to ask her for some of her own cards as well as her cards with Fili (not knowing that she would be going out on her own a few months afterwards).
I had to trim one of her cards down slightly to fit inside my black card sleeves … normally they have more clear space on either side of her profile. The in-depth printing details of her card can be seen at Under Consideration’s FPO, but I must say how much I love this card design and how personal she made it. The details of the curved lines in both the printed & blind-debossed areas are exquisite, and the silhouette looks just like her (right down to the tiny dot by her lip to highlight her diamond piercing).
My connection with Felt & Wire came about after discovering that my letterpress-loving friend Alyson Kuhn is a contributing writer. Ever enthusiastic about matters involving the tactile and the tangible — beautiful paper, fine printing, typography and stamps — it’s always great to be in her company. Furthermore, I’m always inspired and excited to see what beautiful letterpress projects she has to share. Not one to settle with a single card, Alyson has several. In addition to her new cards and stationery, there is her previous stationery suite (examples above), complete with two card sizes, in three colors. Note the incredibly fine type quality. Stunning!
As you can see, one card is not always enough. In a future post, I’ll share work from creative firms who find it necessary (and it is) to redesign their cards as locations, styles, print processes or business focus changes. Then there are those who like variation or want to let the staff express their personalities beyond the company name. If anyone would like to send me creative cards for possible inclusion (sorry, they won’t be returned, and yes, they must be real printed samples), please contact me.
Nancy Wu is an award-winning designer, art director and illustrator with experience in the development of logomark and brand identity systems, packaging design, custom typography and print communications. She has 20 years of design experience with established firms, and her talents have been recognized by Communication Arts, Applied Arts, Lotus Awards, How and Identity.
Top image: Detail of polymer plate and printed sample of the author’s 1999 letterpressed wedding program (printed by Alex Widen at Sandhill Press).