“Rosewood is the new Helvetica”: Jami Heinricher on the Art of Letterpress
by Lesli Baker
Jami Heinricher is owner, designer, and printer at Olympia’s own historic Sherwood Press. Overlooking Capitol Lake, surrounded by Douglas fir and maple trees, the Sherwood Press was founded in 1940 by Olympia native Jocelyn Dohn. Jocelyn was operator of the press for 63 years. In the quaint 400 square foot building Jocelyn originally started the business with her friend Betty Fultz in 1940, eventually running the press alone. She turned out quite a lot of work for a one-person business.
Over the years Jocelyn printed business stationery, wedding invites, business forms, concert programs as well as record sleeves for Olympias indie rock music scene. Jocelyn was also very active in Olympia local politics, and in in local events as well. She could often be seen riding around Olympia on her bike with its flag.
In 1989, Jami Heinricher began a 14-year apprenticeship with Jocelyn, and eventually inherited the business in 2003 upon Jocelyn’s passing.
The art of letterpress is a process of relief printing in which the raised surface of text and images are inked and then pushed onto paper. Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 15th century, It was the standard form of printing until the second half of the 20th century. Letterpress also includes the direct impression of inked print-making blocks, such as photo-etched zinc plates, linoleum blocks, wood engravings, etc. using such a press. Letterpress printing has a beauty that is very hard to reproduce with today’s digital process.
For Jami, her apprenticeship at the Sherwood Press was more than just learning the art of the letterpress, and Jocelyn more than simply a teacher. Their friendship was a deep one, and a life-changing one for Jami.
I visited the Sherwood Press on 5th ave to interview Jami in early spring. The press is small, but cozy and inviting. It smells of old wood, candles and paper. It contains three letterpress machines, the most “current” one – purchased by Jocelyn in 1953 brand new – is a Heidelberg 10×15 Windmill, known as ‘the VW of the letterpress world.’ It is used for fine, precise work.
I was struck by not only the amount and size of the machinery that goes into such a delicate, fine art, but also by Jami’s knowledge of the equipment and history of the process itself. She has expanded the focus of the Sherwood Press to not only printing but graphic design services as well, and I found her work to be clever and fun.
Jami began her apprenticeship with Jocelyn doing mostly “grunt-work,” and slowly began taking on more of the actual print process and design tasks.
Jami says about her experience as Jocelyn’s long-time apprentice:
“Mine wasn’t a formal apprenticeship, but it amounted to one. Basically I spent fourteen years part-time in an unpaid support role to Jocelyn. Jocelyn was pretty proprietary about being the Printer, as well she should. Last of all I was trained on the Heidelberg press, acquainted with the accounting system, and added to the bank account. My friendship with Jocelyn was so worth the investment of my time.”
“An apprenticeship really forces you to accept a subordinate status and develop patience for learning. It is a humbling experience. I would recommend it to few people, though. I don’t think the temperament for such slow-yielding investments is common.”
OP&L: What would you say is one of the most important things you learned about the printing process from Jocelyn?
JAMI: Jocelyn taught me so much. One things that stands out is a light touch. Don’t torque on equipment, don’t over-ink, don’t apply too much pressure on press. Swap out the nouns ‘equipment’, ‘ink’ and ‘press’, and this turns out to be a life lesson as well.
OP&L: ..And what is something you do differently?
JAMI:On the press, I figured out how to make roller-height adjustments on the Heidelberg that she never used. They have made a world of difference to the print quality I can achieve.
OP&L: Would you consider Letterpress a dying art? A hip trend? or both?
JAMI: Both. The real art of letterpress is rarely practiced. The experts are very few and far between and I don’t count myself among them. Most are fine press printers, printing works of art and literature. But the huge hip trend of using letterpress to produce printing in a more flexible, creative, and less rigorous way feels like it might be peaking. I mean, you can now buy a plastic “letterpress machine” at the craft store. You can download a letterpress app for the iPad or use wood type Photoshop filters to mimic the appearance. Rosewood is the new Helvetica. Even one Kleenex box design has wood type on it. These prolific imitative forms undermine the charm for some practitioners and dilute consumer interest. But I don’t think the real materials and machines of letterpress will ever stop captivating the occasional creative hipster with an above-average attention span.
