A young entrepreneur and an old printer make a statement that looks and feels timeless.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
With a loud, rhythmic, mechanical kathunk!, Alissa Bell’s nearly century-old printing press chugs into action. The rich and sweet smell of fresh black ink fills her studio, which occupies part of a metal hangar-type building near the Marina Municipal Airport. With the rapid fingers of a professional typist, she plucks a printed business card out of the press and replaces the slot with a blank.
Bell, a 28-year-old Salinas native, produces everything from cards like these to wedding invitations to menus printed on wood to designs on leather.
“It’s a tangible medium,” she says. “You can feel the work. It has depth.”
A year ago, Bell took the summer to learn how the printing press worked. But the greater mission began a year earlier when she quit her job working in an accountant’s office in Los Angeles and moved back home not knowing too much about what would consume her. She merely knew she had an economics degree from UCLA and wanted to do something besides crunch numbers.
“I wanted to have my own business in a creative field, but I wasn’t sure what,” Bell says. “So I went bonkers: I cooked and gardened and took pictures.”
Growing up, Bell was always attracted to calligraphy, papers and writing. Her mom was a scrapbooker. In the midst of the gardening and photography, she decided to take a class at the San Francisco Center for the Book, studying different types of printmaking – and immediately fell in love.
“I like that the art form has history,” she says. “There is something more to it than designing with your computer.”
In spring 2011, she bought a 1919 Chandler & Price press from a print collector in Napa she found on briarpress.com, an online community for all things printing, and $1,500 later she had a fully functional letterpress with an uncommon pedigree. During that summer of practice runs she made her first set of wedding invitations; in January 2012 she launched Alissa Bell Press.
Bell says the distinct look of letterpress product – thicker paper with a heavy, deep ink impression – is attractive for potential clients, mostly for those with higher-end, boutique products and antique-style sensibilities.
“Their business is so specialized,” she says, “they want to stand out.”
Her clients agree.
“I use it for everything I can, from shop signs to price tags,” says Susan Galvin, owner of Foxy Couture, a used designer clothing store in Carmel. “I love the look it gives things. I like the old-world, artisan appeal.”
Galvin says people immediately notice the textural details when she hands out her cards: “You can feel quality of the paper and the indentation of the print.”
Other factors help set letterpress apart, like little unplanned nuances that make each pressing unique.
“Pressings changes with the weather,” she says. “If it is colder, the press is stiffer. Nothing is constant.”
Dan Christensen, owner of Cypress Press in Monterey – which specializes in embossing – has long been a supporter of Bell’s work. “Her imagination capabilities are taking her places,” he says. Even though he uses newer press methods, he still appreciates the throwback work, and how the type is driven into the sheet. But he sees the strengths of her business as her vision for pieces others wouldn’t take the time to do.
“We live in a fast-paced, instant world,” he says, “but she has the patience to do one letter at a time.”
In a good production workflow, Bell can produce 10 single-sided business cards per minute, but not until the press is ready to go. Before a printing session, she makes sure the angles on the press are lined up correctly and the mechanical joints are oiled. She then finalizes how big the design will be – it can hold up a 12-by-18-inch impression – and how deep an impression she wants.
“Depending on the job, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days,” she says. “When it is a very repetitive job, it gives me time to do things, like listen to podcasts.”
Prices reflect that investment and are dependent on the detail of the job. One thousand black-type, single-sided business cards for an office of four run around $0.50 each; an 8-by-10-inch shop sign in black costs about $200.
“Printers say that the proper way to print is ‘with a kiss,’” she says. “But it has become vogue to have a heavy impression.”
When Bell first bought the press, she reset the counter. Since then, she has made nearly 60,000 print impressions – and at least as many positive ones.
For more information call 298-0028 or visit www.alissabellpress.com