Walking through Kseniya Thomas’ letterpress print shop is like visiting a working museum; four antique presses line her workspace with each one progressing in age and design. Her oldest press dates back to 1896 and is powered by a treadle, while the next eldest is a hand-fed press from about 1920. The “relative youngsters,” as Kseniya calls them, are automatic presses from 1950 and 1968. Rescued from storage in old barns or print shops, each press has its own industrious, vintage look while serving a specific purpose in the printing process. The idea of producing handcrafted, modern products with antique tools and timeless techniques excites Kseniya, who has been studying and practicing letterpress printing for over ten years.
“The presses are capable of so much and run so well for their age that it's pretty amazing,” she says. “Someone said letterpress is "preservation through production," and I think that's really true. A little oil and know-how and these 100-year old machines produce great work.”
Kseniya Thomas founded Thomas Printers in 2007 and has been a full-time, commercial letterpress printer ever since. Letterpress is a relief printing process that creates a physical impression on paper and was the dominant method for printing until the early 20th century. Since its resurgence in the mid 1990s, it has become a popular choice for wedding invitations, business stationary, greeting cards and more, largely due to its handmade look and luxurious feel. “The process is visible and speaks for itself,” says Kseniya of letterpress products. “I love the tactile quality and artistic touch, and that there’s just enough irregularity to be intriguing.”
Kseniya, a Salt Lake City native, discovered letterpress during a work exchange program through the Gutenberg Museum in Maniz, Germany. Here, she spent six months setting type by hand in an antique print shop. A laborious and time-consuming process, typesetting is the first stage of traditional letterpress printing where each letter is individually set to form the desired text or design. “It was like playtime in the print shop,” says Kseniya of her experience as a typesetter. “They had probably 600 different typefaces in the workshop that I could combine and print. It was really immersive learning in that you had to figure out how to physically make what you imagined. It was a different way of thinking for me.”
While typesetting is the origin of letterpress, it has its limits when serving the modern customer. Inefficiency caused letterpress printing to become largely obsolete in the 1960s when it was replaced by offset printing and then digital. Its revival began in the 1980s when practitioners found a slightly updated method in creating raised metal plates for printing rather than setting type. This provided more possibilities for designs and typefaces, color matching and more. Kseniya entered this stage of letterpress in Austin, Texas, where she moved after Germany to work in a commercial print shop. Here she learned the process that she now uses in her own shop, which involves making photopolymer or magnesium plates from digital designs, mixing ink by hand to match Pantone colors, and physically running each design through the press for printing.
Working in a trade that was recently considered obsolete does present its challenges. Even though letterpress printing has made a powerful return to the market as a consumer good, letterpresses themselves are no longer in production. The trade was also de-professionalized and is largely left out of academic curricula, although it is slowly returning to colleges through niche book art programs. Having so few educational resources made it difficult for Kseniya in the early stages of her printing business, which inspired her to form an international trade organization, “Ladies of Letterpress.”
“In my early printing days I’d have a problem with one of the machines and I’d think, this process is 500 years old – there has to be a solution. But it was so hard to get information on how to become a better printer.” Kseniya co-founded Ladies of Letterpress in 2008 with 30 members and the proposition that “a woman’s place is in the print shop.” “We noticed that, for whatever reason, new letterpress printers were nearly all women. So we started this group as an educational resource and a way to increase the visibility of the trade.” Ladies of Letterpress has now grown to nearly 3,000 members and hosts workshops and annual conferences around the world.
Kseniya currently works out of a temporary studio in Layton and is excited to move her letterpress machines into the Monarch this spring to further expose her craft to the community. “I’m really looking forward to being in the public view and have people come in and ask me about what I’m doing,” she says, “and hopefully be curious enough to remember it when it comes time to order wedding invitations or other products. I just really love what I do and I think once people see the process working, they’ll appreciate it as much as I do.”
Kelly Carper, Arts Writer