I Saw Her Voice: Processing With Jen Farrell & Rick Griffith, Letterpress Printers

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I exist in a number of different communities, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so.

I’m ok with that. I’ve also leaned into some relationships with a sense of reverence—because it’s a good place to be—with people who might teach you something. With letterpress printer Jen Farrell of Starshaped Press, I saw her voice and her work ethic.

Farrell is a graphic designer and letterpress printer living and working in the city of Chicago. During her 20 plus years, she has become one of the country's leading letterpress practitioners, working on meticulously constructed forms using 19th and 20th-century ornaments to tell stories of her community. She loves her work, and she loves her city.

Jen was generous in offering me a chance to know her. All this energy in one person makes for a lot of knowing-to-get when you are getting-to-know someone. We knew each other inside our letterpress community and found a friendship forged (just a little bit) in punk rock, hip hop, and a specific shared grief.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)


Rick: I’ve been thinking a lot about your work and the ways people tend to talk about it. The dialogue often centers on decoration and ornament, which are more like talking to the tools and less that you're a talented graphic designer who decided to be a printer.

I feel we could do well to tell your story from the perspective of a graphic designer who, somewhere along the road, decided printing was the way you would leave your mark in the world. So, what about it? How’d you get to that?

Jen: I always looked at design from the perspective of working with normal people. I’ve never had lofty goals. I don’t want to go to New York. I don’t want to have a fancy design job. I have always wanted to work with normal people.

I want to work with people who say "I need some collateral for my business that makes me look and feel good, that makes me feel confident that my dog grooming business can be successful." Or, "I’m hosting an event for 50 people—not 50 celebrities—but my family and friends. And I want people to feel special."

Those have always been the people I want to work with—to work for. I laugh looking at designer websites with client lists. My client list is the couple who works at the alderman's office and the folks down the street, the people that would never stab me in the back or try to short-sell me on price. They invest in their community. I see them walking around the neighborhood—normal people.

Rick: Slow that down. The part where someone gaslights your value and tells you it's worth less. Where does that assessment come from?

Jen: I’m now 21 years into doing this. Thankfully, I think I've gotten to where I know how to run away from that crap when I see it. Early on, it was a much more common experience, and it wasn't always bigger clients. Some people were like, why can’t you do this for less? Why can't you work on spec?

Because the stuff I’m doing takes hours to put together just to show you one little thing! I’m not pushing pixels around—and it’s not that there isn’t value in pushing pixels around—but, if it's going to take me six hours to put something together, and proof it and show you, and then you say no? That's ridiculous. I should get paid for that time.

Rick: So, what was Jen Farrell like before it took six hours to show them something? When you worked digitally?

Jen: That Jen never existed. When I started the studio, I was finishing design school and working at another print shop—Fireproof Press. They were doing the stuff I always wanted to do. I loved it to death. But John [Upchurch] closed the shop. So, if I wanted to do it, I had to do it myself.

That was ‘99, so it was the tail end of that first push of the DIY movement. So, I came of age with the Riot Grrls and people starting their own record labels and publishing. It was that sense of possibility, of, oh, if we own it ourselves

Rick: That’s second wave. I came of age during the first wave in the 80s.

Jen: I wonder if it was more a thing for women in the 90s. The groundwork was definitely laid in D.C. Around me, women had skin in the game—a hand in every independent thing. There was the sense that if it doesn't exist yet or if the current model sucks, then you could start your own thing and figure out how to make it work. And we did. We’d find a press and find some materials and put it together.

I went to Columbia College downtown and got a job. After the print shop folded, my boss worked at Columbia for a while. He helped me get a night job in the graphics lab there, working with students. I spent my days building the business. Nights, I’d oversee the students. The students who came to the lab were really good, so it was enjoyable work.

Rick: So, who was doing the thing—in design or otherwise—that you most admire? What was the thing that tipped you over, and you said, I’m not working for anyone else? I'm going to pull this off myself?

