The Common Press Links Students to Printmaking History

Nestled in the basement of Morgan Hall at Penn’s School of Design is a letterpress printing studio that revitalizes a centuries old art form.

The Common Press at Penn was established on Jan. 17, 2006, to celebrate the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin. The letterpress printing studio is named after the 18th century English common press that Franklin used to print his numerous publications.

The Common Press is a collaboration of interests, including writing through Kelly Writers House (KWH), print culture via the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and visual arts and design at PennDesign. The facility provides a mixed media environment where students can move between digital and manual image-making while collaborating with writers, printmakers, and others in the book arts. The Common Press exists to assist in teaching design and facilitate collaborative projects across the University.

Before offset lithography in the early 20th century made this kind of printing obsolete, all printed materials were created on letterpresses using analog technology. Letterpress printing predates digital technology, computers, and copy machines. 

Matt Neff locks up wood type for printing on a Vandercook letterpress at the Common Press.

Matt Neff locks up wood type for printing on a Vandercook letterpress at the Common Press.

“Many people are familiar with Guttenberg and his printing of the Bible and invention of moveable type,” says artist and printer Matt Neff, director of PennDesign’s undergraduate programs in Fine Arts and director of the Common Press. “[Letterpress printing] is the first Western example of individual pieces of type being set at a certain height and moveable, using a fixed system to print multiple copies.”

There’s a rich history of printing in Philadelphia. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was an inventor and a printer, publishing broadsheets, or long, single-sheet newspapers that included the Benjamin Franklin, The Pennsylvania Gazette,and Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The letterpress process entails the use of cast metal or hand-cut wooden blocks of type to print words and images. The top surface of each block is inked by letterpress machine rollers. Pressure is then applied to push the inked blocks down on the surface of paper.

For the most part, the wood in the type blocks dates back to the mid- to late-19th century, and has traded hands multiple times. Neff says that the wood has a patina from so many years of use. History, he notes, is embedded in every single print made from the wood blocks.

“When we print something with wood type, everyone who has owned or printed with those blocks becomes part of the print,” he says. “This gives prints made today a political history that is in conversation with printers of the past.”

Neff believes that letterpress printing has a political undercurrent because it is a way to self-publish that has long been associated with power.

He says that the Common Press has been a place where students have the freedom of self-expression and are encouraged to experiment and take risks.

“We’ve had a great relationship with many campus groups and students interested in activism,” he says. “Students could simply design something in Microsoft Word and print it out on an inkjet printer, but there is something about working collaboratively at the press that builds community. I think students understand that their prints gain potency being handmade, and that prints made at the Common Press are part of a long lineage of printed political statements in Philadelphia.”

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Faith Padgett inspects a freshly printed broadside.

Faith Padgett inspects a freshly printed broadside.

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At the Common Press, students also produce posters and advertisements for Kelly Writers House visiting poet events and other programs. Young writers say they enjoy getting ink on their fingers setting type by hand and working on the studio’s heavy press machine. The process is quite different from other forms of printmaking.

“It’s a lot more physical,” says senior Maura Reilly-Ulmanek. In her KWH work-study position, she prints broadsides on the Common Press. “When you’re setting a lockup, you set type and then you put it on the bed and you make sure that everything’s in there really tight, so when it prints, nothing comes loose.” (In Franklin’s time, “putting the paper to bed,” was an oft-used expression; it is still used in newsrooms today.)

The tactile nature of the letterpress gives students like Reilly-Ulmanek intimate interactions with the materials in each project. “You trim the paper, set the type, holding it as it goes through the press, as opposed to watching a printer feed a thousand copies,” she says.

The English major from Lexington, Ky. hadn’t worked with letterpress materials before arriving at Penn. Encountering the press for the first time was a little daunting, she emaplins, because there are a lot of moving parts. But mastering the technology has made the process of learning how to use it all the more rewarding, Reilly-Ulmanek says.

The artistry and dedication to detail that comes through practicing letterpress arts is something that I think is completely unique to this form.

Faith Padgett

Junior Faith Padgett, another English major who works at the Common Press through Writers House, is no stranger to the letterpress. Her mother is a printmaker.

“The artistry and dedication to detail that comes through practicing letterpress arts is something that I think is completely unique to this form” says the Fort Worth, Texas native. “It’s so preservational in the way that it is from such an old part of our history and our past.”

It is a painstaking process to assemble the type blocks into words—and the words are, in fact, assembled backwards. Mistakes sometimes lend unintentional word play to print projects. When something is being made or tested out, it is called “make ready.” A basket of make ready castoffs is kept under the press that other printmakers can use for their projects, adding new layers and depth to their work.

“I enjoy using the letterpress, because it’s different from the other work I do during the day,” says alumna Liz Barr, who works fulltime as a KWH Robinson Press Fellow. “You think differently when you have to set everything from scratch.”

This fall, the Common Press studio will relocate into new space in the Fisher Fine Arts Building next to a next to a materials library to expand outreach to the Penn community and the Philadelphia region.

  • Text by Jacquie Posey
  • Video by Rebecca Elias Abboud
  • Photos by Denise Henhoeffer
  • Homepage photo: Liz Barr, Faith Padgett, and Matt Neff work to produce an edition of letterpress broadsides at the Common Press.