For the Love of Letterpress

The Counter Press describes itself as “a little letterpress studio producing small scale, limited edition typographic prints and printed matter.” Behind this modest description however, you’ll find an extremely passionate pair of designers who have built an impressive, analogue only, print studio with a growing portfolio of typographic work, in a little over two years—all in their spare time.

I visited the studio this weekend to meet with David Marshall and Elizabeth Ellis. The duo design and print around their busy freelance schedules working for prestigious branding agencies. Founded in 2011 to fulfil a creative yearning, David said that the Counter Press was “a hobby that got totally out of control”. “We started for the love of it. At first we were curious to see how others were doing it. The letterpress world is like a bubble—a real niche. Now we’re part of that world, and have become petty well known. It’s much harder to achieve this in other areas of design where the communities are much larger and fragmented”

Based in a bright former warehouse, run by Bow Arts Trust, the ground floor room is a perfect size to contain the impressive set-up. Plan chests and type drawers run along the walls, either side of a solid composing table with the presses at one end: A pair of tabletop Platens, an A3 size proofing press and a large Vandercook Cylinder press.

They are committed to practicing traditional methods, only printing with the wood and metal type they have acquired—no plates or computers. Despite this, the work they produce is very modern in both composition and content. With only evenings, weekends and the occasional holidays, they have to be certain that their time is focussed on the work that suits them. “It takes so long, the ideas we print need to be worth it, so a lot of thought goes into our prints. Letterpress is slow, complicated and often painful, but because this is spaced over weekends and evenings, the ideas are allowed to percolate and little details are added along the way.”

With this in mind, they’ve enjoyed developing processes to suit their way of working. To avoid opening cans of ink and the lengthy clean-up, early stages of their work are printed “dry”, using carbon paper to take an impression of small sections. In this way the larger design can be composed from these ‘printed’ slips in the way pre-computer layouts were made.

David and Elizabeth make it quite clear that they are not interested in making a living as commercial letterpress printers. “The whole point was to have the creative freedom to indulge ourselves and print what we liked. We’re interested in developing ways to keep doing what we’re doing while slowly expanding. As designers first and printers second, we get excited about problem solving and finding solutions using letterpress, so we would like to explore ways of collaborating with more designers on projects.”

So far they’ve made good traction selling their prints. It’s inspirational to see such creative energy, and investment put into self-fulfilling work. The Counter Press is a great example how much can be accomplished in your spare time and what passion can achieve.