Where Clay Hickson and Liana Jeger lurk beavering away for Tan & Loose Press isn’t your your ordinary office. In fact, you’ll find the two of them—they’re partners in life as well as work—working in the snug second bedroom of their walk-up apartment in the residential neighborhood of Pilsen, Chicago. More often than not, their cats Seymour and Googie Withers are lingering nearby, too.
Founded in 2012, Tan & Loose was initially a side project for these recent printmaking graduates of The Art Institute of Chicago, who had landed at uninspiring day jobs. “We both studied printmaking but after school, didn’t have anywhere to do it,” says Hickson. “Then I started hearing about Riso printers. When one popped up on Craigslist, I had to get it.”
Though Hickson had never used a Riso before, he quickly warmed to its capabilities and quirky output. “There’s not a huge learning curve,” he says. “They were basically designed for church flyers, for cheap color printing.” Jegers jokingly adds, “They were obsolete until a bunch of nerds got their hands on them.”
Hickson has a long list of reasons why Tan & Loose continues to exclusively use the bulky, old-school printer to this day—though the reasons don’t necessarily sound all that positive. “The registration is always a little off. Every print varies. The way the ink sits on the paper. The halftone pattern. The color palette is super limited.
“Honestly, the printers are terrible for a lot of things, but perfect for what we want to do.”
The first breakthrough project for Tan & Loose was a series called Tan Lines. Every year, Hickson would contact a dozen or so of his favorite artists—“Chicago has a strong community of local printmakers”—and ask if they would design a print, which would eventually be unveiled during a party. Besides being creatives Hickson personally vouched for, there were other common threads: “I lean towards illustrators, as opposed to painters and fine artists. I like things that are little cleaner, more graphic, and more illustrative.“ Though there was certainly a social aspect to the project, Jegers admits, “We had to make work, too, because securing it was a tough thing right after school.”
Today, most of their efforts are put into The Smudge, a monthly newsletter released this past January in the aftermath of least year’s election. Like with many Americans, the volatile process left Hickson and Jegers with an acute sense of urgency and conviction. To that end, they wanted to create something tangible, subscription-based, and delivered monthly via mail. In short, it would be a paper-based forum where like-minded people could vent creatively, whether it be through personal essays, personal advice, or even comics. Profits are donated to a different charity with each issue every month, and former recipients include Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
“We’d been looking at a lot of old 1960s and ’70s underground newspapers, because we like that look of something quickly thrown together,” explains Hickson of The Smudge’s art direction. “We also use Letraset, transfer letters you can simply rub on, and every issue we try to go a little more analog.” (Coincidentally, Tan & Loose is hosting a Letraset workshop at the upcoming Eye on Design Conference.)
The duo is the first to admit that traditional graphic design isn’t their specialty. “Neither of us have design backgrounds,” says Hickson. “So if there are rules…” “We don’t know them, and we’re probably breaking them,” finishes Jegers. Their inspiration is simple and purely visual:
“When we see a weird, cool layout we like, we just use it,” says Hickson.
Hickson’s a fan of their living together, working together setup. “It’s good. Until recently, we both had part-time day jobs. So it was pretty easy to balance that, while doing our own freelance stuff.” Jegers agrees. “It’s also nice to ask the other person if you’re unsure of something, because we have different sensibilities.”
The origins of the cheeky Tan & Loose name are equally irreverent. It began as a little inside joke between Hickson and an old roommate, when he first acquired the printer. “It was the philosophy of the summer, but now I’m stuck with this ridiculous name. And as many regrets I have regrets about it, it just fits with the whole aesthetic of our press.
“I mean, we’re not tan and loose at all. Really, we should be called pale and uptight.”