The crisp impression of metal type delicately pressed into textured paper is one of the most powerful weapons in a letterpress printer’s armory, showing off that elusive third dimension entirely lacking in computer driven printing. It’s no wonder that in a modern world where much of design is powered by new technology, letterpress has been going through somewhat of a renaissance. The old craft was once the fastest, most state-of-the-art way to produce printed matter until the advent of newer, faster and cheaper processes, like offset lithography, made the letterpress all but obsolete.
Fortunately, nowadays, there are many small and large printing houses that recognize the unique qualities letterpress offers. And even better: one of them resides here in Somerville.
Established in 2010, Union Press is run by Eli Epstein from his large brick-walled loft space found sandwiched between a longstanding Maaco building and the Milk Row Cemetery on Somerville Avenue. Everything is designed and printed directly on one of two presses using a mixture of wood and metal type; materials that Epstein says were the result of “being in the right place at the right time”.
“I was looking for a studio space to work out of when my landlord mentioned that he knew of an old print shop in Somerville that had gone unused for nearly 10 years,” says Epstein. “We got the tip, were introduced to the print equipment’s owner, and moved in at the start of 2010.”
Since Union Press’ inception, Epstein – who got his introduction to letterpress from an internship at the widely recognized Hatch Show Press in Nashville – and part-time partner, Kyle Nilan, continue to create and print original designs with a handmade aesthetic that takes advantage of printmaking’s inherent irregularities.
“It feels more precious to me,” explains Epstein of creating a product with his hands. “The process is the thing that I think you’re achieving and experiencing, and if you can then share that and sort of explain to someone else the level of importance that thing has to you, then that adds value for them. That’s what’s best for me; to spend all this time and love and energy making something and then being able to show someone how much goes into it and have them appreciate it at the same level.”
What makes Union Press’ prints so intriguing is that unlike traditional letterpress posters that predominately rely on the type for visual appeal, here take a backseat to the bold imagery that Epstein himself carves out of wood and linoleum; largely becoming the focus of most of his designs.
“Usually there’s a great focus on the type because in letterpress printing that’s what you have,” says Epstein. “You have the letters, you have the words, and you’re going to work with what you have. But our work might be heavier on the imagery with the type simply complementing it.”
Like all art, Epstein’s posters are designed to stop us in our tracks, draw us in for a closer look, and make us pause for a moment of reflection. Pure artistry and strong composition not only make his posters relevant, but demonstrate his command of such a tactile art form.
“There’s a printer named Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. that put it best when he said that if you can get people to see the work you’re doing as art, and show that it’s important to support art and then they buy the art, that’s their entry point into buying art and taking a step into the art realm,” explains Epstein. “If someone sees the value in something like one of my concert posters, then they can see the value of something larger like a painting, and inevitably help support the greater art community.
Epstein is one of a small but growing number of artists and print enthusiasts who have rescued letterpress from an otherwise bleak future. With his epic work ethic and overwhelming desire for unique designs stamped the old-fashioned way, Epstein remains the driving creative spirit behind a press who’s introduced more of the 20th-century graphic design techniques.
In our mass-produced, slick society, there is a growing desire for handmade goods, and the artistic value of Epstein’s work is gaining recognition as his posters are seen across the city. The press generates work through word of mouth; its jobs have included concert posters for countless Boston-based bands and more well-known musicians like Ty Segall and White Fence, wedding invitations, original prints for the Union Square farmers market, and an array of type-based prints for retail sale. In Epstein’s case, it takes a village to raise a print shop. He’s had the support of a diverse, creative community and has had the opportunity to print some truly wonderful projects for organizations that stand as pillars to the culture here in Boston.
“We couldn’t have gotten to where we are now unless the response from the community was positive from the start,” says Epstein. “We have been able to grow because we have been welcomed into this community and we’re excited to have a part, however large or small, in developing home-grown projects.”
To check out Union Press’ latest print projects check out their website: www.unionpressprints.com