The Vandercook 100: A centenary homage to 100 printers who love their Vandercooks

[Alyson Kuhn] In 2002, Heather Mitchell and her husband Larry named their new letterpress print shop Just Vandy — Vandy being a term of affection for the Vandercook Proof Press on which they print. In 2009, Heather decided to find 99 other printers who love their Vandercooks and to invite them all to tell their stories in one book. She found them, she designed The Vandercook 100, and then she self-published it. We of course wanted to know what she was thinking.

Heather Mitchell in her garage print shop — where two pallets of The Vandercook 100 keep her Vandercook Proof Press company.

Mitchell’s anthology presents 100 harmonious voices, each contributing a stanza — well, really, a spread — of a love poem to a temperamental piece of equipment. I enjoyed every one, and of course I found some favorites. Mitchell has a keen ear as well as a good eye, setting the occasional choice quote in 36 pt. Filosofia. Even just looking at the photos — presses and their owners and the rooms where they make magic together — and reading the quotes, you get a great sense of the Vandymania that unites these people.

Gene Valentine, proprietor of Almond Tree Press & Paper Mill (est. 1982). His quote continues in small print: “But I couldn’t stop there, and when I heard about a complete paper-making mil for sale, I had to have that too. My wife now locks her office when she’s not using it for fear I’ll turn it into a bindery in her absence.”

What was your original vision for the book?
Heather Mitchell: In 2009, when the Vandercook press turned 100, there was a lot of hoopla. What was really interesting to me was the possibility of seeing where these Vandercook presses live. My Vandercook is just in my garage. I wanted to celebrate printers who don’t necessarily get featured all the time. And I wanted a diverse group: younger and older, novices and master printers. You can see lots of exhibitions that include work printed on Vandercooks, and photos of Vandercook work online and in magazines or journals. I wanted to show everyone’s printing environment and their Vandercook press —whether in your mother’s basement or in a world-renowned institution.

Mary C. Bruno, proprietor of Bruno Press (est. 2004). This response was prompted by someone asking her why she is still single. Mary inherited her press from her father, who passed away suddenly in 2004. She has developed “a line of outstandingly irreverent greeting cards that has seen some success.”

So how did you go about finding the other printers?
The internet is great for that. At Vandercookpress.info [a resource for operators of Vandercook Proof Presses], you can register your Vandercook press in an online census — each one has a serial number. You can look up your press and see who inspected it, and what year it was manufactured. At the time, 1500 presses were documented to have survived worldwide. From the census, I created a master list of Vandercook press owners.

The Nomadic Press, established by Kent Aldrich in 1982. His early exposure to letterpress printing included taking apart a Vandercook Model 219 at the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts. His lyrical reminiscence concludes, “In the end, I was a couple of hundred dollars richer and that press, and all its brass fittings, shone as brightly as a brand new day.”

I put up a website, with a call for entries, and I sent out e-blasts to the 950 people I could get e-mail addresses for. I also posted my project at Briar Press, which is a letterpress community bulletin board. And Felt & Wire did a feature that really helped!

Springtide Press, established by Jessica Spring in 1999. “I enjoy the challenge of printing with unusual objects as long as they can be made .918 inches or ‘type high’ — a feat handily accomplished with an adjustable press bed. Some favorites: fresh laurel leaves, vinyl records, fake grass, old house keys and clock parts.”

What did you tell these people? And what did you ask them?
I knew I would have to show something, so people could tell it was a legitimate project. I created four sample spreads by contacting four different “likely candidates.” I asked if they would be interested in filling out my call for entries, which they could do online. I asked for a description of the business, a story about the press and 10 low-res images.

The letterpress studio (est. 2001) at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC) in Seattle is home to five Vandercooks. Letterpress printer Jenny Wilkson, who manages the teaching shop, comments, “It’s the community’s print shop, sustained by local printers and accessible to students of all levels.” Every year, the school hosts a Wayzgoose, a celebration of letterpress printing.

And how far did you venture down the path before thinking about a publisher?
Fairly early on, I sent a proposal to Chronicle Books. Michael Carabetta, the creative director, was very responsive. He let me know that Chronicle Books was in the process of publishing another book about letterpress. He felt my concept was too specialized for a mainstream publisher, and he suggested that I consider self-publishing the book. He sent me several articles, and I decided that self-publishing made sense.

Mark Barbour (above right) is the founding curator and executive director of the International Printing Museum (est. 1998) in Carson, Calif. The museum’s working collection covers the entire history of printing — and among its presses are 14 Vandercooks. Barbour contributed the delightful and insightful foreword to The Vandercook 100.

How did you get from four sample spreads to 100 spreads, plus front and back matter?
Gradually! Responses were coming in, and after I’d designed 20 spreads, I spread them all out on the floor … and realized I had to do that four more times! So I just kept going. I hired my friend and colleague Hilary Laffer, who is a terrific project manager. She proofread the entire text for consistency and clarity, and she helped me make sure every i was dotted and every t crossed. We had an approval form, and also a form of terms and conditions. I let every printer approve their final spread.

Presshaus LA was launched by Kristine Arellano and husband Richard Kim in January 2012. Kristine received her training and inspiration during a  year-long apprenticeship in Munich, under the tutelage of Christa Schwarztrauber, founder of Fliegenkopf Handsatzwerkstatt.

How did you go about finding a printer?
I had a copy of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook by Amelia Saltsman. I knew she had self-published it, and I contacted Asia Pacific Offset, the print management company she used. My rep, Amy Armstrong, made the whole process quite smooth. I couldn’t have been happier.

John Deason’s Prairie Rose Press (est. 1998) is in Muscatine, Iowa, within 40 miles of two centers for book arts. A dozen fine art printers have studios nearby. John helped establish a printing museum in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and he hopes to create a museum in Muscatine to showcase the press work of Carroll Coleman and Mark Twain, both of whom were involved in printing in the area.

Asia Pacific sent me dummy books, and I decided to go with “flexi-bound,” which is a cross between just gluing and hardcover. My audience is book artists, so the book had to have the quality they would expect. The book has head- and tail-bands, and when I saw a sample of scuff-free varnish on a cover, I knew I wanted that as well. And a black satin ribbon bookmark!

For a limited time, Just Vandy has an exclusive offer on Felt & Wire Shop: an autographed copy of The Vandercook 100 — with a “nice little discount.”  Heather Mitchell will also personalize an inscription if you’d like.

And now that it’s all said and printed?
I do have a sense of accomplishment. And I’m happy to have “met” so many other printers who love their Vandercooks. I recently received an e-mail that is a perfect example of why I wanted to do this. It’s from John Deason of Prairie Rose Press. John called the project “an invaluable resource for all Vandy printers,” and he told me that studying the photos of people’s presses taught him “one really important thing,” which he then explained in great detail, concluding, “It works wonderfully! It has revolutionized my printing!”

Just Vandy’s dandy correspondence card, letterpress printed in translucent aqua and raspberry

Heather Mitchell earned her BFA in Communication Arts from Otis College of Art & Design in 1999. She worked as a designer with Mick Hodgson and Clive Piercy at Ph.D in Los Angeles, including several years of overlap with the founding of Just Vandy. Today, she divides her time between running the letterpress studio and teaching graphic design at The Art Institute of California, Los Angeles.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Mick Hodgson on 09.5.12 at 1:08 pm

    Heather, Looks fab, where can I buy a copy?

  2. Posted by PamelaArts on 09.7.12 at 8:46 pm

    Oh! This is a great post and that book looks fabulous. I just might have to buy a copy!

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