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Old Machines Printing Modern Styles Make Impression

  • Faiza Elmasry

In 2012, Emily Doenlen and her friend Stephanie Hess made a daring decision: the 20-somethings quit their jobs as graphic designers for a magazine to start their own printing business. A third friend joined them because she found their idea too tempting and creative to turn down.

The young artists are using traditional printing techniques — and machinery — to create modern designs for their company, Typecase Industries.

Hands-on old machines

In one corner of their studio is a 360-kilo platen letterpress that’s nearly a century old. It’s not motorized; it's operated by a foot pedal that presses the design onto the paper.

“We print mostly coasters on it,” Doenlen explained as she worked her way through an order for a local restaurant. “When we first started doing orders, it was 100 [pieces]. When you get up to 1000 or 2000 or 3000, it’s a lot of work.”

This machine is not manufactured anymore. Neither is their Vandercook-4 flatbed press.

“This one is from the 1960s,” Hess said. “They used it to run like newspapers and stuff on them. It’s really a nice press because you can get a really good impression. It’s very versatile.”

Doing things the old-fashioned way

Everything here is done by hand — mixing the colors, feeding the papers, oiling the press and cleaning it.

Why choose to work with old machines instead of just pressing a button and printing off the computer? Hess explained it "just offers a very different service than the digital does now.”

“For me, it really goes back to the tactile quality of being able to like feel the paper and feel what you’re printing or making," added Hess. "Each print can be a little bit different. You get out of your comfort zone because you’re working in a different capacity. It’s not a computer. There is no undo button.”

Alessandra Echeverri said it was also a challenge to take the old presses and give them a new purpose. She recalled that at first, they had to "learn how to use the machine, which was a different style than what we were taught at school,”

"It gives you a higher level of appreciation of craftsmanship and mechanics stuff that’s usually outside of the realm of fine arts," she said. "That’s a new world. Then, once you understand how it works, what prints work best, what looks best on it, you start to design specifically for that.”

She said learning how to operate an old machine, maintain it, and fix it if necessary, was not the most challenging part of the job.

“I’d say it’s been learning how business works versus how creative art works," she said. "We didn’t know business practices particularly. That’s been the biggest learning curve.”

But as Doenlen said proudly, they learned. “It's our total dream come true, being able to own your own business, have your own schedule. All of the work is personal. We try to keep everything we do very hands-on, very intimate with our clients.”

New designs from old tech

Whether they’re printing restaurant menus, business cards, posters or wedding invitations, the goal is to create what makes their clients happy.

“Some clients come to us saying exactly what they want. We show them all the options, things we‘ve done. We try to spark ideas,” Doenlen said.

"Everything we do is completely custom tailored to that client and their needs," she explained. "So if I have ideas for them, I’m always going to share them. I would ask if there is anything they really don’t like, or they really like. We kind of start from there.”

That’s what happened when Anna Han and Joshua Garcia commissioned Typecase Industries to design their wedding invitation.

“My style always tended more towards like vintage kind," Han said. “I love the letterpress designs; I love like feeling the texture on the invitation. It’s actually quite an experience. It’s not only reading the invitation, but it’s also feeling it, touching it."

“We wanted it to be personalized,” Garcia added. So their cards feature the cartoon character Totoro. Typecase also designed a sign for each table at the reception."

"Instead of just having a table number," Han explained, "we had them print a favorite quote from a book that we liked. So we had nine tables, nine different quotes from nine different books. We loved it.”

As the three friends learn more about working with clients and with their re-purposed machines, they are using the old technology to create new designs — and business success.

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