If you were thinking that, as an artform, letterpress sat beyond your threshold for tweeness, well, The Ladies of Letterpress isn’t likely to change your mind. Letterpress—the 500-year-old method of printing with wood or metal type, hand-carved wood, or linoleum blocks—belongs to the “new” 21st-century tradition of back-to-basics craft, fashion, even filmmaking (hello, School of Wes Anderson), and a renewed appreciation for authentic, unadulterated beauty. As Allison Nadeau of Charleston’s Ink Meets Paper press says, “There’s perfect imperfection in the scrawl of a handwritten note or letter. I feel the resurgence of printing and the appreciation of quality printed material is from a generation raised around technology, and they want to find a balance between the two.”
Yet the beloved tactility of letterpress, the variants in color and texture that elevate it beyond today’s digital printing to an art form tend to result in an un-ironic redux of old-timey fonts, motifs, and tattoo art. The relative lack of innovation in contemporary letterpress might prove to be of detriment to the original artform, but authors Jessica White and Kseniya Thomas are here to remind us that letterpress is just getting (re)started. Ladies of Letterpress is the result of their nearly 10-year partnership, during which they’ve collaborated on a digital hub for artists across the United States and, now, the world. From a membership of more than 2,100, White and Thomas have chosen nearly 100 to showcase—not their breakthrough works or their most popular pieces, but their most artful. And from those, they’ve selected 80 works to reprint as removable posters.
Women, they argue, are the godparents of the modern letterpress community, the “caretakers of letterpress technology,” according to Judith Berliner of Full Circle Press in Nevada City. After centuries of male-domination (followed by neglect), women have dusted it off and nurtured it back to life with a midcentury work ethic. While the menfolk have been off testing craft-brew recipes in the garage, the ladies have been quietly hustling wedding announcements and business cards, progressing into one-off art and book design. As Mary C. Bruno, daughter of the late Don Bruno of Bruno Press, says in probably the book’s most moving entry:
“It is a great legacy and I have made it my own, with a lot of blood (from linoleum carving), sweat (from pushing deadlines), and tears (from missin’ my pop).”
Sisters—some solo, some in partnerships with husbands, colleagues, or fathers—are making a serious go of it. Sometimes with 80-year-old presses from now defunct Chandler & Price, Heidelberg, Vandercook ,or Kelsey literally pulled from the trash heap. And not just in the Portlands and Brooklyns of the world, mind you, but from rural Texas, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Modena, Italy. Many show signs of progress within the form. Heather Mitchell of Just Vandy in Torrance, California, La Farme of Holland, and Modern Optic of Los Angeles have transcended the twee to produce graphic, modern artwork for a discernable consumer.
Is it sustainable, this most sustainable of artforms? Is there an untapped market for work with more dignity but less scope for ingenuity than other types of printing? It’s not clear in Ladies of Letterpress. Nobody’s stepped in with a solution to the incredibly costly, labor-intensive, and limited-nature of the art. And its “perfect imperfection” shines through only in the pull-out work. Comments like “I can’t live without a good pair of tweezers” (Sarah Nicholls, Brooklyn) make this the ultimate geek’s guide to letterpress printing. Though with the industry growing daily (you can bet that 16,000 figure is already yesterday’s news), that’s saying something.