Jennifer Farrell at Starshape Press, Chicago. Photo by Kevin Grazioli.

Writing this review is a labor of love for me, just as making this movie must have been for the filmmakers and actors. By pressing is the story of the rebirth of letterpress printing and metal type combined through the work of artists, retired printers and print lovers. They buy and restore old printing presses and acquire type cases by the thousands so they can print documents where you can actually feel the type printed on the paper.

It’s a labor of love for me as I grew up in my dad’s type shop in the West Loop and spent many summers toiling among presses, type cases and equipment binding. My father was an early adopter of offset printing in the 1960s, but these image-based presses did not replace his Chandler & Price platen presses, the large flatbed cylinder press, or the combined type enclosures.

Pressing: the typographic film, directed by Erin Beckloff and Andrew P. Quinn, is the story of why an ancient printing process, forgotten by most printing companies some 70 years ago, now survives and thrives in its niche. As an example of its rise, Letterpress Commons, which offers advice on how to buy equipment, says: “Presses that were almost given away 30 years ago now sell for $10,000 and more, for presses In perfect condition.

Chandler & Price platen press. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s define a few terms quickly. Letterpress printing means printing by spreading ink on a type form and pressing the type against the paper. This can be done with small presses, like the iconic Chandler & Price platen presses, or with larger equipment. The type used is usually individual letters chosen from a “working file” and placed in a “stick”. Lines and spaces (“leading”) are inserted line by line into a form, which is locked and placed on the press.

By pressing asks not only why typography is not dead, but why it survives now. A new generation of artists and printers – and some older generations – are fascinated by outdated technology. They delight in the sounds and smells of a printing press and the tactile nature of hands-on experience. By pressing does not deal with the history of moldy printing, but with the contemporary fascination with printing from metallic type. (You might assume this mini-trend has to do with the renewed interest in vinyl music recordings, prized for the authenticity of their sound quality.) There’s something real and tactile about printing an image to both from a type of metal on a hand- operated press.

The documentary features interviews with hobby printers, artisans and designers of all types. Gregory J. Walters, who still makes metal type, letter by letter, shows his process and equipment. The stars of the film, in my opinion, are Tammy and Adam Winn, owners of Red Door Press in Des Moines. Their garage — now filled with 20 refurbished letterpress presses — is where they print flyers, cards, forms, invitations, art prints — all kinds of short-term jobs. They also sell from a stand at a Des Moines Farmer’s Market. It all started when Tammy brought home an old press and told Adam he had to come to the garage for a surprise. He says his first response was “Huh”.

Adam and Tammy Winn. Photo by Kevin Grazioli.

Chicago, once the capital of printing, still has its place in the world of typography. Jennifer Farrell operates StarShaped Press in the Ravenswood neighborhood; the company’s slogan is “Printing like it’s 1929 since 1999”. While they print business cards, stationery, greeting cards, and wedding invitations — the kind of work that old-fashioned job shops used to print — StarShaped also prints commissioned work and special projects. They also offer their Well-Traveled Ampersand project, a set of art prints combining the beautiful ampersand in all its variations with images of the city.

Another nearby venue is the Platen Press Museum in Zion, Illinois, operated by Dave Aken. The museum is open for visits by appointment.

A former show poster company in Nashville still operates using handset type and typographies. Hatch Show Print creates and prints posters for country music artists and other artists. They originally printed using wooden type (originally hand carved in large display sizes) and now use metal. Their poster gallery features the work of musicians like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe and BB King.

Co-director Beckloff, an assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Miami, became interested in typography after receiving a historic printing press as a wedding gift. Inspired by the technology, she began recording interviews with printers in the typographic community, primarily in the Midwest, and later teamed up with Quinn to create the documentary.

Pressing: the typographic film will be released on DVD and VOD on June 19. The film was screened as part of a design double feature last September at the Music Box Theater. Parts of this article are taken from our review. See also my essay, “I Love Type”, on my personal blog.

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