Printing the Dream

Melissa Foster, Founder
Elum Designs
6195 Cornerstone Court E, Suite 101
San Diego, CA 92121

via email to:

Dear Ms. Foster:

You are living my dream from 2008:

mfa graduation announcement

Graduation announcement. When the University of Idaho denied my petition to change the name of my degree as a critique of the masculine bias of language in higher education, I decided to print my own – between color changes and baseline alignments, no fewer than nine press runs on this baby!

Your shop came to my attention when I was better researching Magnani’s brand for my previous blogpost, only to learn the surprising commonality between my favorite luxury paper mill in all the world and… mass-produced grease cookies. (!) (No, really?)

Of your available job postings, I am pulled between Graphic Designer or Printing Department Manager for which best suits my experiences and qualifications. While I have closely observed Heidelbergs in action, my press experience has so far been limited to proofing and small job presses, but maybe I could learn more at the end of the printing day to soon grow into the position of Letterpress Printer? Maybe in a small shop there is room for overlap between roles?

I understand exactly what you mean about falling in love with fine papers from around the world combined with the tactility of letterpress. For me that happened toward the end of my BFA program, producing my own wedding announcements with an intaglio mezzotint image with text engraved by a local printer. For my sanity, thankfully I was not introduced to letterpress until the following year through the then-burgeoning and since dramatically expanded Book Arts program at the Marriott library, from which my early efforts were selected as exemplar and exhibited throughout the American West.

This nine-piece, custom-designed wedding stationery unites two thespians, a costume designer and her backstage groom expert in pyrotechnics. Lily image I replicated from the fabric of her Victorian gown, printed on the envelope flap, and debossed on the seal for an interior wrap:

victorian envelope

Wedding announcement separate from invites that continued the theatrical theme, so the guest list could expand or contract as appropriate for the various functions. Image printed letterpress but edited in Photoshop to resemble Van Dyck brown printing circa that era. Type set by hand in lead and printed on the teeny tiny countertop clamshell presses at Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center:


Comments from millennial children glued to their computer screens in the next room included, “I can’t believe you’re going to all this work for a wedding.” Lily pattern from the bride’s gown reproduced on Japanese tissue:

victorian tissue

While juggling a fulltime graduate-level courseload, my own scholarly research, halftime teaching, and campus and community service, my design contributions demonstrated that, more than just a collection of moldering machines and flood-mud-begrimed type, letterpress could still be alive and well in the 21st century:

short film festival

Poster design, 11×17 in. The wood type was inked up and printed by hand on a Vandercook missing its front and back bars, doing the best I could to lock up the type; details set in lead and printed on the C&P. The type catalog had no @ symbol for email contact info, so I improvised as you do for eluding spam crawlers.

The organizer of a competitive regional writing workshop belatedly enthused about my designed and letterpress printed book covers, “We should have charged money for copies of this year’s anthology.”

In my third year of grad school, I began test-marketing letterpress stationery product in the regional community, to warmly enthusiastic results:

this is a chickRegional retail outlets continually requested my point-of-purchase signage to display in their own shops, and a poster I designed for an independently offered bookbinding workshop exceeded capacity.

Instead of working with me to find a solution to the problem of letterpress printing in a windowless room with inadequate ventilation, or encourage my offer to pursue grant funding to grow their program, my university department assigned me the task of washing two-story-high windows with one small rag to complete the job to meet their review for national accreditation and locked me out of their meagre collection of letterpress printing equipment and materials. Baffling judgment of priorities, I know, but please keep in mind I was attending school on a campus whose institutionalized rug-sweeping finally attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, but not until last spring and after a handful of their students died from various campus-related abuses. Beyond failing to provide me with a safe place for work and study, my department had buried a Washington hand press (!) in a closet, tried to hide an asbestos-riddled kiln behind some rickety bookshelves, and left a Vandercook proofing press to rust outside under a tree, exposed to the elements, bird droppings, and undergraduate sculpture students who vandalized its various parts for use as “found objects” in their studio assignments.

