Studio on Fire: Letterpress printing grown up

Iron Beasts Make Great Beauty print components

[Sami Jensen] We’ve been keeping tabs on Studio on Fire since we saw the impressive labels they printed for Painted Pretzel. Principal Ben Levitz gave us a peek into the company’s new digs last spring. After ogling Studio on Fire’s book, Iron Beasts Make Great Beauty, we caught up with Levitz to talk about modern-day letterpress.

The cover of Iron Beasts Make Great Beauty is stamped with a seal that reads, “authentic letterpress printmaking,” and the inside pages are filled with pieces that are breathtaking.

Ben, we’ve been ogling your book, Iron Beasts Make Great Beauty. Is it for sale?
Yes, it is. It’s been selling quite well, too. Gestalten did a print run of 4000 copies, and after about two months, they’ve sold through half of them.

That is a staggeringly high number for a special-interest book.
Yes! We were very happy to hear that. It’s been nice to have that book get out there as a tool for showcasing the custom nature of what we do within the print industry, and in an even narrower niche, the letterpress side of things. We made great efforts with Gestalten to make sure that the structure of the covers represented Studio on Fire, and were, in fact, letterpressed at our studio.

Did you have to hand feed each cover?
Yes, due to the thickness of the 100-pt. board, we did have to hand feed the covers, but it was a good time [laughs].

We love the mark on the cover — “authentic letterpress printmaking.”
Some would actually argue that because we aren’t using official vintage type — we’re using either copper or photopolymer plates — that it’s somehow not “authentic.”

Why plates over vintage type?
It’s really driven by client demand and aesthetics. People want something that goes quite a bit further than digital printing, something that’s different than what they’re used to getting in their mailboxes. Having the deep sculptural impression and modern-looking work has been a real focus of our studio. I’ve seen an awful lot of letterpress specifically focus on wedding invitations and occasion cards. We have concentrated on custom work for the professional design audience and production-ready products.

When I was setting up my first press in my basement, I bought six cabinets of vintage type and was setting type by hand, and I discovered that it was much too tedious for me to love. That process was definitely a learning curve and something that informed my understanding of type, but I quickly realized that it locked me into a pretty distinct set of styles. There’s a very obvious aesthetic that you achieve when using vintage materials, but it just wasn’t something I was excited about from a design standpoint. So I realized that I needed to move to a plating method that could create something beyond that.

Ben’s first basement printing press: a 10 x 15 Chandler & Price.

Tell us about setting up the printing press in your basement. You bought your first printing press in 1999 as an act of rebellion. Why?
As a professional graphic designer, I felt like I was missing the experience I’d had during school. There wasn’t design time mixed with shop time. There was a much larger breadth of activities as a design student, more hands-on work. In the professional world, there’s so much focus on digital media and the work was very fast-paced and retail-driven.

You missed the hands-on work from being a student, so you decided to buy a printing press?
Exactly. I missed the tinkering element. While I was at my first design job, I became aware that a press was something I could potentially own. So I set up a printing press in my basement and began doing letterpress very much as a hobby while still maintaining a full-time job as a professional graphic designer. I often spent a lot of late nights and weekends doing print work.

Most people park their car in a garage, but Ben says a Vandercook letterpress fits well, too.

When did you take the leap and start Studio on Fire?
I was living in California, in the Bay Area, where I had a garage-based studio, until about 2001, when I moved back to Minnesota. I worked as a senior designer at Carmichael Lynch Thorburn until 2006, when I realized I was designing at the agency for 40-something hours a week and also trying to run a letterpress studio for 40-something hours a week. It got to the obvious point that letterpress printing was more than a hobby.

A “whimsically elegant” wedding system printed by Studio on Fire

How does Studio on Fire stay competitive?
I don’t know that it’s as much about staying competitive as it is about reputation and capability in our case. There aren’t many letterpress shops out there that can handle the same set of specifications that we can handle. We generally get projects that are highly custom, more difficult press projects. For example, we do wedding invites, but we typically see ones that are several colors, multiple die cuts, maybe two specialty papers glued together, edge coloring … stuff where it’s not just a straightforward choice out of a wedding album. On the more commercial side, we’ve seen a huge growth in our business of jobs that are running several thousand impressions. In the last year, we’ve added an additional commercial pressroom and installed four additional cylinder presses, which gives us the ability to handle tremendous volume.

Studio on Fire’s studio director Selina Larsen with client at open house

Wow. That’s incredible growth. You must spend quite a bit of time educating designers and potential clients about letterpress.
We do, actually, almost on a daily bases. Both our studio director Selina Larsen and myself find ourselves on the phone continuously throughout the day having learning-curve conversations directly with clients, specifically designers, about what’s going to work regarding what they’ve sent us and what isn’t going to be possible. So, just on an individual level, that happens daily. We’ve also been very involved with AIGA, having groups over and doing student tours through our workshop to show people what the modern days of letterpress looks like.

Studio on Fire’s 2012 desk calendar, printed on Mohawk Loop

So what is modern-day letterpress?
We’re a lot like most other places that are doing contemporary letterpress in that a lot of our work uses photopolymer plates. We have the ability to do up to a 19 x 25 size plate in-house and we can print a plate that big. As I mentioned previously, using vintage type can box you in to a specific design style, whereas polymer plates allow you much more design flexibility and customization. I was fortunate enough early in my printing career to be in the Bay Area for a couple of years, and I had the opportunity to learn about polymer plating at the San Francisco Center for the Book. There, I was able to work with printers from Michael Osborne’s One Heart Press, people that I admired from a quality standpoint, who knew the ins and outs of photopolymer.

