Press Pass

Hoxton-based letterpress studio New North Press has been blending centuries-old craftsmanship with contemporary design since 1986. We catch up with founder Graham Bignell to learn more about a life in letterpress...

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Graham at work at New North Press. Photograph © Guillermo Becerra

Tell us what you do in one sentence…
I spread my time between New North Press, which is a letterpress printing studio, and my paper conservation business.

What's your professional background, and how did you go about founding New North Press?
I was trained as a restorer originally but then, after doing print-making at college, I was asked by my tutor to assist him at his private press, I M Imprimit, which is one of the largest letterpress studios in the country. I left there in 1986 to set up a letterpress studio as part of Stoneman Graphics in Covent Garden, and it was around that time I founded New North Press. At that time we were based on New North Road, hence the name. Now we’re based nearby at Standpoint Studios in Hoxton and the press has grown into a partnership with Richard Ardagh and Beatrice Bless.

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Photograph © Guillermo Becerra

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Photograph © Guillermo Becerra

Describe a typical working day…
Fairly hectic as I tend to spread time between both the letterpress and conservation studio. There is no typical day, every one is different.

What kind of clients do you work with?
All sorts. To begin with it was a lot of artists’ books but now it’s a huge variety of clients and work. Aside from posters and invitations we’ve designed book covers, film titles, signage, typographic illustrations for editorial and worked with design agencies on branding work for companies like Guinness and Look Mum No Hands. We’ve taught corporate letterpress workshops for companies like Apple and Random House and done printing demonstrations at the BBC and Museum of London.

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Photograph © Guillermo Becerra

How has the world of letterpress changed in recent years?
In 2010 we held Reverting to Type, an exhibition of contemporary letterpress. When we were curating the show at the time we only knew of about twenty presses around the world producing similar kinds of work to us. Now we discover new presses constantly, and meet people at the annual International Letterpress Workers summit in Milan. Holding another exhibition is something we’d love to do but finding somewhere big enough is near impossible.

What's the most challenging part of your job?
To be honest, I love my work and probably the most challenging part is trying to find where a particular piece of type or a lone comma came from when you have over 700 fonts in type cases!

And what's the most enjoyable?
The satisfaction of a client when we have done well and produced the best work that we can.

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AHP Six type system at New North Press. Photograph @ Simon Ellis.

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AHP Six type system at New North Press. Photograph @ Simon Ellis.

Why do you think letterpress has had a resurgence in popularity in recent times?
There has been a resurgence of interest in craft practitioners generally, or ‘makers’ as they now seem to be termed. Modern technology means that anyone can type away on a computer and produce a poster or leaflet, but to me it all has the same uniform quality. With letterpress there is a physical process, you are using your hands and eyes to move type and space around to create something that is not uniform. It has a character of its own that, when printed on the hand presses, has such a tactile quality that cannot be beaten.

Tell us about a recent project you really enjoyed working on…
We’ve just finished a project creating a hexagonal woodblock system, which was a great opportunity to rethink the conventions of letterpress. Type is traditionally cut to right angles so it can be locked up square with spacing material, preventing movement when it is printed, so tessellating hexagonal forms is quite an abstraction. The blocks were expertly laser cut by Thomas Mayo as several different elements, which can be combined to build letterforms, borders, anything really.

The project was commissioned by Greenspace for a David Chipperfield- and Karakusevic Carson-designed development near us in Hoxton, so the blocks' first use will be for this and then we will use it in teaching with a local school and our own public workshops.

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AHP Six type system at New North Press. Photograph @ Simon Ellis.

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Graham setting the AHP Six type. Photograph @ Simon Ellis.

What are your ambitions for the coming year?
Our main concern is to survive the new business rates coming in April—a crippling 43% increase. After that we look forward to more teaching and new projects, experimenting with the hexagonal type, printing more of our own posters and collaborations that move letterpress forward. And hopefully fulfilling our ambition to get "Reverting to Type 2" off the ground.