Jen: I wanted to work for myself. And I wanted to work with my hands. When I was in design school, everything was going digital. At the time, the debate was, do we teach the design students HTML, or do we teach them Dreamweaver? Do we teach the coding, or do we teach them the—

Rick: —WYSIWYG stuff?

Jen: Yeah. Because there weren’t clear delineations of who was
doing what, so there was a real divide at Columbia. I was looking at all of it, and it was clunky at the time. If you wanted motion graphics, it was slow. And I thought, I hate all of this.

I started at DePaul in theater set design. I loved theater—there’s a 3D-ness to it. And I liked working collaboratively to design something on a deadline. I didn't love the program. It funneled a lot of energy into the acting students versus the technical students. It’s kind of ironic because the technical students are the ones who get jobs.

DePaul funded nearly all of my two years there. Some of the design skills I got were phenomenal. I don’t regret any of that time. I just shifted out of it and moved into more 2D stuff. I worked in the prop shop with my hands. I was always one of the kids who held down eight jobs to pay for school, and many of them were at record stores. So, all of this printed stuff, like cd sleeves and posters, came into the store. And I’m like, I don’t know how this gets made, but it's really fucking cool. That's where I decided this is what I want to do. Ironically, a lot of it was getting made at the place where I ended up working. It was letterpress printed. And some of it was from Independent Project Press.

Rick: I want to know how you view your support. Like, the city is my backbone, religion, community, and family. You keep coming into these waves where you're doing something, perhaps some civic action, and then you go back into architecture; then you go out of architecture into something else issue-based. And then you go back into a sense of place and belonging.

Jen: It’s the process itself—the way I build things. The reason I’m using wood and metal type is that, when I started, designers were saying letterpress is so cool, but the materials are too limiting. And I was like, I’ll show you fuckers. Don’t tell me it’s limiting. It’s that DIY attitude—I'll show you. I can do it myself.

If someone says you can't do it like that, I want to know why. Why do you think it should or shouldn’t be this way? If the answer is legit or has a specific reason, good. But if it's, "don't use this because I don’t like this color or it’s not going to communicate," that’s something else. I always question because so much of this field (and every field) gets built on this patriarchal white male system of this is the way things are done.”

That’s why I start with why? And if the answer makes sense, fair enough. I’ll build on that knowledge and move forward. If it's not, and I don’t like the answer, then we're going to tear that shit down.

So, part of it was to collect things that were affordable at the time. Metal type is still really affordable. It’s $20 in materials, and look what you can do! So, it’s part that I like working with my hands. But it’s also a physical manifestation of the feelings I have.

Rick: Where’d you come from?

Jen: Outside of Buffalo. Western New York. When I look at a lot of the architecture in Chicago—even the stuff that's stunningly beautiful where you could say this was built by so-and-so—I look at it and think, these bricks were made by a bunch of immigrants making a living. They had a skill, or they learned it.

In the 20s, they pumped out 700 million bricks a year. I look at it, and I’m like, a person made this brick. And there are a million bricks on this building. And it’s a million times someone touched this brick. They built it. And we’re not even getting into the complexities of looking at the layout or where cities come from.

Rick: I don't know if this is a fair word to use, but I always knew there was a prayer underneath your work. I always sensed it, and it’s what I wanted to talk to you about. What’s that thoughtfulness? There's something unable to be said.

Jen: It’s an appreciation of people. It is an appreciation of the city because it helped me figure out how to find happiness and hope and potential. The city taught me how to have freedom of movement. It felt very freeing to be here. Still does. My kid senses that. My kid thanks me for getting to grow up here instead of a suburb or small town—to have that freedom of movement and exposure to different people. But the appreciation of the city is an appreciation of people. I'm an introvert, but I love watching people, being around people, and seeing what they do. I want everyone to do great. I’m the mom who’s like, everybody do great today. Go out and get it!

Everyone plays a role. And I want to see appreciation. If my kid grows up and doesn’t want to work with their hands in any professional capacity, they will have an appreciation for those who do. That’s what I want people to have. Those are the clients I want—the people who appreciate that things are made.


