Craft Culture: The Art of Letterpress with Studio on Fire

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Photos by Kristine Erickson

Do you know any graphic designers? If you do, ask them to see their business card. Odds are high that your friend’s card looks stylish, is printed on thick paper stock, and has a certain tactility to it. If you run your thumb over its surface, you can actually feel a slight indent in the paper where the graphics and text are printed. That’s because your friend’s card was printed on a letterpress.

Letterpress is a printing technique using a printing press. Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, it is a mechanical printing process that was the primary printing technology until offset printing was developed in the second half of the twentieth century. The letterpress operator locks a plate into the bed of a press, inks it, and presses paper against it to transfer ink from the type, which leaves an impression on the paper. Some simple letterpress machines can print a single piece of paper at a time, while more advanced models can print hundreds or even thousands of sheets per hour. But even these more advanced machines are still analog devices and cannot match the printing speed of today’s digital printers.

And yet, letterpress has not died. The printing technique has developed a whole new generation of devotees who appreciate everything from the final product to the physicality of the process. “I love letterpress, but then again I love all things printing and all things that require a little bit of manual labor,” said Kristilyn Vercruysse, who studied letterpress at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. “Those presses can really be a workout. The end product is just so satisfying. It’s really all about making something with your hands—really your entire upper body.”

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Today, one of the most prominent letterpress operations is Studio on Fire, located in the basement of a nondescript building in Northeast Minneapolis. Studio on Fire is a 12 person operation with 40 to 50 projects at any given time, which range from printing labels for small artisan products to all business cards for cutting edge technology companies like Kickstarter. The company prints on multiple Heidelberg presses from the 1950s–60s, which are considered the height of letterpress technology. When you walk into Studio on Fire, it is alive with the sound of these vintage machines. But it began, as so many companies do, as a passion project in a basement.

After graduating from the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Ben Levitz found work as a designer. Like many designers, most of his work was digital, and he noticed a major difference between what he had trained for in school and what he was actually doing. “What I loved about that place (College of Visual Arts) was the foundation program that put you through drawing, painting, sculpture, photography,” said Levitz. “You got a broad exposure to so many different things, and it was all about making something. And I think the computer removed a lot of that from my daily process and left me kind of wanting to do something that was more similar to my college experience.”

Related Post: Fluid Craft at the American Craft Council

Levitz purchased his first letterpress in 1999 for about $300 and started doing odd jobs for some of his designer friends. He researched the craft of letterpress, reading and participating in online letterpress discussion groups. It was, he said, a very self-taught effort. As he honed his skills, his business grew, and in 2006 he left his agency job to run Studio on Fire full-time.
Levitz said that letterpress does not make sense for every client or every project. It is neither the cheapest nor the fastest printing method. “A lot of the printing industry is a race to faster, cheaper,” said Levitz. “We’re trying to do things that are very distinctly the premium side of things. A lot of our clients are design firms, agencies, business owners that are doing a premium product and need premium printing to go with that.”

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