In this digital age, it may be hard for children to fathom—and for some adults to remember—that the printing of type was once a hand-set labor of love. Letterpress originated in the 1400s and was the primary form of printing books, newspapers, and posters for more than five hundred years.
We can thank famed German printer Johannes Gutenberg for popularizing letterpress. Prior to his creation of metal “movable type,” craftsmen in Europe had to carve entire pages of text into wooden blocks. Once the text was outlined, the space around the letters was whittled away so the text was the only surface that would touch the page. The blocks would then be inked, a paper placed on top, and by rubbing the paper onto the wood an impression would be made. Since each page required its own wooden block, printing a whole book was both time-consuming and difficult.
Gutenberg invented steel-cast type—including individual capital and lowercase letters as well as punctuation symbols—that could be assembled into words and then moved and reused on his printing press. This method was so much faster and more efficient that it revolutionized printing and communication. With this new technique, Gutenberg could print books at a rate of approximately six pages per day. His most famous print job dates to the mid-1450s and is a copy of the Bible, which consisted of two volumes totaling 1,282 pages. It’s thought that around one hundred eighty copies of this Gutenberg Bible were made, forty-eight of which can be found in museums today.
Nowadays, authentic letterpress is no longer a standard printing practice, but rather a beloved art form. Fans appreciate the delightful fonts associated with letterpress, and also the appealing tactile quality of the printing. Book lovers, budding graphic designers, and lovers of typography might enjoy a chance to explore letterpress here in Los Angeles, where several stores, schools, and non-profits offer tours, workshops, courses, and merchandise.
We dare you to stroll past this Santa Monica storefront on Pico and not walk in! From the riot of hand-printed posters plastered on the windows to the floor-and-ceiling display inside, printer Kevin Bradley wastes no space to display his eye-catching work, which runs the gamut from concert posters to wedding invitation to fine art, all created with letterpress.
In 2013 Bradley moved 30 tons of letterpress equipment across the country from Tennessee to open Church of Type. The walls of the shop are lined with shelf after shelf of type—including rare fonts and pictograms from the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s in both wood and metal—collected by Bradley over twenty-five years whilst scouring barns and basements east of the Mississippi. In the center of the room are three presses, including an enormous 4’ x 10’ Takach.
Bradley is a generous, folksy host, inviting visitors to watch as projects are designed and printed. He offers impromptu tours to anyone who pops by, and also hosts corporate retreats and other group workshops. Mementos from your visit can be purchased from the retail offerings in the front of the store, which include wonderful posters, prints, t-shirts, and journals in all price ranges.
Church of Type / 3215 Pico Blvd Santa Monica, CA Open 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM Monday–Saturday, Noon – 5:00 PM Sunday
Iron Curtain Press
We first encountered Iron Curtain Press in 2013 during the Hammer Museum’s Art Restore: Westwood Initiative. As part of that experimental project to reinvigorate Westwood by filling empty storefronts with artisan vendors, Iron Curtain Press, comprised of Rosanna and Joel Kvernmo, decamped for a month from their Echo Park living room to Kinross Avenue in Westwood Village.
Now happily ensconced on the sixth floor of a building in Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District, the couple runs a bustling letterpress operation centered on a beautiful 125-year-old printing press. In addition to custom projects, they make original collections of cards and gifts, plus offer workshops, which would be suitable for older teens and adults.
In the three-hour Introduction to Letterpress Printing, participants will learn about the craft and process of hand-set type printing by creating their own stationary set. No prior experience is necessary; the cost is $175. The maximum enrollment is generally three people to allow for a good deal of one-on-one instruction, but call them to reserve for a larger group.
Iron Curtain Press / 1340 East Sixth Street, Los Angeles CA
BOOKARTSLA is a new non-profit organization devoted to bringing the beauty of printing, binding, and collecting artists' and other handmade books to the public. Located in a Mar Vista storefront that used to be a stamp craft store, their 1,600-square-foot space now houses letterpresses, a bindery, and a workspace for up to twenty students. A wonderful vintage “STAMPS” signs marks the entry. Though it’s a vestige from the previous tenant, BOOKARTSLA plans to keep it because it’s cool and happens to be serendipitous, too: “stampa” is Italian for “printing.”
Watch their calendar for a schedule of letterpress classes happening this summer, including some presented by noted guest artists who will be visiting from other parts of the country. In addition to teaching letterpress, BOOKARTSLA offers classes in bookbinding, book cloth, box making (to house your handmade books), paper marbling, and more. Classes are suitable for older teens and adults, but the organizers are very interested in working with families and children, so contact them if you’d like to arrange a special age-appropriate workshop.
BOOKARTSLA 11720 Washington Place Los Angeles CA 90066
The International Printing Museum
What a pleasant surprise to discover that one of the country’s largest collections of antique printing equipment is nicely curated in a large warehouse tucked into an industrial area of Carson! Founded in 1988, The International Printing Museum galleries are chock-full of impressive machines and tools of the graphic arts, from historic Chinese printing blocks to replicas of Gutenberg’s press and Benjamin Franklin’s colonial printing shop. The Museum also features a space called the Letterpress Lab, a fully working 1950′s-era printing lab with platen presses, Vandercook presses, cylinder presses, Linotypes and Ludlow Typogaphs, foil stampers, and more.
The Museum is open to the public on Saturdays from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM, so we stopped in one weekend and tagged along on a wonderful tour. Knowledgeable guides operated small 19th-century hobby presses, 100-year-old Linotypes, cast-iron man-powered presses, and big electronic Heidelberg presses used to make books and newspapers into the 20th century to show how printing has changed over the decades. Special group tours can be arranged during the week by calling 310-515-7166. Admission is $10 per adult and $8 for students and seniors and includes the guided tour.
The International Printing Museum / 315 W. Torrance Blvd. Carson CA 90745
Finally, if you are ready for a more intensive, multi-week letterpress education, these three local colleges offer letterpress classes to the community: Art Center at Night, Otis College of Art and Design, and the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.
Written by Stacey Ravel Abarbanel