OP&L: Are there very many press shops today who use the same process you use, considering the age of techniques you use?
JAMI: Since I’m using plates, I’d say there are lots and LOTS of presses that use the processes I use. Probably many hundreds during this resurgence in letterpress. Hobby presses are often metal-only, but it is far less common for a commercial press to remain a metal-only shop. New metal type is expensive or hard to find, and old metal type is often too worn to produce crisp results. Shops that cast their own metal type have an edge, but then, they have to deal with molten lead and it’s an all-in situation. You can’t possibly be a dabbler.
OP&L: Is your style of work very different from Jocelyn’s? In what ways?
JAMI: Jocelyn worked only with metal, and was focused on printing in the popular trade styles established in the 40s and 50s. My work is more colorful and diverse, but that reflects my tools and design background. For much of my commercial work, I design on a Mac and produce plates. This enables me to send clients Acrobat files so they know what they’re going to see. In Jocelyn’s time, clients would select from a type specimen and pick a color, ‘dark green,’ for instance. Now it’s a specific Pantone color. I still produce work with metal type for certain clients, and for people who ask, and sometimes because it’s more efficient.
OP&L: Describe the services of both graphic design and printing combined- what is the process upon meeting a potential client?
JAMI: Clients come in and start with a conversation about what they want, look at samples, and we often talk general design considerations. From there, it’s just concept to final to print. I think it’s nice when people can go from concept to print with the same person. The hand-offs that often misfire between client, designer and printer are minimized. Plus, if I know I will be printing, the design will be optimized for letterpress, with better results. Most people don’t know a lot about printing, and why would they? I spend a lot of time educating about the available technologies and what they can and cannot achieve.
OP&L: Can you describe the services offered at The Sherwood Press?
JAMI: I’m here to help clients develop their identity and other design pieces in a very personal atmosphere with close attention to detail. I design most of what an average organization would wish from a designer: cards, letterhead, brochures, fliers, ads, signage, posters, documents and the like. Whatever makes sense to print on the letterpress, can get printed on the letterpress. Business cards, stationery and weddings make up the greater part of the printing side of the business, but many more things are possible.
OP&L: Jami, in addition to running the press, you are an urban farmer, a bee keeper, and a mom. Tell me what you love about life here in Olympia…
JAMI: I have so many reasons to love Olympia. It was a sweet place to grow up, and it’s still a nice-enough place to raise my son. My friends are here. It’s pretty easy to get away with being ultra-casual and quirky. I never thought I’d need that, but as time progresses, it’s clear that I do. Mercifully, it is also located inside of the “bubble.” When I listen to the news, which is usually all day every day, I realize how bubbly this bubble is and I don’t want to leave it except for short excursions to prove to myself that life is superior inside of it.
Thankfully, we have the anodyne of living in a very beautiful place. Sometimes I don’t vividly see that because the veil is over my eyes, I’m in busy mode, and perceptions are dulled. But once in awhile the pure gorgeousness of this place just takes my breath away. Such a rich, humid, drippingly verdant and airy, thrumming place this is.
OP&L: Finally, in simple terms (for those who have no knowledge at all) How would you describe this delicate art of the Letterpress?
JAMI: As with all craft, there is a wide spectrum of skills that go into printing. You can learn to set type and print something on paper in half a day. But learning to understand and manage paper, mix inks with precision, set type skillfully and efficiently, and set up and operate a press to produce beautiful printing is an exploration requiring years. It can be quite tedious and lots of people become restless, including myself. But it is a methodical practice that demands focus and careful control over each element, if you don’t want to incur cumulative degradations. I sometimes wish I had a more DIY attitude to it, because there’s lots of fun, richly haphazard printing coming from studios in every eleventh basement or garage that breathes and skips and asks “why not?” My work is always asking, painfully, “why?” A different philosophy. A different result.
Contact Jami Heinricher at
The Sherwood Press,
811 5th Avenue SW, Olympia, Washington 98502