We’re big fans of New Year’s cards here at Bas Bleu. We use them for thank-you notes, to send holiday greetings to those friends we accidentally left off our lists, even in lieu of Christmas cards when December is just too crazy. Plus, we’re suckers for snail mail and pretty stationery!
Earlier this year, when our editors decided to expand our New Year’s card offerings, our research turned up two terrific quotations we thought would be perfect. The first, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was transformed into a nature-themed beauty by Georgia-based artist—and dear friend of Bas Bleu—Ande Cook. The second, from beloved American satirist Mark Twain, seemed like the perfect fit for the elegant, vintage style of a letterpress card.
Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. —Mark Twain
As luck would have it, printer Julie Franklin runs a letterpress print shop and studio in the same historic Atlanta neighborhood the Bas Bleu editorial department calls home. After several brainstorming sessions together, Julie invited us up to the studio for a chat and a front-row seat as she printed our exclusive Mark Twain New Year’s Cards on her mammoth Heidelberg press.
Bas Bleu: For those who don’t know, what exactly is letterpress printing?
Julie Franklin: Letterpress is an artisanal craft, originally invented in its modern form around 1440 by Johannes Guttenberg using movable type, or individually cast letters. A relief image is inked, then pressed into paper to form a one-of-a-kind, distinctive print. Wood or metal type, carved woodblock or linoleum, photoengraved polymer, magnesium, copper, and more can be used to make a letterpress print.
Frankly, it’s a slow, labor-intensive process, using obsolete equipment and requiring a great deal of skill and patience. But I love it because letterpress has soul. You can see the unique hand of the printer in every design; the images practically dance across paper, shadows catching light; and the paper can have as much character as the ink.
Not much has changed with letterpress since the fifteenth century; the idea is still the same and many of the presses made over a hundred years ago are still used today. But there have been technological advancements that have helped spur letterpress love into modern times—mostly the ability to photo-engrave plates from a film negative. These presses, besides having been built to last for centuries, allow for creativity and innovation because of their simplicity of design. There is a lot of room for experimentation in technique and style, and we’re just beginning to see where letterpress will take us.
BB: Tell us a little bit about you: How did you get into the letterpress business?
JF: I started out making stationery and framed pieces from pressed botanicals. At a tradeshow in New York, I was given a letterpress business card and thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen…or held. I was hooked! I bought my first press, a Chandler and Price Craftsman, in the mid-1990s from a retired printer called “Wild Bill,” then found old textbooks from the 1940s and some online resources (a letterpress listserve). Very slowly, I taught myself how to print. I turned the flywheel by hand on the massive Chandler and Price press because I was afraid to turn it on!
In the beginning, most of the letterpress cards I made were for shops in New York and California; at the time, very few people in Atlanta or the rest of the country knew what letterpress was. Over the years that’s changed, and a few presses that escaped the scrapyard are in the hands of a new generation of printers who love the straightforward, mechanical nature of letterpress printing as well as the feel of creating something real and intentional. Letterpress items feel lasting, as if the nature of these ancient cast-iron presses somehow permeates the pieces they print.
BB: You have some really impressive equipment in your print shop! What can you tell us about your machines and where they came from? What are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered while working with them?
JF: They all came from printers who have retired. My Chandler and Price (C&P) was a wonderful press to start with. It’s simple but daunting, weighing several thousand pounds. The next press I bought was a Kluge, which is similar to the C&P but has an automatic feeder. The person I bought it from said they’d teach me how to use it…but they didn’t! So I found more old manuals and textbooks and taught myself how to run that one. Later, I bought a couple of Heidelberg windmills and a Vandercook, and taught myself how to use them too.
They all do the same thing—press a relief plate into paper—but each does it in its own way. I have two Heidelbergs, and even those have two different personalities! They are heavy, old, and built to last for centuries. Besides the challenges of learning how to run them, I’ve had to hunt down parts; if something breaks (which is rare, thankfully!) or is missing, I have to fix it myself. Fortunately, other printers around the country are more than willing to help me problem solve and to talk. The letterpress community is unusually warm and open, willing to share knowledge.
BB: What types of letterpress projects occupy the bulk of your business? What are your favorite types of jobs to work on?
JF: Most of my projects involve creating stationery. My favorite types of jobs are art prints and poems.
BB: What’s the most interesting or meaningful letterpress project you’ve ever done?
JF: There are so many! I love the process. I really enjoy seeing something come to life in letterpress that hasn’t been done before, and I love the collaboration that comes with printing any kind of letterpress project. One recent piece that I felt especially honored to print was a limited edition broadside/poem written by Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014 and recipient of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She wrote the poem “Meditation at Decatur Square” for the 2015 Decatur Book Festival this year. I designed the artwork; Natasha was wonderful to work with, and I was really happy with the piece.
BB: What lies ahead for Julie Franklin?
JF: I’m working on creating more collaborative projects with artists, people who may or may not have any experience with printing—painters, sculptors, writers, etc.—to bring new work into being that wouldn’t be possible to create alone. I think letterpress as a medium has a lot of room to grow. I’m looking forward to playing and experimenting with different techniques and finding new ways to make art with letterpress.
BB: When you do have a free minute to sit down and read, what is your favorite book or author?
JF: I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like! Although I’m not a great cook, I read a lot of cookbooks. I bought Natasha Trethewey’s book Native Guard after I printed her broadside, and it made me fall in love with poetry. And one book that my daughter read recently brought back wonderful memories: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell was one of my favorites as a child.
BB: Our thanks to Julie for sharing her craft with us…and for helping us to create such a witty and fun New Year’s card!