[Alyson Kuhn] Studio On Fire recently moved into new premises. We’ve long admired Studio On Fire’s letterpress work — and principal Ben Levitz’ frequent posts for Beast Pieces, his company blog. A couple of weeks ago, Ben wrote back-to-back posts about two recent letterpress projects involving duplexing and side-painting. These caught our curious eye, so we asked him for more-more-more details — and for his philosophy about producing such high-end work.
Can we start with the big picture? How do you help designers sell — or end-users appreciate — the investment that some of these projects represent?
The business cards for Musha Cay and the promo cards for Squarespace are great examples in this regard. I think you are literally buying a couple of extra seconds in somebody’s hands and creating something someone will hold onto because of its quality. The designers’ sensibilities and our production capabilities feed each other — I like to say that awesome begets awesome. Studio on Fire doesn’t compete on price, we compete on quality and production knowledge. We work to match design intent with production possibilities.
That’s a perfect segue. What can you tell us about producing the Musha Cay business cards?
The initial inquiry came through our website. Musha Cay is David Copperfield’s tropical retreat in the Bahamas. Cathy Daly at Musha Cay was intrigued by the quality of what she’d seen on our blog. She provided the layout and said she literally wanted the stock to match the sand in her photograph. She asked about using kraft or chipboard, and we replied that we prefer to spec actual paper grades, which we can order with consistency. We recommended Mohawk Loop Antique Vellum Husk – which has some of the characteristics that attract people to chipboard.
After printing, we duplexed the card to the photo paper. You get the best results when the two surfaces you’re duplexing are as close to each other in weight as possible. Cathy wanted a super-thick card. Rather than trying to duplex Husk 160# Cover to the much lighter-weight photo paper, we used a double-thickness of Husk 110# Cover, meaning that we duplexed the Husk to itself as well. So, the finished card is actually triplexed. [You can read more on Beast Pieces.]
In our new space, we are able to handle duplexing and triplexing in-house. Because of this, we sometimes print the front and back of a two-sided card on a single surface, and then encapsulate the impression surface in the middle — for a far superior-looking letterpress product. We’ve been doing side-painting for several years now — and side-painting on duplexed and triplexed cards makes the edging effect stand out even more because the paper is so thick.
And what about the Squarespace promo cards?
We had produced Squarespace’s business cards a couple of years ago, and the project turned out very well. Tyler Thompson at Squarespace was the creative director on the new project, and he collaborated with Jessica Raley at Bantam on design and production. They had worked together before Tyler joined Squarespace, and Jessica has recently started her own design studio. When Tyler told Jessica he wanted a unique letterpress piece to put into people’s hands at SXSW, he added that he considers the Squarespace business cards one of the best pieces of promotion Squarespace has ever done. To him, the business cards were worth every penny in lasering, because people really respond to the cards and hold onto them.
Tyler wanted the same sort of impact for SXSW, something that people might be a little more inclined to keep than toss. The finished card has two distinct sides: Tyler illustrated the skull, including the lettering, on the commemorative side, which has an SXSW feel; Jessica designed the red side [Mohawk Via Scarlet Red], which is the corporate promo. This card wouldn’t work if the same design was printed cheaply. You make the print object a “business object,” not something that feels disposable. The person holding it thinks, “This is worthy of a couple of extra seconds of my attention,” because of how it feels. That’s a message that resonates with a premium audience: “I can afford to buy that couple of extra seconds in someone’s hands.” [You can read more on Beast Pieces.]
Your blog has a huge following. It’s such a pleasure to read — is it a pleasure for you to write?
We do get good traffic, and the blog gives us good national exposure. Between 60 and 70% of our work now comes from out of state. We’re not an online printer per se, but we very much have a web presence. A lot of the way I talk about work on the site has gone to serve as the most perfect presentation tool to potential clients. You can show somebody right away why something they were thinking would work, won’t. And right while you’re on the phone, you can send a link and say, “Look at this, metallic ink printed on colored stock.” It’s a great library for us, too.
Does Studio on Fire frequently get involved in recommending specific papers?
Yes, we usually walk designers through paper selection. Selina Larsen, our studio director, is our main client interface, and she has all the paper swatchbooks practically memorized. So, if we need a red stock, for example, she knows what our options are and can show us. Selina started with Studio On Fire early in 2007. She was previously at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and she’d also worked with a couple of great design firms. So, she understands both “sides” and can explain the production possibilities and limitations vs. a given design. Selina is comfortable saying, “If you eliminated this flood of white on blue stock .…” For us, it’s a constant learning curve. The more projects we post, the more beneficial it is for building an online reference library.
Last question: How did you come to start Studio On Fire?
I started Studio on Fire in my basement in 1999, right out of the College of Visual Arts. I was working as a graphic designer in Minneapolis. Studio on Fire began as a desire to produce objects by hand, as I had in college. As a professional graphic designer, I was already missing this connection. I’ve always approached letterpress from the design and fine art side rather than the commercial side. I’ve never had any commercial print training beyond taking print production in design school. So, Studio on Fire had full-time employees, but I wasn’t one of them until 2006, when I left Carmichael Lynch Thorburn. CLT, by the way, was a great incubator of creative talent!