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It’s back to handmade for artisanal devotees at The Open Press
WHILE SOME TECHNOLOGIES JUST FADE AWAY, OTHERS—LIKE RAdio, books and newspapers—seem to stay on forever, surviving one obituary after another. And a few miraculously rise from the dead, not just living but more alive than ever, imbued with a more-than-healthy glow from a mysterious combination of being practically unnecessary yet artistically desirable.
Letterpress printing is one of those resurrected technologies, loved by designers and others who can’t get enough of its old-school aesthetic.
“There’s something imperfect about it for sure, not everything is perfectly the same,” says Paul Rustand, owner of Widgets and Stone graphic design firm and one of the instigators of The Open Press, a new Chattanooga workshop where people can learn and use letterpress equipment. “There are little nuances and touches that have a humanness to them.”
Those human touches are what printers worked hard to eliminate in their quest for uniform reproduction quality during a time this type of equipment was state of the art.
“That’s really what we designers like about it, the tactility of it, because everything is so digital nowadays,” says Rustand. “We all spend so much time in websites which don’t really exist as something you can hold. But having the feel of the paper and something pressed into it, the smell of the ink, particularly if it’s something you’ve made—here’s something almost childish in that pleasure of ‘look what I made!’ There’s something really rewarding about it.”
He explains that contemporary printing places a layer of ink onto the surface of the paper, while the older technology presses the ink into its surface. In fact, it was once a test of the pressman’s skill to make a “kiss impression,” where the three-dimensional letter or image made the lightest possible touch on the paper.
“Today, we like that big ‘ink at the bottom of a ditch’ feel,” says Rustand, but an old-school printer would have found that to lack finesse.
The idea for the Open Press began with Rustand about two years ago. He had restored letterpress equipment and used it both as a hobby and to print small-run items for his design clients. Over time, it got less and less use, then went into storage when his company moved to new offices. When Matt Greenwell, a design collaborator and head of the UTC Art Department, told him the university had unused fine-art printmaking equipment sitting in storage, the two began planning to create a workshop that would combine the two collections.
After a 2012 MakeWork grant and a few twists and turns, The Open Press began offering classes in October 2013, focusing on artisanal letterpress printing, fine-art printmaking and handmade book arts.
The equipment that supports those three areas includes a Heidelberg press, four Vandercook proof presses (formerly used only for proofs before transferring plates to a high volume printer), several printmaking presses, a foil stamper, a Smyth sewer for stitching book signatures together, and a collection of metal and wood type that can be hand set.
The images that ultimately become ink on paper here can come from that movable type or from photopolymer printing plates made through a transfer process that begins with a piece of photographic film created on a computer. That process is newer than handset type but also a dying print technology, as nearly all printing has moved on to a fully digital, direct-to-plate technology.
In addition to Rustand and Greenwell, the Open Press leadership team includes Printmaking Director Juanita Tumelaire, a printmaker, and Director Wendy Halvorson, who brings both letterpress and business experience to the project.