Craft Culture: The Art of Letterpress with Studio on Fire

Like good design itself, the letterpress printing style is eye-catching. In the past, Levitz said, letterpress operators tried to leave as little of an impression in the paper as possible. Now, a deep impression is desirable. Not only does a deep impression make it obvious that letterpress was the printing method used, it adds an almost sculptural element to the project. Business cards are one of Studio on Fire’s most common projects, and Levitz believes that the right business card can give people an advantage.

“I don’t think it’s because they expect people to use that business card for the contact information,” he said. “It’s a formality of introduction. It’s a way to introduce yourself that sets you apart from everybody else. It’s a little bit more a fashion accessory than it is a piece to communicate your contact info. I can get your contact info out of my phone anytime I want to.”

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In addition to traditional letterpress, Studio on Fire has expanded its offerings to include foil stamping and engraving. As the name suggests, foil stamping presses foil onto paper to add a metallic sheen. “Engraving is how money is printed,” said Levitz. “The detail that printing process yields is just unmatched. It’s sort of the weird second cousin of letterpress. Letterpress is pushing a plate down into the paper. Engraving is pushing the paper down into the plate. When you feel that little bit of a raised surface, that’s the opposite of what letterpress is.”

While you may be able to feel indented areas when running your thumb over a letterpress project, with an engraved project, you can actually feel raised elements. The results are extremely eye-catching. What is even more impressive are projects in which letterpress, foil stamping, and engraving are combined. Levitz showed us one label that had gone through printing presses five separate times to achieve the desired effect. “We’ve had a lot of fun with combining this stuff in-house,” he said. “There are only a few shops in the whole state that still do engraving. Trying to route a project through multiple shops to try to get something done is a big part of why we tried to make sure these niche things exist for us in-house. You can combine things that continue to make it more custom and unique.”

“Custom and unique” are obviously goals designers have for many of their projects, but today’s young designers who grew up in the digital world don’t necessarily understand exactly how their creations will translate to the physical world. “People want to go nuts when they get a cool print project to do, but they don’t really understand what the production process will yield,” said Levitz. “That’s what I love with what we do—pairing it up with someone’s design vision, saying here’s how to marry that with production. More and more that’s a hard thing for designers to do, because so much design relies on interactiion. I feel weird as a guy in my 30s saying, ‘Oh those youngsters these days,’ but it is increasingly true that as more and more print is ‘push the digital button on the digital press’—which is probably a gross simplification—there’s not a lot of limitation there. But when you step into a physical impression-based process that require copper plates, counter dyes, and everything else, there’s some real limitations there that you have to understand. You know, sheet size limitations, limitations of the process, solid colors not lying down the same way, there’s a lot of considerations you have to think about as a designer. And if the designer doesn’t know, you have to convey that as the printer.”

While today’s design students many not receive the foundations training Levitz had in school, he’s optimistic about the future of letterpress. Classes in the technique are becoming more common in colleges and at programs like the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The act of running a letterpress machine is something that can hook students and really draw them into the craft. “The contemplative quality of running a machine like that and getting into the rhythm of production is something that I really love,” said Levitz. “I don’t get to do a lot of that anymore, running the business side of things. But I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s fun to have something grow from something that you loved as hobby to something you do every day. It doesn’t seem like a job.”

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