I had some time to kill between days I was scheduled to teach at the SFCB and shot an email to my friends at Hello!Lucky to see if they'd be willing to give me a tour of their facilities, located in the SOMA district (south of market) San Francisco.
BBH, Hello Lucky & Delphine after some Margarita Chuggin' in ATL.
We had met/had drinks with Hello!Lucky at the Atlanta Gift Show in the summer of 2007 and have been rubbing elbows at several shows since, including the National Stationery Show and the New York International Gift Show. Blue Barnhouse has been carrying their super chic greetings in our stationery store more than a year now.
I knew from what I had gathered on my own that their business was doing extremely well: they have a London office, I've seen them in just about every shop I've ever dreamed of placing my cards in, and this summer I saw a job posting from Hello!Lucky for a printer on the letterpress listserv that offered full benefits and two weeks paid vacation, among other perks. Having a letterpress business might sometimes feel glamourous, but we at BBH ain't exactly eating caviar, and I'm pretty sure a job with full benefits outside of the realm of academia is a rare phenomenon in this niche profession.
So I knew I would be impressed with the operation, but what I ended up seeing was a letterpress business owner's wet dream: on the downstairs floor there were three Heidleberg Windmills, a Heidleberg Cylinder, three full time printers, an enormous stockroom of product and supplies, and a packaging area staffed with two full time employees filling wholesale orders; in the upstairs loft where the sales staff and designers worked there was a posh meeting room, five or six computer stations, a staff lounge, and another sizeable cache of product storage. The staff there totaled what I think might have been 8 full time employees, one temp, and an intern. The print runs on any given style of greeting card were between 2000-5000 a piece, which I was told would last 6+ months before they would have to reprint. As a matter of comparison, we at BBH start any given design with a run of about 250 cards to test the market. If we sell out, we'll reprint at about 600-800 cards, if its carried by one of our larger clients, such as Paper Source, we'll go ahead and print a 2K run.
Started in 2003 by sisters Eunice and Sabrina Moyle, Hello!Lucky has realized phenomenal success in a relatively short time, which is owed to both Eunice's uber-cute design aesthetic, and Sabrina's business saavy (being a Stanford Business School graduate), as well as being picked up by Kate's Paperie in their first year of business (a milestone for any letterpress printer worth a spit) and a string of awesome press from Martha Stewart Weddings, InStyle Magazine, & The Today Show (to name a few).
As one of the printers there informed me, he couldn't ask for a better employment situation, even during slow times such as this current sluggish economy, the sisters' Moyle have made sure that their employees have been well taken care of, sometimes having to forgo their own pay-- a phenomenon I not only can identify with but pretty much have been subject to for my entire letterpress career.
My tour of the place essentially took 15 minutes--and not wanting to interfere with the flow of business I thanked my tour guide and was on my way out when she offered to have one of the printers about to set up a job show me the ropes on a Heidelberg press.
Max Koch, son of Peter Koch (a well respected
letterpress printer of the bay area) operates a
Heidelberg Cylinder Press.
A Three Hour Tour... A Three Hour Tour...
Well, for those of you who are not in the know, the Heidelberg press, be it platen or cylinder in make, is the Rolls Royce of letterpress machinery. The popular "Original Heidelberg", manufactured in in Germany between 1950-1980, are highly complex, super precise (if in good condition), and at their highest speed can output up to 5ooo prints per hour.
James Tucker, "the hunchback of Hello!Lucky", is only let out of his cage on weekdays to operate this Heidelberg Windmill.
My realm of expertise lies with handfed C&Ps, (presses which were first built in the 1880s & dominated the printing scene for the first half of the 20th century,) as well as with the Vandercooks, (which were mere proofing presses for larger automated presses, and despite its painfully slow output is the mascot press to just about every letterpress learning institution on this continent.) Our biggest, fastest press, on a good day, is capable of producing about 1200 prints in an hour. I've been drooling at the thought of the Heidleberg in my shop for two years now, but up to this point the size, expense, and the expertise required to handle these monsters have been enough of a deterrent to make me hold off until one offered itself to me (which is how I acquired two of my three presses.)
As it turns out, the pressmen three of Hello!Lucky were a veritable goldmine of letterpress geekdom- consisting of two grads from the printmaking program at the Maryland Institute of College of Art (MICA)-- The first, Aaron Cohick, became the project coordinator at MICA's Dolphin Press before moving on to getting his MFA in printmaking at Arizona State University. The second MICA-ite, being the aforementioned hunchback, got his feet (and deformed backside) wet at Hatch Show Print, the third guy, Max, claimed birthrights to his profession as the son of a printer of good repute and had whored himself out to various letterpress studios in NYC before returning to the bay area and joining up with team H!L.
Jedi of the Letterpress Arts, Aaron Cohick
What had been intended as a brief introduction to Heidelberg operation turned into three hours of floating from press to press, talking shop, trading stories, trouble shooting, and playa-hatin': the mustachioed hunchback parleyed several amusing beefs he had with some well-known letterpress establishments.
Not only did I get a very good sense of how these presses worked but I also got see H!L's own approach from Design to Final Product, which is far more systematic than BBH's gonzo approach to letterpress- though it is clear they have the same rigid expectations for end product as we do. The pressmen each had their own approach and preferences on how to manage the craft, and each were assigned their own machine which was tooled to their personal tastes--another stark contrast to our own shop, where we do it my way or the highway, and are constantly jumping from press to press depending on availability, complexity, experience of press operator, size of job, etc.
5000 2 color cards in a few hours flat!
It was thoroughly entertaining, though at some point during the reverie, 4PM rolled around, I realized that I hadn't eaten yet, and thought it was a good idea to let the guys get back to work. But as my feet hit the sidewalk, I had thoughts of beer, so I went back into H!L to see if the pressmen three were interested in downing some pints after work to perhaps continue to geek out on letterpress.
Thus spawned Part 2 of this tale: "Heidelberg Envy: Brandon Mans the Windmill, but on another day, when he's not so drunk off his ass." But this is a tale that is half unfurled and will not find its full defurlment until post thanksgiving day, so here we shall adjourn this blog.