In response to our Maker Business coverage, I got a wonderful email from Fran Shea of Zeichen Press. She wanted to tell us about her foray into the small letterpress business she started with her sister-in-law, Jen. Being a huge letterpress fanboy, how could I resist? Here’s a short interview I conducted with Fran. — Gareth
Jen (left) and Fran (right) in their element in front of the type cabinets at Zeichen Press
First off, can you give us a little background on your company, where you’re located, what you do, and what made you decide to go into this particular business.
We’re in Minneapolis, MN. We do a few things: We design and letterpress-print a line of greeting cards that are sold in indie boutiques around the world. THE WORLD. We also design and letterpress-print custom projects like: posters, invitations, business cards, etc.. We also handle creative and marketing for companies that trust us to do that for them. Jen’s background is in interior design, and mine is graphic design and art direction, so this seemed like a natural direction.
What inspired your interest in letterpress?
I saw some letterpress equipment a long time ago and it felt like I’d found hidden treasure. I filed that information away — I was waiting for a time that I could actually get into it. As far as Jen, she dove in because I asked her if she wanted to start a design and letterpress company with me. She can’t back down from a challenge. I exploited that. I apologize.
Tell us about your machines! What press(es) do you have? What for type/composing?
We started on a couple of table-top presses, but those now seem like cute toys. The serious (we’ve heard it’s not funny to get your finger smashed off by one of these) presses that we have are a Chandler & Price New Style and a Heidelberg Windmill. Unless I design something on the computer and have a plate made, all layouts are created using type, set by hand. We have lots of wood and lead type that we’ve acquired/salvaged and we have a big stone table that we use for composing. It’s stone because nothing in letterpress is not heavy.
What were the greatest hurdles in starting the business?
Probably trying to figure out how to balance our days. We are both stay-at-home moms. That comes first for us. We agreed (right from the beginning) that we wanted this to be a fun challenge, not a stressful one.
What are some of the things you’re most proud of?
It’s pretty fun when we finish certain projects. The Room and Board project was pretty awesome. Letterpress printing a four-color halftone was probably, technically, one of the coolest things we’ve done. Recognition from the media is pretty nice, too. Designing using this centuries-old method, alone – in the garage – in the winter… you sort of forget that you are making things that people will eventually see and buy.
What’s it like working with a family member? Was that risky? Did people advise you all against it? I assume it’s worked out well?
I can’t believe how well it’s worked out! It didn’t feel risky, we both had no idea what we were getting into. It sort of took on a life of its own, like a child. A strange, needy child. It has gotten to the point where we communicate with each other telepathically.
If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. Honestly. Every bump seems like a necessary part of the experience.
What sort of advice would you give to others thinking of venturing into a small maker business?
Just to be mindful of your limitations, strengths, and relationships. That sounds very self-helpy. I’m sorry. I’ll say something else: How about: Watch the bottom line and make sure you don’t blow your capital on hookers and booze. (Can I say that?) [No. -Editor]
Do you think there’s a renaissance of interest in letterpress and boutique printing at the moment? If so, what do you think is driving that?
There totally is a resurgence in letterpress printing! it might be a backlash, but it’s nice for people to step out of the world of online design and texting and electronic communication for a moment.
What are some of the projects you all are working on now?
We are working on a (re)branding project for a local architectural firm: Tanek Inc. Redesigning their website — designing and letterpress-printing their print identity… writing all of their words… handling all of their creative needs. And we are always making new cards to add to our line.
Video of Fran operating the Chandler & Price. Camera work by Fran’s 7 year old daughter.
- Lost Knowledge: “Artistic printing”
- Lost Knowledge: Wood engraving and Pictorial Webster’s
- All of our letterpress coverage on MAKE