Jen: Every December, I sit down and have what I call my come-to-Jesus meeting. I figure out: What's my work plan? What’s my marketing plan? How am I paying myself this year? I set up everything for the next twelve months. Even last year, when so much changed so quickly, I still hit my goals. Because I set myself up, I was able to change in smarter ways than I might have. I look at all the angles because the Gemini in me is never straightforward. Thank God I do eight million different things instead of specializing in one, which would screw me in a pandemic. I think, what does this market want?

I don’t talk to my dad very often, but I talked to him for his birthday last week, and I told him about the print club. I started a subscription series last year to make up for people not coming to the shop for events. It’s been great, bringing in enough money to cover the losses from not having events and shows. My dad called it my “lawn-care service.” If I was in landscaping, it’s lawn care. Now, I laugh as I’m packing up all these print-club orders like, I’m cutting the grass, here I go, cutting the grass, putting it together. It’s not challenging in terms of design because we take a very populist approach; I’m attracting a wide market. But, if I'm doing that, it's not challenging me as a designer. Cutting grass pays the bills, but what are the things that challenge me as a designer?

So, then I look to the bigger projects. I have a book I’ll be working on. How does that challenge me? Do I pull in some of my community to help with the design? I set the parameters.

Rick: You said it well. It's a good thing I do eight million things because all 8 million things need to be touched right now. Do you think the scale at which you work will continue to have these operable levers in the future where you can make them work for you financially?

Jen: There has to be growth. But I think the definition of growth is the important thing. Because it’s not physical growth. I don’t need more shit. I’ve got enough stuff to keep me busy for 100 years. It's being smarter about what I'm doing, how I'm doing it, and where I’m doing it.

Rick: So, it’s more about optimization? Taking eight million things and shrinking it to seven million? And then getting better compensated for the seven million things?

Jen: Yes. There are things we’re looking at going into this year. I don't really love teaching. I don't mind doing a workshop. And, it's not the sharing of information—I love sharing information—I don't love the physicality of teaching. So, we had looked at my former helper taking on a workshop where we run it through the website. She handles students and does all the work, and we split the money. Everybody wins because she makes more money than working at other places. We use the name recognition of my studio, and I don’t even have to be there. It’s amazing. But we had to scrap it, obviously, so there are things like that we can explore going forward. I didn’t see the print club lasting forever, except that it has been growing. If it grows to a certain level, I could pay an intern to help process it, and that’s also a win. The intern is getting experience, and we're still pulling in the money.

Rick: So, scale looks like being more efficient, and it looks like being better at what you do. Not just good at making things happen for other people. Not just being in service of the print club or of any one idea? You want to be efficient with that idea, too. Right?

Jen: Yeah, that’s part of it. But then, there’s also looking at the bigger picture. I don’t have a romantic notion of who I am or what I do. I don’t have a high opinion of what I do. I’m not saving the world. I don’t think it’s great.

Rick: You should hear yourself some time.

Jen: But, I don’t think it’s special. I think I’m doing something I’m reasonably good at, and I can talk it up. I can be passionate about it, and I can get clients. I can do things that make clients happy, but I’m not making the world a better place. Maybe that idea holds me back because I can’t even get myself to think like a mediocre white man, as the saying goes.

Rick: But you know that’s essentially nonsense, right? You must know that.

Jen: I don’t know if it’s coming from me. Or, if it’s constantly getting told you’re not good enough and not being seen—where it feels like you’re purposely unseen. You’re told, "oh, we just didn’t think to include you." Or "we’re doing this thing, and we’ve already got a lineup of all of these dudes. Would you like to contribute?" In the field of letterpress, I’m the last person to be asked to take part. How many times do I need to hear that before I internalize that maybe I’m not really that great at what I do?

Rick: And maybe it’s your genitals that qualify you?

Jen: Maybe. Or, maybe it’s that I’m not that great at what I do. It’s like this big cloud of the subtleness of not being seen or being excluded, or just being told, “your stuff is cool, but it’s not, like, really ‘cool.’”

