On Art History: The Letterpress

An architecture major turned into graphic design and calligraphy which then evolved into figuring out a (very) old letterpress machine. This art history lesson is equal parts learning (for us) and teaching (for you!), and it's just in time to get us all excited for the Letterpress Workshop in two weeks.

Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing using a printing press, a process by which many copies are produced by repeated direct impression of an inked, raised surface against sheets or a continuous roll of paper.
— Encyclopædia Britannica

You may remember from your middle school history classes that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, but who knew that we'd still be using his press 577 years later?! For years, Gutenberg's printing press was the main means of printing for journalists, authors, and everyone in between. However, in the 1980's, as computers made their way into American homes, the era of the printing press came to an end. 

In the 1990's, letterpress wedding invitations were published in a Martha Stewart wedding, and it the art took off from there. Originally, the press was not designed to leave an impression in the paper, but creatives worldwide took advantage of the texture and depth the impression added to turn the ancient printing press into a modern-day art form. When the type lightly touches the paper to transfer the ink, it's called "the kiss" (how fun?!). Most folks who request letterpress today want a deep "bite" in the paper, and since we are able to make new plates all the time, it's easily done. 

The process now occurs in four steps just as it did in Gutenberg's design: composition, imposition, lock-up, and printing. In our studio, we create a design on the computer (unless a client has designed something themselves) and send it in to be turned into a letterpress plate. After we receive the plate, we hand-mix ink colors, set the plate in place, and start printing. It's a multi-step process, but the result is well worth it. 

We can't wait to share more over snacks + mimosas April 8 at our workshop! 


Oliver Tell Studio