Bride-to-be Ashley Braband didn't know letterpress from a sandwich press when she walked into Soolip Paperie & Press in West Hollywood several months ago looking for wedding invitations. But once she ran her fingers across a letterpress card and felt the subtle landscape created by inked metal pressed into paper, she was sold.
"Each piece looked handcrafted," said the 23-year-old Los Angeles human resources director, whose Napa Valley wedding is scheduled for the fall. "It gives a lasting effect--it makes it look like it's going to be on the paper for years and years. A lot of people have been writing back on the response cards, 'Wow, what an invitation!'"
Braband isn't the only one discovering the 600-year-old art of letterpress, the original form of mechanized printing that dates back as far as the Guttenberg Bible. The craft is enjoying a comeback in stationery and custom invitations and announcements. Around the region, 100-plus-year-old presses are clacking away, from Soolip on Melrose to Aardvark Letterpress on 7th Street near downtown, to the Claudia Laub Studio and Gallery in Hancock Park to the Fine Paper Co. in Old Town Pasadena.
At Claudia Laub Inc., a retail-wholesale business Laub sold to partner Jonathan Wright Herpick last year, printer Nelson Ayala is making stationery with a shell motif in flamingo pink. In the back of this small store, working on a 19th century press, he takes a sheet of ivory paper and carefully positions it on one of the press' flat surfaces. The engraved metal die with the shell motif faces the paper, and after it's been inked it's pressed into the paper, leaving a slight impression that transforms the blank sheet into a mini work of art.
Ayala examines the proof, peering through a clear plastic grid to make sure the design is straight and centered, then checks to see if the ink is consistent. A small motor operates the machine, which originally was powered by foot treadles; once Ayala sets the press in motion the large flywheel, rollers and plates swing gracefully amid the cacophony of clicks, clacks and bangs, sending heady whiffs of ink into the air.
It can take months, sometimes years, to acquire the intuition to gauge the precise amount of ink needed, to learn how to position the paper just so and to adjust the press for varying thicknesses of paper. Hand-setting type is a painstaking process in which individual letters, from sliver-sized pieces to big blocks, are aligned and spaced. Yet as careful as the most practiced printer becomes, the charm of letterpress lies in the finished product's slight imperfections, which speak to its handmade roots.
By contrast, offset printing, the process that replaced letterpress in the 20th century, uses printing plates and rollers. It is both more efficient and less labor-intensive than letterpress, but it loses the depth and dimension.
Though more businesses offering letterpress products are springing up, each has its own look and style, reflecting the tastes of the individual designers and printers, ranging from Victorian engravings of frogs to whimsical graphics of children and minimalist modern designs of cocktail glasses. Most images are rendered in one or two colors, and some feature hand-painted images.
The final product isn't cheap. A letterpress greeting card can cost $7. Custom birth announcements can run about $500, and multi-part invitations can shoot up into the tens of thousands of dollars. As details escalate, so do prices. A wedding invitation package, for instance, could include a save-the-date card, the invitation itself, matching envelope, response card and envelope, and thank-you notes. Each one can incorporate handset type and custom-designed icons made into engraved copper dies. The medium is often associated with specialty handmade papers, complex folds, plus additions such as hand-tied ribbons, dried flowers and wax seals. All of these up the ante considerably.
Although they are the most common letterpress products, stationery and invitations are not all that letterpresses can be used for. Several small presses in the U.S. have produced limited-edition handmade books, among them Arion Press in San Francisco and Thornwillow Press in New York.
In recent years, letterpress has found a fan base in the 25-and-under crowd who grew up with a mouse in one hand and a video game joystick in the other. They're filling letterpress classes at local art and design schools, including Otis College of Art and Design in L.A., and Armory Center for the Arts and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. But it's Martha Stewart who is most widely credited with bringing back interest in the process after she included an article on letterpress in her magazine.