Personal Luxuries

Hot and off the press

Designers are using old letterpresses to put the personal touch back into greetings cards and correspondence, says Mark C O’Flaherty.

November 15 2009
Mark C O’Flaherty

No shopping safari in New York’s SoHo is ever complete without a visit to Kate’s Paperie. The Spring Street flagship is lined with meticulous displays of journals, cards and an infinite rainbow of fine papers and envelopes that make you want to abandon your Macbook in favour of handwritten missives using only the most luxurious of stationery. Among the most seductive products at Kate’s are the bespoke letterpress items that they produce to order. From monogrammed writing sets to wildly ornate Christmas cards, letterpress – where inked plates press into paper and leave a distinctive textural mark along with the imprint – is the vellum-white-hot trend in stationery. Partly it’s down to our nostalgia for early-20th-century modernism, but mostly it’s because the paper products made this way are utterly lovely.

“I think the charm of holding something in your hands and having a connection with the person who made it is very basic and universal,” says Krista Stout, the owner-designer behind the Minneapolis-based boutique letterpress studio Paperedtogether. “People want something authentic, personal and with a story behind it. When I send a box of 500 wedding invitations to a client, I’ve personally held every piece of paper at least twice, and often four or five times. I’ve spent hours mixing the ink to perfectly match a paint chip or a fabric swatch, or the October leaves, and many more hours printing and reprinting until each one is just right.” Stout sells cards through the homecraft website Etsy.com and Luxepaperie.com, but the focus of her business is bespoke, combining vintage elements and nature-inspired imagery with seasonal colours and, of course, clients’ needs. Her style takes something from letterpress’s past and mixes it with contemporary design. Her thistle- and cross-stitch-adorned cards ($4) are enchanting.

Greenwich Letterpress, a studio with a shop in Greenwich Village, New York, which also stocks through Etsy, has a similar aesthetic. Many of its cards feature classic animal prints in a vintage style: their “Warm Wishes” Christmas cards ($17 for six), with finches and pine cones outlined in brown on spearmint paper stock, are a charming nod to Joseph Wolf’s ornithological engravings of the Victorian era.

A lot of modern letterpress work is a direct descendant of the medium’s core beginnings in publishing, and so by inspiration and homage it is text-oriented. The commercial artist Alan Kitching is regarded as a genius for creating bold imagery purely with letters and colour, and his work has been shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Barbican in London. Echoes of his work can be found in the cards produced by small UK-based letterpress companies.

Based in Colchester, Typoretum sells three-fold greeting cards that prosaically spell out in bold type, “With Love” and “Thank You” in four different colours (£3); and Turnbull Grey in London produces quirky greeting cards (£6 for three) with the word “Humbug” next to a graphic of the boiled sweet – a neat twist on the festive seasonal salutation – as well as “Kiss xx” and “Love” Valentine’s cards, all distinguished by the rough hand-set, imperfectly flecked block type that’s reminiscent of playbills and vintage rock-concert posters.

The San Diego-based designers at Elum riff on a similar style; their range of customised Christmas cards, which come with the sender’s name incorporated into the text, and personalised envelopes (starting at $327 for 50), include the “Holiday Woodblock” design, which resembles the advertising for a circus or carnival with its artfully gnarled type. Rather like John Cage’s silences between notes, it’s not so much the ink, as the gaps within the inked areas that make the works so special.

Chris Turnbull, creative director of Turnbull Grey, discovered a love for printmaking in the letterpress studio at Camberwell College of Arts in London. “I loved the presses, blocks of wood and ink,” he says. “It reminded me of being in my grandfather’s shed. There is a magical moment when you pull the paper up and see the printed image for the first time.”

There is such romance around a return to these simplistic production techniques – not least because so much of the iron machinery is so ornate that it could serve as an interiors feature – that letterpress company Harrington & Squires offers the kind of one-day workshop gift vouchers (£125) more commonly associated with wine tastings. Its London shop sells their products and it offers bespoke services, from Z-fold Christmas cards to wedding stationery, as well as lovely editions of the Brothers Grimm’s The Golden Key (£65), gold foil-blocked, hand-sewn and hand-perforated.

In the US, the taste for letterpress stationery has been growing for some time. Kimberly Yurkiewicz, who manages the custom printing at Kate’s Paperie, says that she used to see around three or four letterpress designers at the National Stationery Show in New York every year, “and then it jumped to about 20, and then it seemed there were hundreds, as if a legion of art-school students were taught that a great way to make a living was to create a letterpress studio line. But it grew out of being a cool, in-the-know secret.” The designers that work on the ranges at Kate’s Paperie are at the very top of their game, including Julie Holcomb, who is a veteran of the art. The possibilities with bespoke at Kate’s are endless, from the simple to the avant-garde. “Bespoke stationery has become a personal signature for some customers,” she says. Such an approach is, of course, time intensive, and large sets of elaborate invitation stationery from a high-end letterpress studio can carry a price tag of up to $5,000.

Much smaller in scale are boutique US letterpress operations such as Sesame Letterpress and Lucky and Lovely Design. Like many of the more progressive designers, Sesame Letterpress works with photopolymer – designing often complex plates on the computer and then, by exposing light-sensitive polymer through the design, creating a raised pattern. The process is similar to printing a photographic negative. Then the company inks and prints with the plate in the traditional letterpress way to create designs that are a blend of ornate scriptwork and Victorian natural-history imagery. The bulk of Lucky and Lovely’s business is creating wedding invitations, with prices from £300 for 50 cards.

The Luxe Paperie website stocks Carrot & Stick Press, which makes its green apple and leopard-patterned pieces on five letterpress machines in California. Also at Luxe Paperie, and perhaps the biggest success story in modern letterpress, is Hello! Lucky, run by Eunice and Sabrina Moyle, two sisters in San Francisco. Compared to most of their competitors, their range is huge, from giftwrap to Dorothy Parker-style “It’s a marvellous party” RSVP cards. Their Christmas cards, from “Woodland Chee” to “Folk Angels” ($14 for six), are refreshingly Santa-free.

The Moyle sisters began making cards after buying an old Vandercook press on eBay, and now make 2,000 cards a day. “Our style is happy, vintage, graphic and bohemian,” says Moyle. “Our ‘L’Oiseau’ wedding invitation suite cards (£540 for 100) are most representative of our style – it’s graphic and chic but light-hearted.” Moyle cites the rise of Etsy.com as evidence that the Zeitgeist is hand-sewn and letterpressed. “Letterpress is part of a growing swell of interest in the hand-crafted and ‘slow’; just like artisan-crafted cheese and the Slow Food movement,” she says. “When something heartfelt has to be conveyed, an e-mail can’t compete. The stationery of the future will be unique and handcrafted. If it feels mass-produced, why bother?”

The style moves easily from greeting cards to other gift ideas. Hand & Eye Letterpress in London creates its own children’s books (£15), as well as thank-you cards (£3.75) and posters (£50) in tribute to the artist and typographer Eric Gill that read in one of his 1920s fonts: “If you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself”.

Ironically, some of the most sophisticated Adobe imaging software around today is being used by designers to ape letterpress style. But, like the quality of the leather on Hermès luggage, or the softness of Loro Piana knitwear, you can’t fake it, you have to feel it. As Yurkiewicz at Kate’s Paperie says, “A letter is a gift, receiving it is one of life’s great joys, and regardless of how hyper-tech reliant we become, that won’t change. It’s a universal feeling that will keep letter-writing alive.”

See also

Stationery