In January, the announced sale of the Palmer Printing plant at 739 S. Clark Street formalized what had long felt like a foregone conclusion: there are no more printers in Printer’s Row.
Once one of the nation’s busiest printing hubs, the Printer’s Row neighborhood hasn’t lived up to its name in decades. Following the exodus of industry giants like RR Donnelly, Palmer Printing stubbornly clung on as the sole survivor of Row, weathering economic downturns and adapting to changing customer demands.
But after receiving an offer seemingly too good to turn down for the factory’s main real estate, the property was finally cashed in on Clark Street.
“Chicago has, from what I can tell, the greatest concentration of independent printers,” said Jenny Beorkrem, owner of Ork Posters, a company she founded a decade ago when sales of his typographic map of Chicago neighborhoods exploded.
And among these indies, a significant number, including orks, have taken up residence along Ravenswood Avenue.
Revival of Fit tests
Up and down the industrial hallway of Ravenswood, scrappy typography operators and screen printers carve out an analog niche in the digital world, tuning type with their fingers instead of keystrokes and creating greeting cards and printing foil of paper at a time by hand. like trading in an iPhone for a rotating model.
Just two decades ago, letterpress printing was considered so old-fashioned that the Chicago-made Vandercook presses, which now sold for $10,000 to $15,000, were thrown outright.
Then came Martha Stewart. The highly influential domestic dean of the 1990s is widely credited with reviving typography. His promotion of arts and crafts and all things handmade spawned a new generation of printers.
Jennifer Farrell, owner and founder of Starshape Press, is part of this new wave of old-school printers.
“Twenty years ago, when I was in school, everything was on screen and I thought, ‘You take your hands off everything.’ I got into the printing business because I loved the typographic aspect. I loved that you could build something out of things in front of you,” Farrell said.
“People used to say that metal [type] was too limiting. It pissed me off, that’s what pushed me to experiment. I can not do it? Look at me,” Farrell said.
Working on equipment that is often over 100 years old and using techniques that date back even further, small printers essentially thrive by zigzagging where others zigzag and returning to the roots of printing.
Obviously, the scale of the print set on Ravenswood can’t hold a candle to the original Printer’s Row.
“When my superpowers kick in, I did about 2,800 impressions in one day,” said Amber Favorite, owner and founder of a. favorite design. “Most of the cards we print in quantities of 200 to test. Once we know it sells out, we print 400-800 copies per run.
But there is a consumer segment that actively supports and seeks out hand-printed items, even thinking of the cards themselves as gifts, she said.
“Chicago is definitely a stationery town,” Favorite said.
Jim Pollock, who runs Pollock Prints out of the studio next to Starshape, found buyers really liked seeing ink blots of his fingerprints on posters.
“People are tired of all this digitized stuff,” Pollock said. “People like to watch something so simple.”
Printers attracted to the manual format typically start out working in a basement or garage using a press roughly the size of a stand mixer. The tipping point between hobbyist and entrepreneur usually occurs when a printer upgrades to a two thousand pound press, and the search for a studio is underway.
It was then that printers discovered that industrial buildings were rare in Chicago and that those that existed were “gigantic,” Favorite said.
Printers don’t require (and usually can’t afford) a lot of space – 1,000 square feet will suffice. But they do need proper zoning, concrete floors to support their presses, ventilation, strong electrical wiring, preferably natural light and it helps to have undisturbed neighbors by noise and rumblings, Favorite said.
“When the press is spinning, it’s not quiet,” she said.
The Ravenswood Industrial Corridor has a history of manufacturing dating back to the 1800s. The rugged, low-rise brick and limestone factories that grew along the railroad (now Metra’s UP-North line) produced everything from ice cream steel to billboards, musical instruments, movie projectors and more. A number of printing businesses have also settled in Ravenswood, including the world’s largest postcard factory and a metal casting foundry.
Much like Printer’s Row, the hallway has been hit hard by automation, innovation and consolidation, which has rendered many of Ravenswood’s manufacturing plants and the products they produced obsolete.
Although a handful of the corridor’s abandoned factories have been converted into loft-style condos, many have not. Building owners have carved these cavernous factories into mazes of studios that just happen to be the right size and price for printers, and it doesn’t hurt that the spaces look cool too.
“That older, vintage charm — exposed brick, natural light — I think artists generally appreciate,” Beorkrem said. “When you are a visual person, it influences your psyche. You don’t want to feel like you’re in a prison cell when you’re trying to be creative.
To further sweeten the deal, CTA and Metra stations are nearby, as are restaurants and shopping in the surrounding Lakeview, North Center, and Lincoln Square neighborhoods.
“Here you get everything — all the amenities, but you’re in commercial zoning,” Farrell said. “It made him really appealing to a lot of people.”
A funky mix of cabinet makers, cobblers, dyers and brewers have also settled in Ravenswood. Members of this extended artisan community share their knowledge and resources, refer customers to each other, and even exchange services.
“We are good friends with the guys from Begyle [Brewing]said Danni Schneider, an Ork employee. “We make their impression, they pay us in beer.”
Change the sTory
Apart from a difference in scale, Ravenswood’s Printer’s Row differs from the original in another key way: most of the print shops are run by women, a rarity in a field dominated by men in almost every aspect since the Gutenberg era. .
“Women weren’t really making type or setting type. They weren’t really in the print shop,” said Vida Sacic, who maintains a letterpress studio out of Ravenswood and is an associate professor of art at Northeastern Illinois University.
The physical strength required to operate the early presses is often cited as the reason for the exclusion of women, but outright sexism was also at work.
What was the male influence? Farrell has a collection of over 1,000 fonts. Two were designed by women. Of them. And one is a collection of ornaments that she created herself.
“It’s so pathetic,” she said of the disparity. As a teacher, Sacic even noted that the printmaking texts are written by men and the examples of printed works they contain are by men.
“Can we make other things happen? ” she asked. The answer from printers like Farrell, Favorite, Beorkrem and Sacic is “yes”.
Women are increasingly drawn to typography for many of the reasons they were initially shut out of the industry, including the materiality of the process.
“I think there’s an accountability to working with heavy equipment,” Sacic said.
Her students, she says, “are intrigued by the materials, they are intrigued by the presses.”
“When you print, it’s very therapeutic. There’s the buzz of the press, muscle memory takes over,” Favorite said. “When your hands are busy, your mind is free to go elsewhere. Many of my best ideas come while I’m printing.
In addition to the annoyance of fighting over a one-ton piece of iron, running a press also gives women control over the means of production, Farrell said.
“[Women] are finally allowed to buy materials and print whatever bullshit they want to say,” she said. This kind of power, in the hands of women, has the potential to spread beyond Printer’s Row. “Maybe they will change the stories being told,” Sacic said.
To do Iyou thereourselves
If all this talk about printers and printing has piqued your interest, Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood Avenue, offers classes in various printmaking techniques.
“People are looking for an antidote, something that isn’t digital,” said Judy Zeddies, director of Lillstreet’s printmaking and book art department.
“They love that thick paper and that big punch” — tactile sensations that were lost when switching from typewriters to computers, she said.
With typography, most typefaces are old and show their age. But it’s that wear and tear that printers find so appealing, she said.
“All those scratches, all that history is in every print,” Zeddies said.
Among Zeddies’ favorite moments as a teacher, she says, the designers are shown the studio’s character collection, which includes physical spaces and main elements, which can be achieved by pressing a key on a computer but which need to be combined in typography.
“When people take a class in typography, they learn how hard it is,” Zeddies said.