Duct Tape & Glitter business card, printed by Studio on Fire

Looking through Iron Beasts Make Great Beauty, we see that your projects include business cards, identity systems, posters, wedding invitations, specialty items, etc. How would you say your business divides up in terms of the types of projects people are coming to you with?
That’s a tough one. At any given time, we have somewhere north of 30 different items in production. Right now, it’s well over 50 items, all of which at various points within our 10–15 business day turnaround time. As I look at our production board, it’s at least 50–60% business cards, maybe 25% wedding invites, and 25% other, some of which are corporate invitations. We do quite a bit for universities and nonprofits, which tend to order a bit more quantity.

See Jane Blog business cards, printed by Studio on Fire

It’s encouraging to hear that 50–60% of your work at any given time is business cards. It’s good to know that business cards are still a tangible way to express personality, and that people are still using them.
I agree. A few years ago, we did many more stationery sets, but now it’s almost exclusively business cards without letterhead and envelopes. When people are doing a stationery system, they say “let’s make a statement with our business card.”

Plumeria business card, printed by Studio on Fire

Show us something really unique.
We did a really beautiful business card last week that had a split  fountain logo and a gradient edge color, duplex pasted after printing to hide impression show-through. It turned out really nice.

Tell us about your edging techniques?
That is something we’re protective about. If we tell you, well, you know …. [laughs] There are a few different ways it can be done. There was actually a really nice post on Oh So Beautiful Paper about edge painting, but we’re protective of our secrets, because a lot of other printers and letterpress shops bring us edge coloring projects.

Studio on Fire’s newly added press room with four printing Heidelberg Cylinders

What’s the next frontier, Ben?
I am super excited about offering letterpress printing for big projects. I would really like to continue to see the process become viable for bigger and bigger clients. With the capacity we’ve added in the last year, we have big potential. We now have the ability to form client relations with big companies that could have an endcap of letterpress product with things that aren’t produced in China. That’s where I would love to see us go. From a design standpoint, we are continuing to grow our own artistic print editions as well.

Ben Levitz is the principal of Studio on Fire, a design and letterpress workspace located in Minneapolis. We’ve written about their delicious letterpress printing and studio space previously on Felt & Wire. If you can’t get enough (we can’t), check out the book, Iron Beasts Make Great Beauty, or the blog Beast Pieces.

All photos © 2012 Studio On Fire

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Comments (6)

  1. Posted by David Wolske on 03.16.12 at 1:48 pm

    Studio on Fire’s work is amazing and Ben’s skills and knowledge of commercial letterpress are top tier. I have nothing but respect for their output and envy their studio (space, equipment, etc.) and client list. But to say that \using vintage type can box you in to a specific design style\ is a bit like saying using twelve tones limits the style of music one can play.

  2. Posted by Ben Levitz on 03.16.12 at 2:30 pm

    David, to explain where I’m coming from further, I’ll carry along that music analogy… My comment about vintage metal type offering a limited design palette is simply saying you can create much different sounding music with a digital keyboard than you can with an acoustic piano.

    For a great read, take a look at this article from Eye Magazine:

    This is a quote from that article that I’ve certainly witnessed within the design / letterpress work that dwells on reusing vintage type and cuts:

    “While working within restrictions has clear benefits in an educational context, the limited materials available can sometimes carry just too much historical baggage, and as a consequence the designer can appear trapped within a bright world of farting exclamation marks and Victoriana. Equally while much of the work emanating from the ‘fine press’ community may aspire to a position ‘outside of time’ the movement itself seems deeply caught up in a variety of beautifully delivered period dramas.”

    It’s simply about expanding the aesthetic and having the right tools for the job.

  3. Posted by David Wolske on 03.16.12 at 3:15 pm

    To return to the music analogy, Beethoven, Bartok, and Ben Folds all compose(d) on a piano.

    I certainly know where you’re coming from, Ben, and I understand and appreciate completely the context of the statement. I too have to educate my clients and students, and that’s why I had to point out that a limited palette is not a restriction on creativity.

    I too have witnessed the rut of pastiche when working with vintage tools and materials, both within the ‘fine press’ community and in commercial design and letterpress. Just as I am very conscious of the glut of ‘social stationery’ printed from photopolymer that endeavors to ape the style of work produced by Studio on Fire.

    To bring this back to the world of printing, Wolfgang Weingart, Alan Kitching, and Emily McVarish, all use vintage type and/or cuts to make work that is thoroughly contemporary and distinctive. I strive to do the same and I encourage my students and clients to do so also.

    As an educator I’m wary of perpetuating misconceptions. When use of photopolymer was becoming prevalent, letterpress printers had to educate potential clients of the possibilities. Now that deep impression “letterpressed” business cards seem to be the de facto standard, I find myself working very hard to dispel the notion that there’s only one letterpress aesthetic.

  4. Posted by Amber on 03.16.12 at 3:19 pm

    Ben! Fantastic work as always. Love seeing the growth of your studio. You {studio on fire} represent letterpress in such a great and refreshing way, as a commercial print shop. I want those edge painting secrets! And I want to see you run that KSBA! Hats off to all of you over there!

  5. Posted by Danielle on 09.13.12 at 9:29 pm

    I can tell you, these people are top notch printers and their studio is AMAZING! I lived in Minneapolis while I studied with Chip Schilling of Indulgence Press (another brilliant printer and book maker). One day I hope I can really be a part of this movement in a bigger way than just being a hobby printer. We will see! It’s an awesome place though, if you can visit or have the money to get work from them I doubt they will ever disappoint. I so wish they would share their edge painting secrets though. I’m so far away, how can I be competition haha! One day I’ll figure it out.

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