Judith Berliner of Full Circle Press … comes full circle again

[Alyson Kuhn] When Judith Berliner opened her letterpress shop in California’s Sierra foothills (Elev: 3000 ft.) in 1991, she didn’t know any other female letterpress printers. How fabulously fitting that she will deliver the keynote address at the first Ladies of Letterpress conference, convening this weekend (August 5–7) in Asheville, N. C. Over 1000 ladies now belong to the organization — and several dozen laddies as well.

Name that colorful typeface? It’s Bunny Ears, designed (many years ago) by Allan Haley, director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging.

My papery path first crossed Berliner’s via phone in January 1996, and a couple of weekends later, I drove 150 miles from San Francisco to meet her. Leaving her home at the end of a lovely evening, I was astonished by how many stars I could see, how crisp the air smelled, and how much chillier it was than when I had arrived several hours earlier. The next morning, when I opened the curtains of my room at The Northern Queen, I looked out onto a winter wonderland: snow everywhere. This past March — 15 years later — I accompanied Ladies of Letterpress co-founders Kseniya Thomas and Jessica White on their maiden voyage to Full Circle Press … and we were all turned into snow maidens. Yes, it snowed on our parade!

One of the first — and funniest — invitations Judith Berliner typeset (using monotype on hand in her father’s shop) and printed. What a swell graduation present for her older sister Ruth.

Over the years, I have watched Berliner in high production mode on several challenging client jobs, including a couple for myself. I also had the great pleasure of meeting her father, Harold Berliner, who passed away last year. Harold was an attorney and a letterpress printer (actually, letterpress luminary is more accurate). And, in an amazing pairing of passions, he co-authored the Miranda Warning (“You have the right to remain silent.…”) and letterpress-imprinted millions of wallet-sized cards bearing that text for police departments throughout the United States, including several non-English versions.

Talk about the power of the press! And putting your personality on paper!

Luscious letterpress-printed menus for Judith Berliner’s dinner party on March 18, 2011, for ladies who love letterpress. The menus are triplexed, with a chocolate-y layer “sandwiched” in the middle. Alas, the soirée was snowed out.

Harold Berliner enticed all eight of his children to help in his print shop, but Judith was the only one to run a press — and the only one to grow up to be a printer. Here are a few of her recollections, and a couple of her observations about letterpress today.

What does the Full Circle refer to?
Full Circle Press came about as a result of doing some 360° changes in my life on many levels … including coming back to where I had learned to print — to open my own print shop. This year is my shop’s 20th anniversary, but I am actually going to celebrate 21 years in 2012 because it has a bit more bounce.

Commemorative letterpress-printed coasters for the ill-fated dinner party.

But haven’t you been letterpress printing for almost twice that long?
That’s true. My father also had a foundry in the barn where his shop was, right next door to our family home. The casting equipment was on the ground floor, and before I left in 1978, I had printed books and small jobs with either monotype or linotype as my source.

Can you remind me what the difference between monotype and linotype is?
Monotype was when single lead characters were arranged to print a line; linotype was literally a line of type, cast on a linotype machine. Monotype came first. And when I started my business, I moved to photo-polymer.

What did you do before opening Full Circle Press?
I worked at Graphic Center, a big litho and letterpress printer in Sacramento, for 12 years. The shop also foil stamped, die-cut, and numbered on the letterpress equipment. I was the only woman in the pressroom. Funny that at Full Circle Press we currently have one man in our pressroom!

Judith Berliner fed little die-cut slide boxes through her Heidelberg Windmill to print the official bonbon box for xoxoxhibit, a show at the SF Center for the Book.

You truly didn’t know any other women printers when you started your business?
It’s true. When Zida Borcich from Studio Z came to visit, I realized this, and I remember crying because I was so happy to meet someone from my “tribe.” She is just lovely. We have not seen much of each other, but I admire her work and her as a person.

Do you remember what year you started accepting electronic files from designers?
Oh, let me see. I started taking electronic files in the late ’90s. Prior to that I had my customers send me film.

Once you turn off the main road, Full Circle Press is about five minutes through the trees.

Did your early designer clients trek up to the shop for press checks?
Yes, they did. I actually had one of my best clients tell me the press check was a “spiritual” experience. People — guys included — hug me before they leave. I’m a little spoiled; if I don’t get a hug, I worry that something is wrong. If people don’t call us back and tell us how they liked the project, we wonder what went wrong. Most printers don’t get a call every time they send a job out, but we particularly like to circle the wagons with every client, to make sure they get what they expect.

Full Circle Press has one Heidelberg Cylinder Press (directly above), 6 windmills, and one Kluge.

What are the biggest changes you have seen, and felt, over these two glorious decades?
We’ve gone from fax to e-mail to PDF. What a relief to be able to see everything!

What jobs are you happiest to see come into your shop?
My favorites are jobs that have been designed to show off the process of letterpress. Along with the “new popularity” comes customers who want to print a job letterpress, but the design is not really a good fit. Sometimes we can work some magic and make it work. And for some images, litho [offset printing] is simply much more forgiving than letterpress. Letterpress is much more equipment-oriented than many people realize. As a printer, I am always thinking, “What press am I going to run this on?”


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Comments (3)

  1. Posted by Kseniya on 08.1.11 at 5:17 pm

    We can’t wait to see Judith at the Ladies of Letterpress Conference in a mere few days!

  2. Posted by Zida on 08.2.11 at 1:14 am

    Hi Judith

    This is wonderful. I remember going on the pilgrimage to see you and loving all of it. I hope i get invited to the next ladies in letterpress thing!!

    many hugs, Zida

  3. Posted by Kelly Lodge on 08.11.11 at 7:35 pm

    Judith, this is so cool! You know . . . I still have the card you made when FCP turned 16 hanging on my bulletin board. I love your work! It is always beautifully done. Congratulations on this milestone and the wonderful article.


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