Alternative approaches to the letterpress arts
Based out Detroit’s “Ponyride” studios, Brian Christopher Baker and his company, Stukenborg Press, are at the forefront of the ongoing letterpress resurgence. His prints embrace non-traditional materials—specifically, geometrical arrangements of dice that he uses to create intricate patterns. As a contract for The New York Times Magazine, Baker blanketed the publication’s iconic gothic “T” with a layer of red 5s and 2s. We recently toured Baker’s studio courtesy of the Re:View Gallery and Buick to learn about Stukenborg and the world of letterpress design.
Baker’s penchant for unexpected type materials doesn’t stop at dice. He admits that students of his “Alternatives to Type” class have pressed everything from bunion cushions to foodstuffs. “If you can get it stuck down and type high, you can make a small edition of anything,” explains Baker. This open-ended approach gives his creations new level of complexity that goes beyond typical letterpress prints.
The result of years collecting type from various resources, the designer’s collection of type wraps around his studio in trays upon trays of metal and woodblock sets. His main machine was salvaged from the basement of Manhattan’s National Academy of Art. “The janitor said it had been down there for 25 years,” explains Baker. “It’s a champ machine. It took me about three months to get it up and running because it was caked with all kinds of weird stuff.”
For unavailable materials, Baker also sources type from a nearby foundry, and he admits that CNC machining and laser etching have created entirely new opportunities for letterpress designers. The fusion of materials and know-how becomes apparent when Baker pulls a print—the thunderous roll and cracking of colliding pieces demonstrating the nostalgic appeal of the letterpress process.
Contemplating on the state of contemporary letterpress, Baker says, “It’s definitely a defunct form of production, but there are a lot of folks doing it—although it’s small enough that everyone knows each other.” While most letterpress production in recent years has stuck to simple stationery, Baker’s multi-layered poster prints show the true potential of the genre.
Images by James Thorne