Made in Sonoma. Slow and meticulous. We set out to create the 2018 Rivertown Revival poster. Using our hands and tools from the past – wood, iron and imagination. What we found reinvigorated our design chops.
In the early 1960’s the world of letterpress printing was eclipsed by offset printing and began to disappear under a grey sea of metal plates and compact metal boxes, then plastic boxes. The gears of presses like Vandercook, Heidelberg and Chandler and Price stopped turning, ink became rubber based or odorless powder and the melted lead solidified and was deemed toxic. Words on paper no longer impressed – they sat placidly on top. The shop windows darkened, the pedals and wheels halted and the smell and sound of ink spinning and sizzling on rollers was paused. Dust settled and spiders took residence in the old wooden cases that once housed letters of lead.
That being said, there’s something about the love of letterpress printing that’s indestructible. That it’s survived and returned to schools and studios around the world speaks to that. What is it? The clinking and soft whir of a Chandler and Price press that drowns out the humming and droning beeps of the technology that surrounds us? The feeling you get when you see a beautifully carved foot-wide wooden letter “G”? Hands are drawn to the power of meaningful words on paper so deeply impressed that you have to run your fingers over their surface. Perhaps it’s the way a delicate dingbat sits raised .981” on a chunk of lead. It’s consuming.
Letterpress printing has not just survived, it’s thriving; and with passion, some humor, and style.
Moon and Thistle press in Santa Rosa is a haven for this trailing edge of technology. We brought with us a small collection of wooden letters and an idea for Petaluma’s Rivertown Revival poster. Co-Proprietor, Katie Nealon led us on a printing journey with her Vandercook 219AB press that prints a maximum sheet of 19×26”. Translation: Built in 1949, this 10ft long, 2500lb machine with power driven ink distribution and two swing-out paper shelves under the feed board can crank out oversized posters you’d want to envelope yourself in – they are so full of depth and the smell of history. Katie’s Vandercook proudly sits central in her shop surrounded by over 200 drawers of type – living in California Cases. Her shelves are loaded with leading, spacers, Kelsey presses, a plethora of tools and gobs of wood furniture used to lock up the type on the press.
We arrived with a box of wood type and an idea and clearly left that afternoon with more than a printed poster. We are now infused with a deeper appreciation for an era passed. Thanks to Katie and her will to care and preserve. She’s an artist, a poet and her studio is a quiet nod that letterpress is here. Alive.