To complete my thesis work, I moved across state lines to a tiny, rural community fortunately home to a newspaper printing museum, where I gave letterpress printing demonstrations and taught workshops for school children and regional tour groups who left with the exhilarating experience of spinning the flywheel and a take-away souvenir bookmark after setting their own names in type:

students letterpress printingIn my commercial designs, I set for myself the sometimes challenging but always fun limitation of using available materials, writing copy to pair with historic newspaper advertising images that I appropriated for the 21st century:

lolaYour art director’s bookish wedding in a picturesque farm setting reminds me of this adorable couple’s wedding in a historic barn, with the first word of the save-the-date copy printed on their cotton envelope to hint at the deckle-edged contents within:

barnyard save-the-date

At our initial interview, I broke the ice with this student veterinarian and her math major beau by asking, “So, are you knocked up?” My unconventional approach accomplished two goals: 1) I was dying to find a use for all the shotgun imagery laying around the newspaper museum, and 2) if they wanted stodgy wedding invites, I could not sacrifice graduate research and product development to meet their deadline:

barnyard wedding envelope

Wedding announcement repeated the theme appropriate to the couple’s identity:

barnyard wedding

As you can see from my documentation images, I struggled with long-neglected and poorly maintained presses to accomplish an even impression from hand-set lead type. I coaxed machine-milled replacements for the front and back bars on a Vandercook with a hand-powered cylinder, time and materials generously donated by a retired HP engineer fascinated with the gears on the C&P, still functioning after all those decades. But there was still the problem of press rollers damaged from years of abuse left uncleaned and resting on the ink disk by inexperienced or volunteer staff.

For my MFA thesis work, before investing in the expense of replacing the rollers, I wondered what would happen if I could view these weaknesses as strengths?

I developed a technique that I coined “laundry printing” or layered runs of printing while simultaneously cleaning the press, using the marks made by the damaged rollers or the press itself as a giant paintbrush or design tool. As you can see, when working with a soft-surfaced, ink-thirsty paper like Magnani Pescia, exquisitely beautiful happens. Here, layers of ink from laundry printing alternated between type and an image of Pescia paper fibers at microscopic resolution printed the usual way, with form locked in a chase and meeting paper as the platen closes:

honey detail

Wild Child, 2008, 26.5×28.5×6.5 cm. Title refers to le jeune fille sauvage, the creature that philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes at the border of difference between man [sic] and animal. My MFA thesis explored critical theories of difference, sexual difference, desire, trauma, and taboo. Pigment ink jet and letterpress on Magnani Pescia, paste paper covers on museum boards, linen thread, exposed hemp cords, variable edition 6 signed and numbered, included in the collection at the University of Idaho Library, Moscow, close detail of gatefold section with beeswax seal.

But could this technique work for commercial product?

And could I print and sell enough product to earn a living?

The only way to learn was to try.

If I failed, I would move to the city and, with my computer skills and prior work experience, it shouldn’t take me more than a few months to find a job.

Kudos to your courage so elegantly designing the union of same-sex couples in an era when that nationally divisive subject could potentially harm your own business. Still limiting myself to available pressroom supplies and attentive to warm market responses to my mini-narrative copywriting, one greeting card sample:

ice cream front

Where the loss rate for traditional printing might be up to 20 percent per run, my technique successfully resulted in 90 percent end product:

ice cream inside

From my experiences shopping mainstream stationers for a wedding card suitable for a white cousin and her black fiancé, I was appalled by the selection. Even if the copy did not reveal our cultural bias, the imagery was predominately white, with perhaps a small segregated black section, so I suspect there is probably still an untapped market yet to be developed.

Another product sample of laundry printing, I figured if Ken Campbell, whose work and charming person I met shortly after college, could print nails and drafting tools, then I could print fishnet lace:

her stockings were hung by the fire with care

Less successful, I tried various plant materials, but that will require more experimentation. Fragile basil quickly crushed under the press rollers leaving no recognizable mark:

grocery listThis design drew tears to the eyes of the newly divorced branch manager at the bank where I established my business accounts and learned that, in 2008, US Bank was not paying its managers enough of a salary to accomplish their dreams:

divorce congratulations

That banker had purchased a sign printing business on the side, thus was disappointed to see my business cards, “Oh, you already have an identity.” Compare/contrast her feedback to the response of a Creative Director at global advertising and marketing firm Publicis to my same business cards.

In early 2010, stanching the jugular flow of my remaining cash directly to their coffers by walking into US Bank’s downtown Seattle branch to close my accounts after their regional business banker in Spokane continually promised to reimburse start up and monthly card fees and continually failed to follow through despite my patient listening to her whining complaints about how many bankers have been laid off, the banker at their big city branch incorrectly keyed her data. But when I noticed the discrepancy on her printed receipt, she referred to an illogical policy about not being able to return my money to me on the same day. I would have to return to the bank the following day, open a new account, and close it again for them to fully return my deposits.

Even if I forgive the +/-$200 in fees they were supposed to reimburse and never did, not to mention the $40 in monthly fees for however many months their business banker stalled my phone calls and emails, US Bank still owes me some $20 and change.

By way of explaining my money management skills that you seek in your Printing Department Manager from my experiences with day-to-day operations managing federal and private foundation funding for a laboratory globally renowned for its advances in the field of human genetics while the principal investigator responsible for those funds remained mystified about what happens when you combine supplies and personnel into the same budget, US Bank’s teller could not have balanced her drawer that night.

