The meticulous and laborious craft of letterpress is now preserved through a new documentary and ongoing teaching.
The meticulous and laborious craft of letterpress is now preserved through a new documentary and ongoing teaching. Photo: Jeff Sabo

Modern era designer finds her future in ancient letterpress art form

The documentary tells the passionate stories of artisans' dedication to the art of letterpress printing.

Erin Beckloff

Erin Beckloff

by Carole Johnson, university news and communications

A letterpress — a 5 x 8 foot Kelsey tabletop to be exact — thrilled Miami University's Erin Moore Beckloff as a not-so-typical wedding gift. She could print her own thank-you notes and, yes, launch a career.

Beckloff, now an assistant professor of communication design and director of the College of Creative Arts bachelor of fine arts degree, is the producer, co-director and writer of "Pressing On: The Letterpress Film," a documentary which debuted this spring with a full release scheduled for fall 2017.

Why the fascination with the 500-year-old letterpress craft? This modern-day graphic designer who uses computers for her profession said she couldn’t resist the "de-chunk" sound of the press and the ink-stained, tactile experience of the art form.

"Letterpress printing has this fully immersive feel, the rhythmic sound of the press, the chunk, de-chunk of the metal. It forces you to slow down," she described.

After graduating from Miami in 2006, Beckloff worked for advertising agencies. She jumped at the chance to intern with Nashville's Hatch Show Print, depicted in the film. A self-proclaimed typography and letter "E" enthusiast, she learned the art of distributing type and found herself living history.

Scholars will argue whether or not the letterpress is still an important form of communication. Beckloff recently viewed and filmed an original Gutenberg Bible housed at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. It was printed with a first-generation press in 1450. She has “no doubt” of the impact of the letterpress.

Intrigued from youth by a single letter’s expressive form, letterpress printing seemed to find her, drawing her in to its simple, but intricate art form.

“The characters have similarities, structure and control. For instance, wood type has its flare that adds character and warmth. I can hold the letter, feel its power. It makes it real to me,” she said.

Her curiosity for the craft turned to concern about preserving it. Over the next few years, she began to audio record the stories of people like Dave Churchman and Dave Peat, octogenarian collectors and hobby printers, wanting to capture the oral history of the community.

She taught letterpress at Miami's CraftSummer, which morphed into semester-long courses for Miami students. This led to reviving Miami’s original letterpress studio, now the Curmudgeon Press type shop, named after its founder Tom Effler.

A conversation with graduate school classmate and friend Ryan Bitzegaio convinced Beckloff that she could do more by preserving this visual process through video.

Preservation through production keeps the letterpress alive

I don't own this knowledge. It is simply my turn to carry it. Letterpress print.Having connections with Bayonet Media in Indianapolis through both Bitzegaio and another close friend, she set up a meeting with Andrew P. Quinn, Joe Vella and Kevin Grazioli in November 2014 where they quickly agreed to make a documentary film. Later they established a formal partnership, Letterpress Film LLC.  

“Like I learned at Hatch, preservation through production. That’s the foundation for our purpose,” she said.

She loves watching young children’s expressions when they see an image appear on paper before their eyes. “It’s this physicality to the print that gives them a sense to how special the printed page can be.”

College students experience an energy renewal after a session in the studio. In fact, Beckloff conducted surveys of her students, and results show an almost 40 percent increase in positive feelings.

Students come into the studio hunched, overwhelmed, exhausted. Then they clean the press, print and fold, and Beckloff sees their change in attitudes.

“It’s proven over and over that when people do something physical, it makes them happier,” she said. “The beauty of the letterpress is the slow, tedious work.”

Emily Feist (Miami ’16), who studied digital graphic design, appreciates the different feel of a letterpress.

Letter blocks spelling Curmudgeon press

Erin Beckloff revived Miami's letterpress shop, now called Curmudgeon Press after founder Tom Effler.

“I spend so much time developing as an artist in front of a screen tapping around on a computer. The thing that first drew me to letterpress was how dirty and slow the medium is. I realize neither of those traits sounds nice but, even more than painting or drawing or another fine art form, letterpress has a unique type of grit.”

She also appreciates the history and the community based in and around letterpress. “It, in it's nature, is very involved. You get sucked in. It's not a solo sport. You rely on others to teach you and to let you borrow both their knowledge and their tools.” 

Beckloff sees her role now as an educator and a connector pairing new artists with the artisans of the past.

“We’re collectors, preserving and representing the people before us. ‘I don’t own this knowledge. It is simply my turn to carry it’,” she said quoting a phrase used by The Red Door Press.

"Pressing On" to be released this fall

A Hollywood-like premiere with an audience of 600 plus people, including twelve of Erin Beckloff’s students, was held this spring.

The red carpet event at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee also included more than 50 letterpress artists.

Reviewed as “beautifully capturing the art and technology of letterpress printing, ‘Pressing On’ preserves important voices in this craft for generations to come.”

A fall release of the documentary is scheduled. The College of Creative Arts will host a screening. Screenings are now scheduled across the country and internationally — www.letterpressfilm.com.