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Preservation through production: Miami's letterpress shop helps keep antique craft alive

Junior communication design major Brea Frey was able to buy her first letterpress machine for a steal.

A print shop near her hometown of Lima, Ohio was bought over and in the process of moving to digital printing, they were auctioning off some of their old equipment.

Frey wasn't planning to buy anything, but wanted to get a feel for what they had and how much things cost. A lot of the presses already had "sold" signs on them, anyway.

She was the youngest person at the sale, and the owner of the shop took notice of her.

He told her that the "sold" signs were there to deter scrappers, who would buy the equipment to resell for a profit. But, he would sell one of the presses to her for the sake of seeing the craft continue.

She left that day with her own press, which happened to be the one that the shop owner learned on and that had resided in his grandfather's print shop.

Frey was first introduced to letterpress in the Letterpress for Designers course that is a requirement for all sophomore communication design majors at Miami.

"For a lot of people, it's just a cool thing that they did once, and now they're on to the digital world," Frey said. "I kind of fell hard."

Miami's letterpress shop, coined the "Curmudgeon Press" after its founder and former Art Department Chair Tom Effler, was revitalized in 2011 by Erin Beckloff, an assistant professor in the Communication Design Department. Before that, room 215 in Hiestand Hall hadn't been used for a few decades.

"I think it was just waiting through that period of transition to digital," Beckloff said. "In the 80s, whenever the Macintosh came out, that was when design started to move to the digital space. But, there were people who thought we should hold on to this stuff and, luckily, I was there at the right time when people are being drawn more to making things by hand."

Today, faculty and students keep the shop class alive by what they call "preservation through production."

"We're taking this antique, obsolete medium and we get to redefine what it means today," said Brad Vetter, a visiting letterpress professor. "We no longer need letterpress to advertise or to sell things, so we get to change the context of it a bit and it gets to live a little bit more in the fine art world, and we get to make something that is special and relevant today."

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The processes of letterpress and digital design while outwardly distinct, do share some similarities.

"Most if not all of these students are well-versed in all of the graphic design software," Vetter said. "To go to the time before that, and learn how two typefaces work together and how each individual letter lives next to each other in this very tactile, tangible form, it's only going to make them better designers and have a more discerned eye."

Frey starts by sitting down with her sketchbook and drawing out her design. Oftentimes, this ideation process also involves going into the shop and pulling different type to see what she has to work with.

"One of the coolest things about [letterpress] is that I want to incorporate the history and the shop's collection," Brea said. "I want to be inspired by the limitations that the shop has - I only have the type that's available to me in there, and I have to work within the sizes that we have and all of those things."

She finds that letterpress a more intentional process than digital design. Everything you do has to have a purpose because you can't change fonts, colors or sizes with the ease of a mouse click.

Lately, she's worked on establishing her personal brand, which is based around affirmations and kind words in response to issues surrounding immigration and sexual assault.

"Love people who need loved" is one of the phrases that has stuck with her, and that she's printed over and over again.

Frey recently got her vendor's license and plans to sell her work at various venues, including the Oxford Farmers Market, Bend of the River Fest, Bluffton Festival and Over the Rhine's Second Sunday.

She doesn't know if printing will be a part of her full-time career. Regardless, she doesn't plan to stop.

"I'm in this for the long haul, one way or another," Frey said. "I'm so passionate about this and I don't see it ever not being a part of my life."