Meanwhile, the walls of the downtown Seattle and tourist destination Pike Place Market branches were hung askew with paintings that looked like Van Gogh had fathered many descendants via mothers too closely related to him, who had upchucked in there. The tellers were so bored between customers they were making little pigs out of paperclips, and yet the branch manager drumming her purple nails on her desktop could not be bothered to treat me with what I consider to be basic human dignity. No, the bankers don’t need my skills, yet, in the mall foyer just outside their branch, their graphic design two years deep into the Great Recession infers their customers are the pigs:

us bank pigYou’ll forgive the blurred quality of my action photography? Their security guard was moving toward me in a threatening manner, as if to grab my digital camera out of my hands, before he thought better of assaulting me that day.

I still feel very proud of myself for remaining calm throughout that entire experience, not once raising my voice while I questioned her passive-aggressive no-pology, “You’re ‘sorry’? Yet something tells me not a single policy change will come out of this visit.”

And that banker could not look me in the eye while delivering her carefully rehearsed speech about “policy.”

Even in 2008, the year that my graduation coincided with the start of the Great Recession, my first product samples returned web stats of 10,000 hits with site visitors following a linear narrative between 30-40 clicks within just a month of mailing product samples to a carefully market researched audience of 75-100, with a handful of calls from fine stationers nationwide, and orders placed a full year later. Not until still later conversation with a design and marketing expert in Seattle, did I learn that direct mail returns of 3–4 percent are considered “very good” in purely marketing terms.

From my solo efforts, my web stats were more than double an agency’s microsite they designed for Seattle Art Museum, an organization with an already established audience that includes wealthy patronage such as the Gates family, at that time Boeing, and Microsoft executives, in a world-famously tech-savvy city, with an entire team of experienced marketing managers, designers, writers, and staff supporting their project:

6other2008 screenshotAs you know from building your own business a decade earlier and the multiple positions you have available, success requires healthy communication and team effort. It is not that I didn’t know I needed to include an online ordering and purchasing component to my site, it is that I cannot perform the work of an entire team all at the same time. My entrepreneurial efforts were further hampered when local relationships became strained after an elderly museum volunteer, since deceased, decided I would make an excellent substitute for his dead wife, and would not take no for an answer. His petulance vacillated between passively hiding shop tools or deliberately damaging pressroom supplies and aggressively threatening my acquiescence to his attentions, backing me into the printer’s stone while shouting at me and shaking his fist in my face.

Imagine beginning each of your business days with an hour wasted by searching for the pica rule.

In a workplace, sexual harassment laws would require professional resolution of that kind of conflict; in a volunteer setting, enthusiastic reception of my graphic design work and producing letterpress printed on-demand samples for Washington State dignitaries visiting from the capital in Olympia changed from “You can use that door [for my shop within the museum’s two entrances] and we’ll use this one,” to “We don’t really need” graphic design, printing demonstrations, and healthy communication.

Lesson learned: all relationships begin with a contract in writing, even if no money changes hands.

Lured to San Francisco-based online stationer Minted by their start-up offerings from letterpress shops whose work I admired, including Portland-based Oblation (and perhaps your own?), as well as contests juried by nationally recognized designers, I soon wearied of venture capitalist-funded tech entrepreneur Mariam Naficy’s definition of success that encourages a culture of visual illiteracy and relies on unpaid labor. After granting me an “award” for copywriting, her cutesy-poo in-house “designers” butchered my understated, tongue-in-cheek submittal:

waiting for the fat man in the red suit

Once I saw their online product in person after my mother tried to support my efforts by ordering cards through Ms. Naficy’s shop that year, I was further appalled by the poor quality of their paper and blurry printing. Software technicians are not designers, professional photography cannot be readily replaced by snapshots, and digital printing comes nowhere close to the quality of offset lithography, to say nothing of letterpress. That they further allow their customers to customize not just the photo but also my copywriting resulted in an end product that was a visually chaotic jumble of meaningless text and imagery.

