January 18th, 2011
The hand processes that once ruled the commercial printing world are long gone in the modern digital age. Creating a mass-produced image or design for promotions, packaging, or products once took hours of physical labor, but can now be achieved in a fraction of the time using computers and laser printing. However, hand printed materials for commercial purposes are beginning to make a comeback with people once again valuing the uniqueness and quality of hand produced cards, books, and other merchandise. Hammerpress, a letterpress operation in downtown Kansas City, has specialized in this type of work since 1994, and after earning a BFA in illustration and working at Hammerpress for several years, Michelle Dreher moved to the West Bottoms and opened her own letterpress operation, Two Tone Press in 2004.
While letterpress is typically thought of as more of a commercial process than an artistic one, it is actually closely associated with the traditional relief printmaking process. “This essentially is relief,” Dreher explained to me. “The only difference is that I have this type of equipment, so I can lock it in and get really easy registration and run multiples really easily, versus using a flatbed press.” She has three different machines to produce her work on: two somewhat modern presses that were made around the 1940’s, and an impressive cast iron press from the late 1800’s. In today’s disposable society it might sound odd to use such old machinery in a business, but it is rather common in a business where nobody manufactures the machines anymore. She was able to find most of her equipment through the website briarpress.org, which is a specialized network for letterpress. From their classified listings she was able to compile enough equipment to get Two Tone Press off the ground.
“Word traveled really fast that I started doing this,” Dreher said of when she began the business. She began getting jobs from design firms, but said that since the recession in 2008 that business has dropped from about one job a month to one or two a year. “Which is fine, because I don’t really care to do that stuff that much anyways,” she said. The bulk of her work has been in producing wedding things like business cards, wedding invitations, and small runs of posters for different events. Lying about the shop were several poster designs for roller derby leagues and a poster for a local zombie film premier. The demand for hand-produced products seems to be infectious, with each job sparking an interest in a new customer. “Wedding invitations is easy to get into because I just did a couple, and then all their friends see it and their friends are getting married, and they ask where they got their invitations, so I’ve gotten a lot of invitations like that,” she said.
Dreher said she is typically given a lot of creative control over projects like wedding invitations because the customers requesting them are not designers, so she has an opportunity to add her own creative flair into the final product. An element she often includes in all of her work is hand carved relief images or other hand-designed illustration, which she feels helps distinguish her work from that of Hammerpress, and may play an even bigger role in what she does in the near future.
When I interviewed Dreher last December plans were already underway to relocate Two Tone Press. Just the last few days she and her husband, artist Luke Firle, have finished moving all of their equipment and belongings to their new location just south of downtown Kansas City into a building that they have been renovating for more than a month. They plan to live in the upper portion of the building, and on the first floor have the letterpress operation along with their woodshop and a storefront.
Dreher also said she plans on changing the focus of her work from what it is now. “My goal is actually to move away from the commercial. With this new space I’m going to start restructuring what I do and actually switch to having workshops,” she said. “For the first part when we open down there I’ll probably still be doing the commercial stuff, but I’m slowly going to weed that out.” She also has ideas for trying to strike a deal with the Kansas City Art Institute and offer a satellite course in letterpress because it’s something they currently don’t offer, do collaborative projects with other artists, and she also plans on eventually focusing more on making her own personal work.
Dreher had a couple examples of her personal work on hand and I noticed that they were an interesting blend of design and fine art, somewhat resembling posters with a more artistic drive to them. She said she has some ideas for poster-like work in the future, but that she doesn’t anticipate it being a major focus for her. “Most of the stuff that I would be doing probably won’t have a lot of text on it. I think putting type on a piece successfully is actually pretty difficult,” she said. She said that lately she has been more interested in exploring the use of textures and patterns in her own work. Starting out, she primarily stuck to using flat planes of color in her designs, but is now using things like wallpaper or the grooved surface of a record to achieve new and more diverse effects in her prints. “Patterns are really what’s the foundation of everything,” she said of her work. “Some of the things that I’m going to be exploring is how these patterns can start to have actual meaning and not just be a decorative background.”
Be sure to check out Two Tone Press in its new location at 3123 Gillham Road and see some of the new things happening there. Two Tone Press’s website can be viewed here.