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What happens when a German IT professional hears a podcast about the ancient technology of moveable type? In the case of Kristin Jastram a new obsession began that prompted her boyfriend, Benjamin Bruns, to purchase a letter press lesson from Zygote Press in Cleveland, Ohio for her Christmas present in 2010. On a normal day the story would stop here but Kristin’s passion grew into a new website devoted to letterpress called, weloveletterpress.com. It serves as a central location for all things letterpress showcasing letterpress work from around the world. More than 120 studios have presented their work on the site. Kristen and Ben did not stop with a website. In cooperation with Kickstarter and Zygote Press the exhibition We Love Letterpress – Your Exhibition opened on April 20, 2012. The exhibit features prints from studios in the United States, United Kingdom Australia, Switzerland, Germany, and Canada.
Before Kristen and Ben return to their home in Hamburg, Germany later this May, I sat down with them to talk about this remarkable journey.
The exhibition runs through May 19, 2012.
1401 East 30th Street
Cleveland, OH 44114
Jimmy Kuehnle: Why did you come to Cleveland? Was it art related?
Kristen Jastram: Not at all art related but rather work related. We both used to work and I still work at an IT firm. We are here for an 18 month rotation. To be honest, this whole thing would not exist if we were still in Germany because letterpress is so much bigger here in the States in comparison to Europe. There is a kind of revival going on here in the States. It is something that we explored here that does not exist in the same way in Germany.
Ben Bruns: We were lucky to find Zygote here in Cleveland.
K: Because something like that [Zygote] does not exist in Hamburg, where we are from.
Did you have a previous interest in the arts?
K: Yes, and what brought us to letterpress was a design podcast published by Gestalten, a German publisher of creative books. They offer an English language podcast every other week.
B: You can find them on iTunes.
K: They interview creative people from every field you can imagine. People from car design, architects, painters – really every kind of topic. One day in October 2010 they had a podcast about Studio on Fire, a big letterpress studio with great work. The circle closes since they sent us work for this exhibition. When I saw this podcast it was really the “ah ha” moment. I never heard about letterpress before in my life but I saw that and I was totally fixed that second. I told Ben that I needed to do some letterpress printing.
What is it about letterpress that attracted you? You saw the podcast but not everyone starts a website after hearing a podcast.
K: That is a very good question. I think one really good thing is that letterpress is so old and traditional but you can do so many cool new things with it. So it is really a combination of bringing this old traditional craft into the new modern design world. Mixing these two things. If you feel the paper and really feel the embossing of the print, that is what makes it different. You feel that this is actually crafted and not a digital print for example. It is the imperfection of them as well. Every print will be different a little bit different. You will not achieve the same result every single time. Every print you do will look a little different – that makes it special.
Is it the process or the experience that is important?
K: I think it is both. I think you really see the time people spend creating these things and I think that makes the difference. It is not only about the printing.
You got her a present to take a class at Zygote? When was that and how did it work out?
B: December 2010.
K: You can imagine. I saw this podcast and from that day on I talked about letterpress all day and night.
B: It was an easy present for me. I thought, “We need to find a place where you can take lessons.” And I was blessed with Zygote.
Did you take a class?
B: No, I did my first print last Saturday, together with her. We went to one of the studios that participated in this exhibition. They are in Salem.
K: They are almost two hours from here and you can see their print around the corner of Chandler and Price. The studio is called Cranky Pressman (www.crankypressman.com) and they were kind enough to make our new letterpress business cards, so we visited them.
B: Chandler and Price was actually located here in Cleveland and they were a manufacture of letterpress printing machines.
It seems that the internet facilitated a lot of this exhibition. How do these old and new technologies relate?
B: I think there is a kind of shift from the old letterpress printing studios who were only printers. They got the designs and they only did the printing. Now it is getting more like a fusion of printing studios and designers. They actually do the design and they do the printing. They like both aspects of this work and they do not see themselves as only services for designers to print stuff. They design on their own and work directly with clients.
K: We really see our mission in bringing letterpess to people that do not have a letterpress studio right around the corner. Having this shift in mindset that instead of just going to the nearest shop no matter how good or bad or what topic the shop specializes in but rather using the internet as a source to see what letterpress studios around the globe really offer. Then you can pick the studio that you like, that reflects your personal style, has the right feeling. These days you can ship prints anywhere.
B: If you order something in the UK it is not big deal to send it wherever. We have on our website, studios from 12 countries, mainly the US but also Germany, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Belgium, India, China, Australia, Brazil.
Besides just loving it so much, why did you start a website? And how did the exhibition start?
K: Actually, when I started printing here at two workshops at Zygote. I did what people do these days, I just googled all kinds of questions that I had. I saw a lot of resources but nothing really structured and there is not the one place that you go to if you have any letterpress related questions. There are many communities, many websites technically orientated but not the one site where you can see all the nice designs and really have an overview. We saw that missing piece and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to create something that would be useful for someone like me looking for that information.” That’s how it started. If you really see a need there might be other people that have the same need.
B: Actually the idea of this kind of exhibition started with plans for a Kickstarter project a few years ago. We planned to do something back in Hamburg but it didn’t go so well and we did not raise the money necessary to pull it off.
K: We also did not have a subject, that was the main problem.
B: We had no subject. We said, “Send us what ever you want to.” We had no place. We only told artists, “We will show your art, somewhere, at some point in time.” It was not really specific that was the main problem. Now we have the kind art we want to exhibit, letterpress, we have a place, Zygote, and we have a a time, now. It is much more specific.
K: We really saw the opportunity with the letterpress community, that is very precise, it has some boundaries. It is not like any kind of art. There are a specific number of studios to really try the concept one more time.
What do you think about the project so far?
B: We are very excited to see how well the whole project is running. It was tough to get the whole project sponsored by Kickstarter because it is not like putting something up at Kickstarter and then suddenly you get hundreds of people who want to give money to your idea. We had to do lots of legwork in terms of approaching all kinds of social media, approaching all kinds of printers and studios but in the end we collected $1900 and our goal was $1000.
K: The people were really excited about the project. That was great.
B: The funny thing is, even after the Kickstarter project ended, over the last few months studios approached us asking if they could still participate even though the Kickstarter project had ended. So we asked them to participate.
Is Zygote the only time the physical prints will be together?
K: On exhibit is only one print of each piece and we will not only sell them here but also at the same time will launch in a virtual format so people will be able to buy all these prints online as well to, again to give it a more international feeling. Some of these prints are editions. We have number 3 out of 50 but many are individual as well.
Will the weloveletterpress.com site be a life long obsession?
K: I fear so.
B: Our next project that has already started is a catalog for wedding related products. Right now we are working together with nine print studios who are interested in participating in this catalog. We are waiting for their submissions but we will layout and publish as a pdf online.
K: The goal for that is to show people the possibilities for letterpress, modern, small, unique boutique letterpress studios that setting up very beautiful wedding invitations for brides to be, like me.
Are you guys getting married? When is the date?
Ben and Kristen: Next year.
Congratulations. Where are you headed next?
K: Exhibitions like this, we really see going on with something similar in the UK next year or maybe in Australia. We are leaving at the end of may. And we are going back to Hamburg, Germany.
B: I would like to something like this again and now we have contacts all over the world. It is not impossible now to find a place like Zygote and show them this is what we did in Cleveland. “What do you think? Would you like to support us or be the next place we host this kind of exhibition?” It’s not something that you do every few months but perhaps yearly.
Link to the podcast that started it all – http://www.gestalten.com/motion/studio-fire (Be careful. Viewing this podcast may cause you to create a website and host an international art exhibition.)