The rebirth of letterpress in Australia
In January 2010, Apple released the very first iPad and the world of paper-based communication became a whole lot smaller. That very same year, in complete contrast, the number of commercial letterpress businesses in Australia almost doubled. Although barely twenty commercial studios exist Australia-wide, 2010 marked a veritable boom in an industry that all but died in the 1970s.
About 500 years prior, a German blacksmith named Johannes Gutenberg was credited as the creator of letterpress with his invention of ‘moveable type’. The idea of casting reusable metal letters and arranging them into a sentence, page or entire book was revolutionary and it was subsequently used to print anything and everything from posters to bibles. Letterpress printing reigned supreme for 500 years until, in the middle of the 20th century, advancements in printing technology rendered the process cumbersome. During the 1950s and 60s it was phased out by offset printing and by the 1970s, letterpress was handed involuntary redundancy. The machines themselves faced various doom; some were demoted to the job of cutting and scoring, while some went into the homes of retired printers. Some of the older, more ornate machines were donated to museums but, sadly, most were simply sold off as scrap metal. And that, it would appear, was the end of that.
But it wasn’t. Fifty years after it was dismissed - quite rightly - from the printing industry letterpress has come roaring back into vogue. What is it about this quaint and outdated printing method that is suddenly the style du jour? There are far quicker and cheaper ways to print. Better still, there are completely paperless ways to communicate. Letterpress is fussy, time consuming, unpredictable and limiting – all things we strive to avoid in modern life. And perhaps that’s just it because in the modern world of email, SMS and Facebook, letterpress puts the ‘keep’ in keepsake.
It is for this reason that the booming wedding industry can take most of the credit for the continual rise in letterpress popularity. The revolution began in the USA in the mid-1990s when an issue of Martha Stewart Weddings featured photographs of letterpress wedding invitations. Although Australia lagged in the uptake by almost 20 years, savvy Aussie brides in the throes of their planning put letterpress stationery up there as a must-have extravagance. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a letterpress wedding invitation, it’s not hard to see why; the vivid inks are unparalleled by their digital counterparts and the crisply etched ‘bite’ of the design heralds an occasion that will only accept the best.
Much like letterpress people themselves for it takes a certain quality to be a letterpress printer, namely patience and attention to detail. The old-style machines are mostly manually operated, each sheet of paper individually fed by hand, and even the comparatively modern beasts require constant attention during a print run. Inks are mixed by hand and although printing plates can be made directly from digital design files, each colour requires a separate plate. Like the princess and the pea, the difference between a beautiful print and a terrible one can be as infuriating as a misplaced slither of masking tape. It’s a long and sometimes unpredictable process, but the result is inimitable: crisply inked letters pressed into paper.
As you would expect, modern letterpressers are a whimsical and passionate bunch. And they have to be - with such small numbers Downunder, most letterpress supplies are imported and local resources are limited. Also hard to come by are user manuals for the likes of a cast-iron brute that weighs twice as much as your fridge and is older than your great-grandmother.
It may be outmoded, but letterpress was built to last. Perhaps the most poignant factor in its rebirth is the very thing that killed it off in the first place: technology. With our modern throwaway lifestyles ruled by faceless and paperless communication, the simple act of sending a real piece of paper in the post demands that it be something ‘keep’ worthy.
Amy Constable is Creative Director of Saint Gertrude Design and Letterpress, a Melbourne letterpress studio and home to a 100-year old, hand-fed platen press called Gordon.
This article was originally published in the November 2011 print edition of Paper Runway.