Letterpress Adventures with Moveable Type's Kyle Durrie

Kyle Durrie is the proprietor of the letterpress studio Power and Light Press. I first met her in 2009 at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn, where she was sharing a table with my good friend Brandon Mise, of Blue Barnhouse fame. In 2007, Durrie’s apprenticeship with Blue Barhnouse turned into a job, which she worked until it was time for her to move back to Portland, Oregon. Since then, she has run her studio and devised the Moveable Type project. Later this month, she’ll once again be taking this mobile letterpress studio out on the road, so I thought it as good a time as any to bounce some questions Durrie’s way.

The Moveable Type project—started to convert a delivery truck into a mobile letterpress studio—happened because of Kickstarter. When the campaign ended in early 2011, you’d raised just over $17,000, more than doubling your goal. Since then, how many miles have you logged driving around the country teaching people about letterpress?

The tour logged 30,958 miles over about ten-and-half months. I visited forty-seven states, two Canadian provinces, and about 180 towns. I have no idea how many people I met and worked with in that time.

The Type Truck. All photos courtesy Kyle Durrie

When you arrive somewhere, are you mostly meeting folks already familiar with letterpress or do you try to turn on the uninitiated? Is this more of an art project, road-trip adventure, or an educational endeavor? 

It’s a little of everything. But less an art project and more education/adventure. Letterpress is my work and passion, and so that’s what I used to give this trip structure and direction. But really, the project was a means to give people an opportunity to use their hands and, perhaps, see what sort of things are possible when you step out from behind your computer screen. I definitely encountered a bunch of people who were already familiar with letterpress, even if only vaguely familiar. But I’d say I mostly met folks who were not familiar with the process, which made it really fun. There was always a “Wow!” moment, every time they picked up their sheet of freshly-printed paper. It was really cool to see adults, and kids, get all giddy about this very simple and direct process, and then feel a sense of accomplishment in what they had just done. I also got to visit some of my printing heroes along the way, which was super fun and inspiring.

Who were some of the heroes you visited? Were you able to check out their studios and crib some of their tricks of the trade?

So many. I’d like to say I cribbed their secrets, but I think I mostly just bumbled awestruck around their studios. Some of my favorites were Hatch Show Print (Nashville), Yee-Haw (Knoxville, Tennessee), Hammerpress (Kansas City), Firecracker Press (St Louis), and Amos P Kennedy, Jr (Gordo, Alabama). And there were many more amazing printers I met along the way. I feel inspired anytime I visit someone else’s print shop and see the way they work. It always gets my wheels turning.

You find printing an “empowering action” and specifically are a champion of letterpress printing. What draws you to letterpress and how do you feel it stands up to other printing methods, both in terms of design and that empowerment?  

I guess I find any kind of handmade process empowering. We’ve all gotten so accustomed to the magic that our computers can instantly conjure. I think we’re forgetting what we’re really capable of as humans. With hands.  That can, you know, make stuff. Don’t get me wrong— love my computer and rely on it as a major tool in my work and life. But I feel so much more whole when I turn it off and go make some shit myself. Letterpress is labor-intensive and, these days, is seen as an inefficient technology. But who cares? It establishes a real, physical connection between human and machine and, from a design/object perspective, letterpress delivers a look and feel unlike anything else. A kind of warmth and imperfect beauty in the relationship of ink to paper. I try not to get too precious about it—I mean, letterpress used to be the means of mass-production, before mass-production exploded to the volumes we see today. So I guess it’s more a matter of scale. Finding value in quality over quantity.

What attracted you to letterpress in the first place?

In 2006, I was in a creative rut and I was unemployed. I signed up for a class, kind of on a whim, and I was instantly hooked. I had been into printmaking in college, but it was all intaglio printing, no letterpress. After school, I no longer had access to a print shop, so I focused my energy on drawing, since it was something I could do at home in my apartment. I spent a few years working really hard at drawing, showing in galleries, doing residencies, selling work. But then I hit a wall. I was over-conceptualizing my drawings, and over-thinking each mark that I made. After fumbling around for a while, I moved out west to Portland, Oregon, and stumbled into a letterpress class. I loved it instantly because it gave me a way to work with my hands without having to over-think anything. It was kind of like playing with blocks—really tiny blocks, with letters on them. I think that was it, at the beginning—just an immediate attraction to the materials.

In terms of actual printing, you use a Showcard sign press, right? Was that a decision based on the space realities of running a studio out of a 1982 Chevy Step Van? Are you only using real, cast type or are photopolymer plates permissible? 

Yeah, I knew that I needed smaller presses in the truck, from both a space and weight perspective. I also wanted the presses to be accessible and un-intimidating for people to use. The presses I use in my normal non-truck studio are huge—they weigh about 2,000 pounds each and can potentially crush your hand. Not what I wanted in the truck. So I outfitted the truck with a Showcard sign press from the 1960s and a Golding Official No. 3 from the 1870s. Both are petite enough to not scare anyone away, yet they still allow you to print a decent range of work, from small cards to larger posters. In the truck, I worked exclusively with real, hand-set type (made of either wood or lead) and old cuts (image blocks). I use photopolymer in my regular printing business, but I didn’t use any in the truck. Not because I have a problem with it, just because I really wanted people to experience the traditional materials and think differently about design and composition. L-E-T-T-E-R – B-Y – M-F – L-E-T-T-E-R.

In late August you’re making a run through the Pacific Northwest. Where will you be and what will you be doing? 

I’ll be heading out on a week-long tour through eastern Washington and Oregon. I’ll be making stops in Pendleton, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; Enterprise, Oregon; Bend, Oregon; McMinnville, Oregon; and Portland.  It’s shaping up to be a pretty good mix of venues, from a bookstore to a brewery, and everything in between. In terms of what we’ll be printing at each place, I usually play that by ear. But I do know that we’ll be printing coasters at that brewery!

Any other Moveable Type plans for 2012? 

I’m working on a three-week west coast tour for October and November. Power and Light Press is moving, so this fall tour will correspond with relocating the studio. That’s all I can say about that right now!

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For more letterpress adventures, check out the webcast Freaks of Fancy, or Everything You Wanted to Know About Wild, 19th-Century Printing Techniques—or download an MP3 of Judith Berliner on Letterpress 101.

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