The Sweet Smell Of Letterpress

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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John Earles and Jennifer Blanco co-founded Workhorse Printmakers in Houston out of a desire to be able to create their own printed items without compromise. “We loved and experimented with small scale letterpress printing in the past, and after moving to Houston in 2009 began to acquire equipment with the intention of it serving exclusively as our private print shop,” they say. In the process, the duo discovered that letterpress printing existed locally in a form which was removed from the craft oriented resurgences that marked the trade in other cities. There was a good bit of interest from other designers in the community, and so responded by taking on commercial work in addition to their own designs. When I was in Houston last Friday for Houston Design Week, I visited their studio and shop, saw the presses, smelled the ink and was given the beautiful perpetual calendar they created in an edition of 100 (available here). I asked Earles and Blanco to tell us more about letterpress and the work they do on their’s. Here is that conversation.

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What sparked your interest in the perpetual calendar?John’s dad is an engineer and was into woodworking, astronomy, model railroads etc. so there always seemed to be volvelles around growing up. We really had our passion reignited when we picked up a copy of Jessica Helfand’s awesome “Reinventing The Wheel” book at The Strand years ago. It was an idea looking for an application.

This summer we wanted to create something that while beautiful, served a purpose or a function, and introduced our intern, Alyssa, to some of the more complex aspects of print production. A perpetual calendar in the form a volvelle was the perfect solution.

How many months, years, eons, did it take to print and assemble this project?We took one month to design the calendars, one month to print and assemble the finished pieces (squeezed between our standard production workload of around fifteen projects a month)

It seems that devoted letterpress mavens are gathering steam again, are you building a community?While we do have a community of printers we interact with, the greater goal for us is to unify as many people as possible around print and bring awareness to the value that it possesses.

The thing that’s great about print is that it’s a natural fit to building community by nature. As the printed object is tangible and exists in a physical space, most sharing involves personal interaction.

We try and amplify this effect by collaborating on several events yearly that feature on-site letterpress printing as well as involvement with organizations such as The Printing Museum and AIGA Houston. We have found letterpress to be an almost ideal medium to start and continue a conversation about creating something, which for us is the ultimate goal.

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What is it about letterpress that made you devote a studio and career to continuing its traditions?It combines many of the things we are attracted to in a single medium.

It is a very simple, physical process steeped with history that requires extreme intimacy in every aspect. Each machine has a smell, a sound, or a vibration which communicates feedback about the process. You learn to respond to this stimuli and adapt. It’s a refreshing thing to see a process laid bare in an age in which everything happens behind a fascia.

We also respond to the independence and flexibility letterpress printing provides us as designers. We can design, produce, and disseminate what we deem fit without compromise except to that of the medium. There is an uninterrupted feedback loop between design and production, digital and physical, history and present. We have an unlimited space in which to play which is important to us.

What do you want users of your clock to take away (other than the clock that is)?There’s certainly numerous digital alternatives to using a paper calendar that are more convenient and automatic. We aim to make things that provide intrigue and whimsy through the feeling of something odd you might find a small corner of the world that may or may not have existed in the past. And we hope that the ritual of turning the wheel to advance the daily date on our perpetual calendar will act as a reminder to slow down, relax, and enjoy the moment!

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Do you design your own typefaces? Have you created stunning type-centric design work? Have you produced a gorgeous handlettered project? If so, we want to see your work. All too often, typeface designs, typographic designs and handlettering get overlooked in competitions—which is why Print developed a competition that gives the artforms their full due and recognizes the best designers in each category. Enter Print’s Typography & Lettering Awards today.