My first impulse upon stepping into Haylee Ebersole’s print shop, Meshwork Press in Wilkinsburg, was to run my hands along the printed cards and feel the depth of the printing done by the letterpress. I cannot say that this was a unique impulse—I run my hands over almost everything I want to work with, from a new laptop, to just flipping through all the pages of a notebook before I even begin to write. And, for many people, this ability to physically touch the pressed letters is what is so attractive about letterpress work.
However, for me, the most exciting part of this excursion at Meshwork Press was the process of typesetting, transforming an idea in your head onto the page. Though I had some idea of what to expect, I hadn’t expected how much I would have to compromise in order to get my idea to work. We were supposed to keep our typeset simple, but I quickly realized that I probably had a different idea of what was simple than what Haylee had intended. My partner and I settled on an idea fairly quickly, making a card that said “Hot & Spicy” with peppers and leaves bordering the words, but actually getting that idea to work meant we had to compromise with our choices. We had to ditch several pieces we wanted to incorporate, replace our ampersand with a slightly larger one, and work around the spacing and placement of the peppers constantly. For a moment, I was worried that it wouldn’t hold together, that we’d have to start over.
Though we managed to get our print to hold together, I have to wonder if the frustration of getting it to work, or having to start over, is actually supposed to be part of the process of typesetting. Submitting to the limitations of your physical press, or the amount of furniture you have available, leads to unique changes in the design of the printed piece. With a computer that can do so many different things, we rarely have to compromise with artistic designs—what we picture in our minds is what appears on the page—but letterpress limitations force us to constantly change and adapt our ideas to make them work. It’s like the typesetting is forcing you to try new things. And maybe that’s why some small presses hold onto letterpress—it really is a kind of art.