Letterpress Defies Digital Age in Denver

The letterpress movement sweeping the nation does a healthy business in Denver, where locals enthusiastically covet all things handmade. The time-tested process has managed an unexpected revival as typographers at MATTER and other shops honor the historical roots of printing as they create distinctive works on heirloom presses.
When I arrive at MATTER on a brisk morning, the first of spring, a motley crew sharing homemade waffles topped with fresh-cut strawberries greets me. MATTER Owner and Design Director Rick Griffith offers -- no, insists -- I dish up a plate and pour a mug of piping hot coffee while I'm at it. 
The French press is, by far, the daintiest of all of the presses in the two-story LoDo studio, the lower-level workspace boasting four massive metal-and-wood printing presses -- a tribute to those bygone days of noisy machines churning inside smoky newsrooms. 
Griffith sits at the head of the table. He's joined by two staff members, a professor, a middle school art teacher, a graphic-design-hopeful, a jovial furniture salesman and the resident red heeler, Pica. The table of comrades -- situated amidst a hodgepodge of carefully sorted books, antiquated design magazines, vintage records and canvas prints -- sum up what Denver's letterpress community is all about: like-minded individuals sharing tricks of the trade in hopes of keeping that trade alive.
When I ask Griffith how he came to be the unofficial king of the city's letterpress scene, he responds simply, "I'm the oldest young guy you know, but I'm definitely an old guy." 
Originally from London, Griffith came to Denver by way of Washington D.C. and New York. At 23, he fell in love with punk music and was inspired by the album cover of Sound - On - Sound by Bill Nelson's Red Noise, picturing an watchwork-like robot answering the telephone. Griffith immediately began taking design classes.
Rick Griffith studies a letterpress print.A lasting impression

Today, twenty years later, Griffith thrives as a graphic designer specializing in typography. His youthful disposition coupled with decades of carefully honed expertise -- and some natural talent to be sure -- give him his edge and stature. His hair, a horned, mad-scientist coif speckled with salt-and-pepper strands, doesn't hurt either.   
Neither do the ghosts of the studio. A non-spooky quartet of apparitions have been haunting Griffith's studio for years, overseeing his endeavors. Griffith counts on his fingers: There's Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, and, of course, Muriel Cooper
Cooper, the late Director and Founder of MIT's Visible Language Workshop who's often recognized as one of the greatest graphic designers of the 20th century, is as fundamental to Griffith's works as the old machines he harbors. "She's the reason we have printing presses in our studio," says Griffith, reciting Cooper's philosophy that all designers should be close to their means of production.
The rich history behind printing presses could easily fill a book -- and, it has. It all began around 1455 when Johann Gutenberg first printed a Bible using individually hand-set type. Letterpress became the industry standard for the next four centuries or so, at which point linotype machines, often called hot type, allowed publishers to efficiently cast entire lines, not just single letters, from molten lead. Then offset printing became popular with commercial printers in the 1940s, shortly after World War II. By the time desktop publishing hit in the '80s, letterpress was virtually obsolete. 
Tom Parson, Owner of Now It's Up To You, was just coming to the scene when letterpress was being scrapped. "A lot of the parts were being junked or auctioned off," Parson recalls. 
The veteran Denver printer now works to keep letterpress alive by unearthing scarce resources. Parson educates colleagues, teaching them how to fix their presses and offering guidance on the tricky task of moving the bulky machines. In fact, Parson recently put in a proposal for a building in Englewood. Should the offer be accepted, he plans to establish a printing museum where others could learn the craft. 
Parson worked the presses in high school, printing poetry at a small publishing studio. After studying literature and creative writing in graduate school, he relocated to Denver where he scraped together enough cash to buy a press. Parson has been printing ever since. 
Jason Wedekind, Owner of Genghis Kern, found himself in letterpress after similarly serendipitous circumstances transpired. He was the Art Director at a Denver firm when, one day, a unique project landed on his desk. "The only way to get this project done was through letterpress," recalls Wedekind who got connected with Parson and was slowly sucked into the letterpress community. What began as a hobby quickly delved into a full-time gig.      

Visceral trumps virtual
Click! Bam! Clank! Clunk! As I make my way downstairs to Griffith's workroom, a cacophony of presses greet me and that familiar grade-school smell of whiteboard marker permeates the air. "It's the ink," Griffith explains, tightening the lid of a large can of sticky yellow ink.

Griffith keeps four presses at MATTER. The largest, a 4,000-pound monster, literally weighs as much as a small elephant; the smallest is a 250-pound foot-pedal model. The two-ton press loudly belches out an old-time utilitarian tune. Rickety wheels spin, ink smears on aluminum plates, which then slide up and down to transfer ink from letter to paper. The "small" press is quieter, but far from silent. The third press Griffith demonstrates is configured with knife blades allowing for die cutting, or custom shaping of materials.

Working the presses is involved and labor-intensive, which is just fine because most typographers have a fondness for the tactile nature of their trade. "You're actually typing and stamping into paper," Now It's Up To You's Parson explains. "This leaves an impression, a dent in the paper that 
Rows and rows of various typogrophy fill the drawers at Matter.makes people want to touch it." 
The result is always unique because it depends on human-controlled factors like paper orientation or operator-applied pressure. "You aren't pressing Apple-P," says Wedekind of Genghis Kern. 
An artist by trade, Susan Porteous, Owner of Green Bird Press, loves using her hands. That's problematic in 2013. "Everything these days is so digital and quick," she says. It follows that Porteous has found herself drawn to the letterpress process, a four-step method of composition, imposition, lock-up and printing.
But letterpress is unlike digital design in that it requires space -- a lot of it. "It isn't just the machinery that takes up space; the type is cumbersome," says Porteous, who admits she doesn't have enough cases -- that's letterpress lingo for drawers -- for her current collection. 
Today, when it comes to letters, the possibilities are endless. Typographers, no longer limited to the font at hand, can use photopolymer technology to print any letters, images or graphics imaginable by having digital designs transformed into printing plates. 
Griffith, whose oldest press was created in 1895, mentions the palpable quality of letterpress, but explains he is more intrigued by the rich history of the machines. Each press has a serial number, which allows the owner to connect with the past. Griffith's Vandercook 219 AB, for example, was one of the very last presses made before its eponymous maker closed its doors to the public in order to make machinery for the Korean War. The company didn't resume manufacturing public goods until the war ended in 1953. 
Some of Griffith's wood type is 200 years old, which means certain letters have been configured and reconfigured for centuries. When I ask Griffith how many letters he owns, he pivots. "My best guess is 10,000," he says. When it comes to wood letters, Griffith likes Turkish boxwood, but says furniture-grade maple works fine as well. For metal, he prefers magnesium.    
Nobody disputes the letterpress revival began in the 1990s. The reason for the resurgence, however, is debated. Some popular websites credit the comeback to Martha Stewart and the letterpress wedding invitations featured in her magazine. Wedekind says Hatch Show Print, a Nashville-based print shop that works exclusively in letterpress and is a division of the Country Music Hall of Fame, is responsible for putting heirloom printing back on the map. 
Local letterpress godfather Parson says the move away from flat digital graphics is indicative of a larger trend away from big corporations and overseas production. "People think of letterpress as an alternative to machine-made, corporate design," he says. "It has a quality of printing that no other machine can replicate."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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