It’s a true honor to feature printmaker, designer, entrepreneur, business owner, and true craftsman Brady Vest of Hammerpress in our latest installment of Behind the Stationery. Today Brady takes us behind the scenes, talking about his staff, daily business, and how he started the company before the internet took over. –Megan
I started Hammerpress in 1994 while studying printmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute. The school had two letterpresses and some type that no one really used. I started working with friends on collaborative projects – mostly posters for local bands, record covers, etc. Once I graduated, I had no letterpress equipment to continue the work, so I began looking for presses and type. This was pre-internet and sources like Briar Press were non-existent. You would basically just walk into print shops and ask if they had any old equipment to sell. I lucked out when I was visiting my hometown of Oklahoma City and wound up scoring a bunch of type and other equipment. Then I got a studio space, and it was basically a word of mouth business. Again, pre-internet and pre-website for your business.
In those first years we printed job work for designers around town, making custom wedding invitations & business cards. From there it just kind of slowly grew and morphed into what it is today. The big jump happened in about 2004 or so, with the help of a couple of good people, we decided to go to the National Stationery Show in New York. I think once we entered that world, Hammerpress really started to develop into more of a business. We now have over 300 products in our wholesale line, mostly greeting cards, but also prints, notebooks, postcards, gift tags & calendars. We have an amazing network of reps selling our product on the road, in their showrooms, and at trade shows, and we couldn’t do it without them.
We still continue to design and print work aside from the stationery line. Our custom work includes wedding invitations, business cards, restaurant menus, coasters, posters, and logo design. And we have our storefront, which is an important part of our local identity in Kansas City.
The Hammerpress print shop, design studio & retail space exists in a 1950s building in the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City, Missouri. We moved to this space in January 2015 after 7 years in our previous location. But Hammerpress has operated out of the Crossroads district since ’95 when it wasn’t more than auto shops and a few art galleries. The Crossroads now hosts a great mix of restaurants, lofts, galleries, bars, retail shops, alongside the glorious Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Photo by Lance Flores
Our new building was vacant before – basically a giant open space with no walls and in need of a lot of attention when we moved in. With the help of some very talented friends and a lot of staring into space in an empty building, we turned it into a really wonderful studio space. The building’s architecture is characterized by a mix of mid-century modern and industrial manufacturing.
On a typical day, a few people start work at 9 am, and few at 10 am. We like to keep a flexible schedule that accommodates different people’s needs. The press room is usually buzzing by time our storefront opens. You can see through to the shop from the storefront and get a glimpse behind the scenes. Our inventory and fulfillment department is located just behind the front counter. And the office is just beyond that. Currently the designers here at the shop are myself and Jenn Rogers. Britta Rice handles all of our wholesale business, working directly with our retailers, reps, and distributors. Ben Jones and Kate Morgan make up our production team. Debbie Swan and Olivia Tedford take care of order fulfillment and donation requests, and Elise Sanders manages our storefront.
Everything we make here is letterpress printed on recycled-content paper. The majority of our projects are printed on our three Heidelberg windmills. For more particular jobs, we utilize the automated Kluge press, or the two hand-fed Chandler & Price platen presses. And all art prints and posters are produced on our two Vandercook Universal I cylinder presses.
Photo by Lance Flores
With letterpress printing, you’re making a connection with all of the people who designed those machines, all of the people who built them, and all the people who made their living printing on them. And it’s a lovely reminder that there will always be a need for tangible things made by people.
Photo by Lance Flores
Our goal is to continue to make quality letterpress work that has a connection to the roots of letterpress printing, as well as the roots of Hammerpress. I began the company on my own and, whether by accident or by design, established a look and feel that is recognized as Hammerpress work. We strive to keep that connection to both histories while continuing to change and develop fresh ideas and new directions offered by others within the Hammerpress team.
We draw inspiration from so many sources that it’s hard to be specific. Each of us look at many different things – old sign painting, postage stamps, matchbooks, textiles, Russian posters, Cuban posters, Vaughn Oliver, Peter Seville, Bruce Licher, folk art, old science books, record covers, fashion, ceramics, etc.
Each product usually starts out as sketches or doodles with some loose ideas regarding color, etc. The design process can really vary depending on the type of project. There are some projects that I work on completely solo, without a lot of interaction or involvement from others. But for our stationery products, it’s a few of us collaborating throughout the design process. When we’re developing product for a new release, we meet twice a week for product planning and group critique.
After all of these years, I think the most important thing about letterpress printing is the connection to the machine and your hands. As the business has changed over the past 20 years, the connection to the machine always seems to stay the same. We are choosing to take an old and obsolete form of printing and strive to make a living doing it. By this, we are paying an homage to an era of the past.
All photos courtesy of Hammerpress, except where noted.
If you’re interested in participating in the Behind the Stationery column, contact Megan at megan[at]ohsobeautifulpaper.com!