Ask any letterpress lover why they favor the old-school printing method, and they’ll likely tell you it’s less about the look and more about the feel. But that tactile impression was actually considered terrible printing in the past. Traditionally, letterpress aimed to print without showing any relief—a principle that has been conveniently forgotten amidst the contemporary revival of this centuries-old craft.
This is just one of the misconceptions traditional letterpress studio TypesettingSG was set up to address. In 2014, after learning how many newly established letterpresses in Singapore were unaware of the history and were giving a new generation of printers an incomplete introduction, designer Yao Yu Sun quit his design job and started his own studio in order to provide a more thorough education.
“The whole history of letterpress is actually to get rid of the deboss effect,” Sun explains. Like many, he first fell in love with letterpress for its tactile quality, but after working at a local commercial press he realized how short-sighted his view was, so he bought a machine of his own to experiment with. “As I went deeper into letterpress, I realized that contemporary letterpress is just the surface, which is just 20 years of history.”
Nowadays when people think of letterpress they picture bespoke wedding invitations and personal stationery, but this printing method was once an industrial process used for producing all sorts of materials, from newspapers to product packaging. In the 1980s it was replaced by offset printing, which saved on labor and was better for printing photographs. While some traditional letterpresses have survived in Europe and the U.S., printers in Singapore who are striving to become the printing hub of Asia, made the practical choice of selling their types for scrap metal and converted their presses to hot-stamp or die-cut machines. Hardly anything was kept, which is why Sun and the new wave of local letterpresses have had to pay a premium for equipment from overseas in order to build their studios.
“Letterpress was never integrated in Asia because [the] design industry started too late,” Sun explains. His interest in letterpress has led him to uncover Singapore’s unusual multilingual printing history, which reflects the social make up. Local printers not only had to configure their spaces to hold more than just Latin type, they had to learn completely different systems for typesetting—something Sun has done, too. Another largely forgotten milestone is that the world’s first Chinese metal type was partially cut in Singapore when British missionary Samuel Dyer worked in the city during the early 19th century. Known as “Penang” type, it was the standard in Chinese printing until the 1850’s.
Take one of TypesettingSG’s workshops and you’ll learn all this, but Sun also seeks to dispel the myth that letterpress is a “magical” craft.
“Imagine a Chinese printer standing in front of a cabinet picking out type for 12 hours a day. Is that what we call ‘crafty’ in the modern context?” he asks. “It’s a very, very harsh environment.”
Participants of TypesettingSG’s workshops are taught how to conceptualize, create, and print entirely by hand, a physical process that Sun says teaches designers how to visualize their work, considering things like scale and production.
Despite of his intentions to bridge the contemporary with the traditional, so far Sun’s journey has been an uphill struggle, not unlike the effort required to climb up to his studio on Pearl’s Hill, perched at the edge of Singapore’s Chinatown. While he has acquired five machines, more than 90 sets of fonts, and some 3,000 Chinese characters over the last two years, Sun has barely enough students to cover his rent. Traditional letterpress is too time-consuming a craft for Singaporeans used to a hectic life, and most prefer what contemporary letterpresses offer instead, he says. His efforts to partner with a design school have also been rebuffed, as many have set up their own presses instead.
“If there’s no support from the school and industry, then there’s no point,” he laments. With barely a year left on the lease for his studio, Sun is only sure of one thing. “I won’t give up on letterpress. To me, this is already a life-long thing.”