Rizzoli-published Bay Area interior designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy awarded as his favorite my personal notecard designs inspired by his stylish bald head and bold-framed glasses readily interpreted with typography:

typehead personal stationeryAnd just to show that I can design with whatever tools are available, be it 21st century software or 19th century printing press, another example of my digital print design work for the save-the-date market:

fall in love save the date

After Ms. Naficy’s crew again complimented my Warhol-influenced personal notecard for juror interior designer Martha Angus whose clients hang his work in their homes, but not without complaining that my design would be “too much work” for them to have to personalize for their online clientele, I privately wondered, since I was doing all the design work for free, and her employees could not handle global replacement of one image file and changing one line of type within Illustrator, then maybe her telephone operators ought not be calling themselves designers?

dandy personal notecardDoes Ms. Angus crowd-source her trips to Paris or Art Basel Miami? And maybe, while reflecting on the failures of her business plan to the tech industry press, Ms. Naficy would be so good as to return professional design salary to her venture labor much as she considered returning the investments of her venture capitalists before rebranding with more unpaid labor appealing to their uneducated audience, neither of whom know the difference between a Richter and a Rothko, or Jonathan Barnbrook and Paula Scher?

Meanwhile, in a brilliant demonstration of #GoogleAnalyticsFail, my own design product began following me around online throughout my job search efforts, and I noticed they hired a young graduate from one of the campuses that rejected my faculty candidate dossier, but whose design graduates produce web content copy that does not distinguish between the possessive “its” or the contractual “it is.”

But maybe Ms. Naficy just defines “success” differently than I do. To me success means treating other human beings, along the entire supply chain of capital and labor, with respect.

An example of my design and production skills across digital and analogue media applied to a guestbook album for another wedding between thespians:

this side up album

This Side Up, 2009, 26×12.5×4 cm. This couple met backstage, their friendship growing into a long-distance courtship mostly via the old-fashioned medium of letter-writing. Guest album packaged as a shipping crate (l), opening to pastepaper endsheets that invoke theatre curtains (r).

The midline of type is a Shakespeare quote recited by the groom to the bride when he asked for her hand in marriage:

this side up album2

Guests have the option of signing the book with page layouts that include images of the bride and groom as their lives gradually entwine, or tucking longer notes into interleaved Glamalope envelopes (l), and close detail of spine (r).

You can maybe understand, as those few months that it should have taken someone with my range of skills and experience to land a job have stretched brutally forward into six, going on seven, years, and employers seem to want all of my art, design, and technology skills, while at the same time do not want to pay me for them or seem to expect me to supply my own budget, I am continually adding to those skills, adapting to new challenges, working with very diverse customers, have become expert in solving problems, am grateful to learn that you value creative thinking within ever challenging design limitations, hence I am exploring the option of blogging my cover letters, hoping to come up with an alternate solution to poorly written batch bcc email rejections or no feedback at all?

If you are considering expanding your product offering into textiles for home or apparel, my Design-As-You-Go textile line began as a scarf I knit while still in grad school, combining some unbleached white wool I had been hauling around for far too many years with an embroidery floss collection inherited from my faculty advisor’s grandmother, color changes made at random and ends left dangling. You maybe see the same design sensibility I learned from letterpress printing applied to textiles, with of course a grateful acknowledgment to Vogue Knitting doyenne Elizabeth Zimmerman’s legacy?

Here continued in Design-As-You-Grow children’s apparel with hangtag:

design-as-you-growSimilar sensibility again in motion media combining analogue and digital tools:

My teaching experiences are comparable to supervising younger employees. The collaborative working skills that my drawing students learned during the semester that coincided with the campus shootings across the nation at Virginia Tech could have saved Boeing executives $12 billion and counting, or add $3.3 billion to a budget that the U.S. Department of Justice may as well have set on fire and burned rather than invested in a program that teaches passive aggressive communication skills to men and women whose parents, teachers, and community leaders otherwise failed them:


Teaching, collaborative class project. Foundations drawing students learn that collaboration means active listening, problem solving involves critical thinking, and they might find drawing solutions to world problems.

While early class discussions quickly divided the room into “save the world” or “screw the world” camps similar to the Publicis solution for the problem of poverty, we proceeded to dialogue across those opposing perspectives until each side could hear the other’s point of view.

Feedback scrawled into one student’s notebook, “I think I finally learned what it means to collaborate.”

There’s your budget.

I am so inspired that you are teaching Uma to write her own thank you notes. I didn’t learn thank you notes until a seminar class in college, when our painting professor encouraged her class to individually write notes to our weekly guest speakers or field trip destinations, who volunteered their time for our benefit and learning. And I learned I was the only student in her class to follow that suggestion after one guest came up to me at a gallery opening later and thanked me for the quality of my thank you note.

Thank you for judging me on the calibre of my work and my actions rather than the abusive behavior of my family or publicly elected officials or Wall Street’s financial mis-managers as you consider my fit for joining your team. From one letterpress lover to another, is it too late for me take the blue pill, go back to just making beautiful, only this time working with people who reciprocate my respect?

Warm regards,

Jana Brubaker

One thought on “Printing the Dream

  1. Pingback: Why Amazon? | journal6other

add marginalia

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s