Hot off the press (Financial Times How to Spend it)

No shopping safari in New York’s SoHo is ever complete without a visit to Kate’s Paperie. The Spring Street flagship’s 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 and email software in favour of handwritten missives using only the most luxurious of stationery. Amongst the most seductive product 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 right now. Partly it’s a reaction against the trite and corporate lack of creativity that spelt doom for the unlovely Clinton Cards empire and partly its because we’re embracing 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 designer behind the boutique letterpress studio Papered Together. ‘People want something authentic and personal, something 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 in my hands 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, many more hours printing and reprinting until each one is just right.’ Stout sells a range of 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, the clients needs. Her style is chic and pared down, taking something from letterpress’ past and mixing it with contemporary design. Her thistle and cross-stitch adorned cards (£2.50) are typical and enchanting. Greenwich Letterpress, a studio with a store in New York which also stocks through Etsy, has a similar aesthetic. Many of their cards feature classic animal prints, while their ‘a holiday toast’ Christmas cards ($18 for six) are a charming nod to Victoriana, with two hands clinking goblets, one with a ruffed sleeve end.

A lot of modern letterpress work is a direct descendant of the medium’s core beginnings in publishing, so by inspiration and homage is largely text-oriented. The commercial artist Alan Kitching is widely regarded as a genius for creating bold imagery purely with letters and a variety of colour – his work has been shown at the Pompidou and the Barbican. Echoes of his work can be found in some of the greeting cards produced by small UK based letterpress companies: Typoretum sell three-fold greeting cards that spell out, prosaically in bold type, ‘WITH LOVE’ and ‘THANK YOU’ in four different colours (£3).  Similarly, Turnbull & Grey is another small London company who produce 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 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 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, that and the obvious passion that its creators have for the process.

Chris Turnbull of Turnbull & Grey discovered a love for printmaking in the letterpress studio at Camberwell College of Art. ‘I loved all the presses, machines and blocks of wood and ink,’ he says. ‘It reminded me of being in my grandfather’s shed as a child. There is a magical moment in printmaking when you pull the paper up from the press and see the printed image for the first time. It’s crafted and it’s handmade.’

There is such romance around a return to those simplistic production techniques – not least because so much of the iron letterpress machinery is so ornate that it could serve as an interiors feature – that London letterpress company Harrington & Squares offer the kind of one-day workshop gift vouchers (£125) more commonly associated with wine tastings. For those interested solely in acquiring their product, they offer a wide range of bespoke services, from Z-fold Christmas cards to wedding stationary, as well very lovely editions of the Brothers’ Grimm’s The Golden Key (£65), gold foil blocked, hand sewn and hand perforated.

In the States the taste for letterpress stationary has been growing for some time. Kimberly Yurkiewicz who manages the print studio 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 simultaneously 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. ‘I like it to accessorizing rather than a business product.’ Such a bespoke approach is, of course, time and craft 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 like Sesame Letterpress and Lucky Paperie. Like many of the more progressive designers, Sesame Letterpress work 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 they ink and print with the plate in the traditional letterpress way. Sesame Letterpress’ designs are a blend of ornate scriptwork and Victorian natural history imagery. As well as short runs of cards that they sell to stores worldwide, they offer their own bespoke service. The bulk of Lucky Paperie’s business is creating wedding invitations, with prices from £300 for 50 cards, in four different categories of style: ‘elegantly traditional’, ‘beach chic’, ‘vintage-style’ and ‘modern minimalist’, and 15 different designs.

The Luxepaperie website stocks letterpress work by Egg Press – their sasquatch and their ‘What’s growing on’ cards (£2.80), emblazoned with a selection of moustaches, are particularly eye-catching – and Carrot & Stick, who make their green apple and leopard-patterned pieces on five letterpress machines in California. Also at Luxepaperie, and perhaps the biggest success story in modern letterpress, is Hello! Lucky, run by Eunice and Sabrina Moyle, two sisters based in San Francisco. Compared to most of their competitors, their off-the-peg range is huge, from gift wrap to Dorothy Parker-style ‘It’s a marvellous party’ RSVP cards. Their Christmas cards, from their Woodland Friends to their Folk Angels (£9.65 for six), are refreshingly unique and Santa-free. The Moyle sisters began making cards after buying an old Vandercook printing press on eBay, and now make 2,000 cards a day. ‘Our style is happy, vintage, graphic and bohemian,’ says Sabrina. ‘Our L’Oiseau wedding invitation suite cards (£432 for 25) is most representative of our style – it’s graphic and chic but light hearted.’ Sabrina cites the rise of Etsy.com as evidence that the zeitgeist is handstitched, handsewn and letterpressed. ‘Letterpress is part of a broader, and growing, swell of interest in the handcrafted and the “slow”; just like hand-fed beef, artisan-crafted cheese and the slow food movement. When something heartfelt has to be conveyed, an email can’t compete with the human hand. The stationery of the future will be increasingly unique and handcrafted. If it feels mass-produced, why bother?’

The style moves easily from greeting cards to other gift ideas. UK company Hand & Eye create their own children’s books (£15) as well as ‘Thank you’ cards (£3.75) and posters  (£50) in tribute to the typographer Eric Gill that read, in one of Gill’s classic 20s fonts: ‘If you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself.’  Gill may have been talking about design, but it’s a truism that reads well when framed on a hallway wall.

Ironically, some of the most sophisticated Adobe imaging software around today is being used by designers to ape letterpress style, and the web is full of tutorials for designers who want to ‘get the look’. But, just like the quality of leather on a piece of Hermes luggage, or the softness of Loro Piana knitwear, you can’t fake it, you have to feel it. And as Kimberly Yurkiewicz at Kate’s 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.’

 

Elum; 001 858 453 4500

www.elumdesigns.com

 

Greenwich Letterpress, 39 Christopher Street, New York, NY 10014; 001 212 989 7464

www.greenwichletterpress.com

 

Hand & Eye; 020 7488 9800

http://www.handandeye.co.uk

 

Harrington & Squires; 020 7267 1500

www.harringtonandsquires.co.uk

 

Hello! Lucky; 020 7378 9740

http://www.hellolucky.co.uk

 

Kate’s Paperie, 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012; 001 212 941 9816

www.katespaperie.com

 

Lucky Paperie; (US) 866 531 6609

http://www.luckypaperie.com

 

Luxepaperie.com

 

Osborne Samuel, 23a Bruton Street, London W1; 020 7493 8939

www.osbornesamuel.com

 

Papered Together

www.paperedtogether.com

 

Sesame Letterpress

www.sesameletterpress.com

 

Typoretum

http://www.typoretum.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “Hot off the press (Financial Times How to Spend it)”

  1. StarryGift | Wedding gifts and collectibles of Chinese and Western styles…

    Nice post. Thanks for sharing….

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