Pressing Matters

contemplates the renaissance of traditional letterpress printing

Image: Frank Kehren

Image: Frank Kehren

In an increasingly digitalised world there is rising rebellion in the forms of polaroid cameras, vinyl records and now a renaissance of letterpress printing in the artisanal form of posters.

When people talk about going ‘back to basics’, the majority will be harking to the roaring ‘20s or the swinging ‘60s since these decades are reflective of a defined style and character that the 2010s seem to lack. But here’s an era: the 1440s, which brought the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing which is quite simplistic: the design is laid down into the printing press bed, inked directly with a paint roller and paper is rolled firmly against the bed to transfer ink to create the design. The bed is composed of individually wooden carved letter blocks, which can be moved around to fit the design, hence the name ‘moveable type’.

However, with any revert to previous practices, old flaws glare through. To get the dimensions right with moveable type is very fickle as they have to be laid backwards so that the writing is readable on the poster. Sometimes the wooden blocks for different fonts are on multiple levels so the designer has to physically get out a saw and start levelling them up. Each layer of colour is individually and gradually rolled on, creating multiple col- our layers. These can be restrictive and careful consideration is imperative in which colours will shine through. Simplicity also allows for simplistic modifications: if the colour density would look better increased, the poster is just run through the ink once more. The outcome of this unembellished method is that no one poster is the same, essentially leaving the consumer with a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork.

Letterpress printing has gained a lot of traction in the past year in America and is slowly making its way across the pond due to its rustic, historical feel. The epicentre of this resurgence of handmade prints is in Nashville, Tennessee at the Hatch Show Print company.

When talking about letterpress it is arguably impossible not to mention Hatch Show Print for the in influences they have had since as far back as 1879, and more recently for the revitalisation of posters as an art form in their own right. Once familiar with their work, it is hard not to see them everywhere, especially in the music realm as country music artists and festivals constantly ask for commissions.

The letterpress renaissance is spreading to the UK with a few printing companies slowly graduating away from a card making business model to becoming a platform for producing art. An example of this is pretty close to home: the Print Project in West Yorkshire have spun tradition on its head. They use a 500-year-old printing press to make modern, striking designs, picking from an invigorating well of graphic influences. Even though Gutenberg would probably be very confused as to why these companies only use computers for admin, this back-to-basics style of creating art truly is a tonic for the digital age.

In recent years posters themselves have begun to rise to a new status in the art world; rather than being viewed as something teenagers put on their bedroom walls to display angst, they are beginning to be seen as art forms in their own right. A major breakthrough of this is shown with the recent addition of the piece “Untitled” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres being added to the Tate Modern core exhibitions. Gonzalez-Torres’ work is manifested in a physical stack of posters on the oor of the Tate Modern gallery, allowing visitors to take one from the pile. The very fact that the Tate Modern has allowed for this to be on core exhibition shows a new appreciation for posters as art.

This movement is not only reflective of the emergence of a less pretentious art realm – one which accepts art of all natures – but also of one which aims to make art more accessible. Having a piece of artwork, or even a detail of one, on a poster can now be forgiven. It removes the sense of snobbery often so present in the art world, as the art itself has something to prove by the pure fact that its medium is not the traditional oil and canvas. This makes posters a tangible art form in themselves, not just for glossy reprints of a headshot photo of Audrey Hepburn.

If you’re looking for something to spruce up your fifty-shades-of-concrete student accommodation, put down the laminated Pulp Fiction poster, be ahead of the times with the letterpress movement. Own a piece of individual artwork in the form of a humble poster.

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