How do you define modern letterpress? For most designers, it’s the ability to combine traditional printing methods with any number of digital fonts burned into photopolymer plates for use on a vintage Vandercook. But for a limited few, the craft of letterpress is an exclusively analog pursuit, like Kevin Bradley who’s made it his life’s work to design with only pre-digital typefaces or lettering he’s carved by hand. “I’ve chosen to keep the computer as far away from my process as I can,” he explains.
“Of course it’s a useful tool, but as a young graphic designer, I found that everyone was using the same bag of tricks and the same font library. I wanted to go back to the method of my heroes: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, all those Bauhaus and Dada cats. I want to honor the tradition and history of what they were doing with my work.”
Though his methodology is rooted in the pre-digital, Bradley’s compositions subvert the tropes of traditional letterpress layouts through contemporary humor and social commentary. “My goal has always been to make something in the now with something from the past,” he says. In his Election Bout series, for example, Bradley highlights the absurdity and performative nature of modern politics by designing in the throwback poster style of 1970s ring fights.
Other, more conceptual, projects consist of typographic monster and robot creations, as well as massive 10ft tall prints made up of poems and ideas for screenplays he was inspired to write after moving to Los Angeles. “I started thinking about language, how letters grow into words and words into sentences,” he says. “That’s really the lifeblood of what printing and letterpress is all about, telling stories visually through art and design.”
Bradley hails from the small southern town of Greenville near the birthplace of Davy Crockett, which, as you may have assumed, is located on a mountaintop in Tennessee, as the old song goes. He earned a degree in graphic design from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but stayed to complete a program in painting and then in printmaking. After school, he moved to Kentucky, where he spent a few years working out of a studio in a converted barn until joining the legendary Hatch Show Print in Nashville.
He later operated his own shop, Yeehaw Industries, for 15 years in Knoxville, but his most recent venture brought him out west to Santa Monica, California, where his storefront called the Church of Type houses his floor-to-ceiling collection of letterpress posters along with over 2,000 vintage typefaces. “This place is like a church for me,” Bradley says regarding the studio’s name, “it’s a repository of all these typefaces, some of which were developed over 300 years ago.”
He’s amassed his collection over a span of twenty-five years, by salvaging typefaces and equipment from printmakers who were nearing retirement and looking to offload their inventory. “Before letterpress was as hip as it is now, people were selling type drawers at flea markets for forty bucks and then dumping the type,” he explains. “These old master printmakers, some of them 80 or 90 years old, didn’t want to see that happen to their collections. They liked working with me because I’d give them a downpayment and they’d keep printing till the day they died, knowing that their type would be preserved after they were gone.”
Bradley has added to that legacy of letterpress by passing his collective wisdom onto younger generations of designers and printmakers. In addition to his commercial practice, he mentors students from surrounding design schools and takes on apprenticeships occasionally. Though there’s more competition now that there’s been a revival in letterpress, he says ultimately that competition is a good thing. “This art form was in danger of going away 25 years ago. Now it’s living and breathing.”
Despite his steady stream of clients and academic initiatives, L.A.’s cost of living and astronomical rent hikes have proven unsustainable for this one man print shop. “The Church of Type is going to die in about three days,” he tells me in mid-March. “It’s gonna just be my California moment.” After laying the Church to rest, Bradley will make the cross-country drive back to the mountains and hills of Tennessee, where he’ll set up a new studio in Johnson City, 30 miles outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
“I’ve got a chance to start something new in a new little city. Asheville’s like LA, it’s expensive and the market’s pretty saturated. But people are moving outward and a lot’s happening on the periphery. I’ll be able to to get in on the ground floor, have a big studio for $1,000 a month, and be back printing and carving wood blocks in no time.”
Looking back, Bradley doesn’t regret the five years he spent in L.A. “The rent and the traffic are no joke,” he says, “but the people make this city the best. Plus the weather sure wins. What I loved about living on the west coast is how it changed my take on the world as well as my art. Everything brightened up in my palette because I was in the sun.”