Rick: It seems to me you seduce people with ornament. I use the word seduce on purpose. The concept of ornaments is old. It's so old that we don’t think of it as anything but dainty, beautiful, or delicate. So much of it lives in that space. Just like Marian Bantjies, the work you do tends to seduce with ornament. On the surface.

Jen: I think Bantjies’ work is fascinating and incredible. She can use pattern and ornament and push it in an entirely new direction. That’s what I always think. How do I take these stodgy-ass monotype mid-century ornaments and make them say something else? It’s not always possible. And sometimes they just sit there…

Rick: I want to come back to one other thing, just to clear it up. You put your stuff down earlier, and I was like, how does she not know how important her work is in this atmosphere?

Jen: Because it doesn't feel like it? Maybe a lot is tied to the idea that I would like my work to support my family. And it doesn't feel like it. Maybe that’s too much of a working-class ideology. But at the end of the day, I need to feed my child. And if the money’s not there, I can’t put a high value on what I do. I've always felt disconnected from art and fine art because I need to make a living. I like it enough that I want it to be my job, and I think I'm pretty good at it.

Some of it’s on me. I've never had a design job, never worked in a design firm or a corporation, so I don't have contacts in the field. I've never done these AIGA things.

Here, we have the Chicago Printers Guild. It’s 11 years old now, but it feels more like my people. It’s everyone hustling with their 8,000 print jobs and trying to figure out how to create community and come together on their own, without the impetus of some kind of major sponsorship. That feels more like my people. They're outside of the protection of salary and benefits. I don't have advanced degrees, and I don't have any connection to universities, so I’m not getting called to do lectures or any of those things.

Rick: I don’t have any degree. I don’t have anything. Don't forget—I’m nothing.

Jen: But you’re a super good designer, and you’re super cool. I’m not cool like you.

Rick: Bullshit. I call absolute total bullshit on that. I call fundamental, deep-seated bullshit on that.

Jen: When I saw that poster you did, I was loo
king at it and was like, I'm going to cry because it's so good, so good, Rick.

I love type, and I want things to have lots of type, more so than image. Image is a different thing. Some people are great at image, but to take type and make it look like fucking art? I know how hard that is with the materials. When I saw your poster, I was like, you did it.

People send me stuff and say, "look at this letterpress poster." I don't want to tear someone apart, but I look at it, and they may have letterpress printed it, but they designed it digitally. I can instantly tell if your kerning is that good because it’s really hard, and it takes skill. You did not set type doing this, I think; I can tell the difference.

Rick: I’ve stopped worrying about whether or not it’s coming from the place where I taught myself for the first twenty years of my design life. All the Swiss and Italian modernists and all of their progeny. I think that every graphic designer who feels successful is contributing to a conversation larger than style. Sometimes it’s life-style. But what good graphic design looks like has been determined by people who have the privilege of seeing things simply and letting the space between the lines exist in silence. It’s not reality. It’s just a slice.

And this is where you and I are together. It's about this notion of being seen and heard in a place that doesn't typically see and hear different types of people.

Jen: I'm working on not being angry about it. I'm trying to figure out how—because it’s also exhausting—to be like, guys, I’m handing you this. I will do all this work for you. Can you just do this one thing for me? Can you tell people that I did the work for you?

Rick: Right, will you support my labor and not exploit me? That is the core of the experience. Will you please—and I know it sounds so fucking stupid to say it out loud—will you please not exploit me?

It’s such a simple idea, and when you teach white men—or whatever the energized and fully realized force in the world that makes money flow or whatever—when you ask them that, they shrug their shoulders and look at you like you said something stupid.

Jen: Trying to look at that bigger picture, I debate this, too. Essentially, Is there a thing that makes me feel like I've gotten to a good point? Is there a thing that makes me feel like my work is valid? Could something happen to make me feel like I have some more respect? Are there people in the field that, if they notice me in some way, I would feel like I was at a certain level of design? Those are the things. Maybe I should make a list for myself and pick it apart and ask myself, are these valid things?

Like, does this really matter? Trying to address my issues and then ask, Are those valuable things that make me better at what I'm doing? Will they push my design work forward? Will they make me a better person?