Print: The Second Coming

29 July 2014

Print has become a medium of contradictions. On one hand, print is assuredly dying, making way for the quicker and cheaper digital options available on smart phones, tablets, Kindles and desktops. On the other, print is undergoing a renaissance: the lost arts of letterpress and silkscreen printing are making a strong comeback, riding the coat-tails of DIY culture and growing demand for artisan products. Print might struggle to compete with digital for speed of distribution and access, but in forms such as letterpress and silkscreen it has undeniable retro charm. So is this a fad-ish resurgence which will give way to the rise of digital, or a genuine renaissance of an exacting and beautiful craft?

Print is a remarkably inefficient medium when you consider type needs to be set, information carefully arranged, ink mixed and applied to plates before ever coming into contact with paper. When set against the speed of production and distribution of digital, print is glacial. Unable to compete for sheer efficiency, printing presses have been rapidly closing due to decreased demand. Newspapers and magazines, once the staple of the print industry, have witnessed sharp declines in circulation. In the UK, daily circulation as a percentage of households had dropped from 60% in 1999 to 30% in 2013. In response, Fairfax has begun to close its Sydney and Melbourne printing presses with a view to a digital-only future. Declarations of print's terminal demise no longer seem too hyperbolic.

However, while Fairfax's presses are closing, boutique presses specialising in letterpress and silkscreen printing are gaining prominence. Print may be an inefficient medium when compared to the instantaneous nature of digital, but it's also stubborn. For all the speed digital offers there seems to be needs that print meets and digital can't. Ben Levitz, founder of Studio on Fire, a Minneapolis print shop specialising in letterpress printing, sees print as a refuge in a world saturated by digital information. "Most of my work day was locked into the glowing screens of design, not making stuff with my hands", writes Levitz. "Most of the stuff I did make, ended up in trash cans of clients. I sought change. I wanted to make stuff that people would love and keep." Print might be slow, but as Levitz suggests, there are times when slowness is a virtue: offering time to engage, appreciate and reflect. Print is tactile, has a smell, a grain and wears the passage of time.

"I wanted to make stuff that people would love and keep." – Ben Levitz, founder Studio on Fire

Print carries a degree of craft that continues to resonate with people, and it's the craftsmanship behind letterpress and silkscreening that has reinvigorated this aspect of printing. The craft involves composition, typesetting, creating plates and screens, mixing inks, and interacting with the contraptions that produce the finished product. Sam Michaels, of Studio on Fire, identifies the trend as a "response to the digital age". For Michaels, "'people long to have artifacts, to actually hold something in their hand. And if you're going to make something, why not make it badass? Letterpress, foil, engrave, silkscreen; give those hands something to caress." As such, Michaels believes that print won't "ever go away completely, especially printing that is focused on craftsmanship and quality, such as letterpress. This process has a distinct characteristic of being made by hand – colours vary, floods are salty, etc -, which is almost the exact opposite of a digital experience, at least in this point in time."

As a source of slowness, such caressable objects have proven popular, with the rise of boutique printing studios. Studio on Fire, Sydney's The Distillery, Saint Gertrude Letterpress in Melbourne, the Ink Room and Stobietown Press in Adelaide and the growth of the Flatstock poster festival as part of South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas, attest to a renaissance of the craft. However, the boutique nature of these services has created barriers to entry: prices for old letterpress machines have inflated with this growth in popularity. Heidleberg presses, given away for a few hundred dollars a decade ago, now fetch between $3000-$5000 in Australia on the Briar Press classifieds. The strong alignment of these printing techniques with DIY culture has also positioned it as an esoteric practice that can be viewed as a 'hipster indulgence' rather than a meaningful development in the way we communicate.

It's an impression that DIY culture have railed against in recent years. While boutique presses have captured the attention, co-operatives, crowdfunding, online communities such the Briar Press and online outlets such as Etsy and Redbubble have enabled greater access and knowledge of traditional printing methods. This has stimulated interest not just in the beautiful objects, but in the craft that goes into it. Carefully printed items take time to make and appreciate, and in the digital landscape time is the one thing that is most certainly at a premium. Rather than an indulgence, the DIY interest in letterpress and silkscreen has seen an embrace of the care, attention to detail and belief in the importance and beauty of what one is creating that marks the craft of printing.

The recent return to favour of letterpress and silkscreen printing amongst creatives has emerged due to an intersection of cultural and technological developments. With many small-scale and DIY illustrators and designers gaining greater visibility through online channels, the demand for hand-made artisan products continues to be stimulated in apparent opposition to our current fast-paced digital landscape. Its tactility, presence and opportunity for reflection provides things digital media is unable to do. Print might just stay a valuable medium due to these factors, but above all, as Sam Michaels explains, the hard work, care and attention to detail that letterpress or silkscreen require are what sustains the craft. "'Give a shi*t,"' he tells me, and it seems like the fundamental reason why print is enduring: someone set and inked those plates before punching them into the stock, just so we could hold something beautiful. They gave a shi*t. That may not shift millions of units, but it does translate into work that is treasured, rather than a disposable flash on a screen.

Do you think the resurgence of letterpress and silkscreen printing is here to stay, or will its popularity wane?

Photo by Catherine Owens - Chalk & Ink
Photo by Melissa Coe - Boxcar Press