Studio Tour #002 - Studio On Fire
Studio Tour #002 - Studio On Fire
While we were up in Minneapolis for the Typeface sneak preview, we met Ben and the crew from Studio On Fire – a really wicked letterpress shop out of the Twin Cities. They were kind enough to make time for us to stop by, snap some shots and ask them a few questions.
The Post Family: What's your favorite color? Just kidding, just had to get that out there.
Ben Levitz: We love day-glo colors! But color is such a surface design consideration. How about "What is our favorite material?" Designers spend too much time considering the surface design and not enough time considering the material they will use to produce the design. To us at Studio On FIre, this is were design gets interesting. Having a material awareness inform or even lead your design thinking is a much more exciting place to start.
TPF: What was the first press you bought?
BL: Studio On Fire started in my basement in St Paul Minnesota. It was 1999 and I found a dirty dirty press from a printing museum in Chicago. It was a C&P 10x15 that was caked with years of oil and paper dust. That machine and I got to know each other well in the coming months. I took it apart piece by piece and moved it into my basement. I put it back together and had almost no pieces left over! The next year of my life was spent in that basement—learning make ready, setting type, setting rollers, adjusting packing and weeping openly. It was what really kept me interested in the design profession. In the evening, I'd head to the basement and put on my shop apron. Tinkering, reading the old manuals and trouble shooting ink issues were a great contrast to sitting in front of a computer. Nearly ten years later, I still wouldn't call myself a master printer, but I know my way around the shop.
TPF: Who inspired you to get started with letterpress? Was there a specific moment, artist, piece that pushed you to this?
BL: I've always been inspired by tactile things. As a student at College of Visual Arts in St Paul, I struggled between choosing a sculpture major or a design major. On the one hand, I really loved building things. On the other hand, I wanted to eat. There is a very physical nature to sculpture process that is attractive to me—using big tools and equipment, forming, shaping and bleeding over your work. When the process is engrained in the final product, there is beauty and this is what I love about letterpress. When I think back to what I enjoyed most about college, it was the classes that had a physical nature (insert dirty thought here)—sculpture, drawing, 3-D design etc. I never did any printmaking during school (which has meant a larger learning curve) but I came to letterpress through the design industry. After college, I spent so much time sitting in front of a computer, it was sucking my will to live. I was seeking a return to the shop. I visited the studio of a friend and saw a computer and an old C&P platen sitting next to each other. That this big machine could be part of a designers toolbox blew my mind. Seeing that the computer and letterpress could be used together was the epiphany.
TPF: What benefits / detriments does polymer bring into your work flow?
BL: Our workflow takes any Adobe CS file and puts it on a machine 50+ years old. That's the good part. Yes, polymer allows digital files to move easily to letterpress, but not all things print well. Graphics like text, line work and ornament are great candidates for letterpress but big areas of solid color are difficult to control with letterpress and do not produce a sculptural impression. That said, polymer makes letterpress once again a viable commercial printing process. We very typically hold 4 pt type and fine line screens.
TPF: When was the last time you set type in the traditional sense? Do you wish you could do it more often?
BL: We set some type for the event we did at the Walker Art Center. Hand setting type is most certainly a principle anybody using type on a computer should understand. Setting type is the fun part. So fun that everyone in the world would do it if it did not have to be redistributed.
TPF: What is stupidest thing a client has ask for / complained about?
BL: Client education is constant. While we do get tired of repeating ourselves about why it isn't a good idea to flood the back of a business card with color and try to reverse out white type with letterpress, there really are no "stupid" questions since we always discuss the process with our clients. One of the reasons we have an impressive portfolio of work is that we take the time to help clients understand the production. It is only retarded when we tell a client something isn't going to work well—they insist—we do it, and then they complain about the result. If your production partner is experienced, listen to them!
TPF: What equipment do you currently have on the floor?
BL: First and most important, we are a group of people that know craft. We are currently a shop of seven people and working in concert, we accomplish award winning production. Having the right tools is secondary to great craftsmanship. Our primary machines are three Heidelbergs: a 10 x 15 windmill, a 13 x 18 windmill, and a 18 x 23 KSBA. These presses are high-speed beasts. We have two Vandercooks—a Universal III AB Auto carriage and a 219 Newstyle AB hand crank—and a couple other platens including a C&P 10x15 Newstyle and a late model 14 x 22 Kluge EHD auto platen. Other non-press equipment includes a 19 x 25 Jet Photopolymer Platemaker, a Polar Cutter, edge coloring equipment, and an antique pinhole perforator.
TPF: What's the story behind elvis? (yep! that portrait above is Elvis)
BL: Elvis is the king. Although, we do hope a velvet portrait of Obama will soon become available.
TPF: What do you think of the Minneapolis Art and Design scene?
BL: Minneapolis has such great variety of designers and artists. We have very, very experienced people and young energy as well. Creatively this provides a balance and a freshness to the community, and it makes it possible for a business like ours to exist. Our clients are largely other design firms and ad agencies. By embracing design ourselves, we have built a good reputation with the creative community.
TPF: What's next for Studio on Fire?
BL: We are certainly planning more product development as well as finding more distribution partners. Our own design work is becoming a larger part of our work load. While we love printing for other creatives we are also trying to forge a unique client experience that encompasses both design and production. This relationship between design and unique production is what we hope defines our company.
For more information about Studio On Fire, peep out their website.
For more photos of Studio On Fire's workspace, go to our Studio On Fire flickr set.