As someone who has lived my whole life in London, I can often feel nowadays that it is increasingly not my city. Independent shops, businesses, communities and the spaces they occupy seem to be increasingly swept aside to make way for the advance of giant glass corporations and branches branch of Pret A Manger (which number almost 200 in the capital now). Part of the reason I started this website was to attempt to seek out and celebrate the pockets of creativity that are championing the arts at a time when the prevailing mood can sometimes feel as if it is in favour of marginalising them.
I never anticipated quite what a rewarding and uplifting experience it would be to meet the people doing this, but visiting the team at the New North Press confirmed this to me – a thriving letterpress studio in Hoxton headed up by Graham Bignell, Beatrice Bless and Richard Ardagh. One half of the floor space is occupied by Graham’s paper conservation and restoration business, and the other half houses his baby – a studio piled floor to ceiling with wooden drawers of type and huge antique presses, collected from across the country by Graham over 30 years. As Graham admits: “next door is where I make the money and here in the letterpress studio is where I spend it.”
Graham began his career working for a private letterpress, but was inspired to found his own in 1986. “At the time there were no studios for craftspeople – people didn’t want to rent to us,” explains Graham. “Fortunately I heard about a building on New North Road which myself and a community of artists ended up occupying on a peppercorn rent for ten years. We had a period of uncertainty because the building we were in was a virtual squat, but then someone took pity on us and put us in here. Today, the artists and craftspeople that occupy this building are the landlords, so we’re safe now.”
Graham understands how valuable this safety is in a city where artists’ studios are under constant threat. “When we moved here in 1992 this area had a big artist community but that’s all gone now,” he says. “The artists and craftspeople who occupied the building next door were there for 23 years before they had to leave to make way for offices. Next door was sold two years ago but it’s been empty every since.” However, despite London's shifting landscape, Graham and his team are thankful for the space they have, and determined to use it as a positive force in the local area. “The whole building has an ethos of reaching out into the community,” says Graham. “We were all lucky to end up here so we want to make a difference.”
This involves running community outreach projects throughout the year, often with local schoolchildren, who thrive on learning a new skill. Beatrice shows me some grids of type that have been set by local kids, aged from 7 to 18, which will print poetry they penned. “They set all of this in an hour, which is amazing,” says Beatrice. “There’s a lot of maths involved as you have to measure out the spaces between the letters and find the right size leading to fill them, but the kids loved it. We often find that children who have special needs really respond well to setting letterpress as they can completely focus on it.”
“They become really absorbed,” adds Graham. “Letterpress is such a physical thing which can be satisfying to work with. In the past it was used as therapy for patients undergoing psychiatric treatment. A local hospital used to have a printing department where patients could learn typography because it’s a very calming thing to do – a lot like a jigsaw.” The process involves selecting metal or wood ‘type’ (letters) and setting them in lines in a ‘chase’ (frame). Everything needs to slot together perfectly, so spaces have to be filled with pre-cut spacing materials. From there, the chase is transferred over to the press, inked up, and then pressed into the paper to create the print. It’s a detailed process and sometimes even the experts can get it wrong. “The last poster we did took three days to set,” says Graham. “We printed about 160 or so before we spotted a spelling mistake.”
However, Graham and his team believe there are plenty of benefits to taking the time to do everything by hand. “It’s nice to spend time on things and get them to a really high standard,” says Richard. “The value of print can be so disposable now – you click print and 5,000 copies come out the other side of the machine. However the advent of the internet has been great for us as it means we can show our customers all the detailed work that’s gone into our handmade posters and why they cost what they cost. They’re of a superior quality and you can really see it in the final product.” Graham echoes this sentiment: “I think the character isn’t the same if you print on a computer. There’s a whole range of things that are nicer about letterpress than mechanised printing – that’s why we persist in doing it.”
This summer, Beatrice is hosting more outreach workshops – this time for 75 kids from the local area, in a program funded by Hackney Council. “They’ll occupy the whole building – some will be trying out letterpress, others will be sampling textiles and ceramics,” she explains. “It’s about exploring the processes rather than having a fixed idea of outcome. The whole event is free.” Richard adds: “We were talking about how the area has changed, and we decided we wanted to do something with the remaining community that is still here. It feels nice to reach out and connect with where you are.”
On top of community work, the New North Press also runs regular workshops for the public, who travel from across the country to learn the art of letterpress. “We’ve been hosting monthly workshops for ten years,” says Graham. “It’s great when you hear people have attended the workshops and then been inspired to start their own presses.” Attendees work on a group poster where everyone sets a line based around a chosen theme – past subjects have included everything from David Bowie to gin and tonic. Following that, they graduate to creating their own poster to take home. The workshops are particularly popular with design departments in companies as a team-building day. “They really enjoy going back to the origins of what they do today,” says Graham.
This extensive program of outreach work is all part of Graham’s vision for keeping letterpress a living medium. “What I like about letterpress is that it has a life rather than being stuck in a museum,” he says. “All of this equipment was made to be used. We’re learning to use type in a modern way.” As part of this ethos, the press recently pioneered the creation of an entirely new letterpress font, created by a 3D printer. “The idea was to connect the old with the new,” says Richard. “Because 3D printers can achieve 0.1mm accuracy, the font designers decided to create a the whole thing out of 0.1mm lines. The result is a font that looks three dimensional and is also 3D printed from photopolymer. It’s a world away from all the other fonts we have.” The New North Press were the first to have created anything like it, and they are keen for their creation, just like their workshop, to be a working model. “If anyone wants to use it in our workshops or commission a print using it, they can,” says Richard. “Sometimes people ask us if they can exhibit it but I try to keep it here working as that was the point of creating it.”
Aside from the workshops, the New North Press is also a successful business in its own right – generating beautiful, hand-finished business cards, wedding stationary and artists books, as well as posters, poems and private commissions. One of the press’s most detailed commissions to date was for a Beatles fan who set the team a near impossible challenge when he requested a reproduction of a vintage circus poster that inspired the lyrics of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. No original copies of the poster existed and all that remained was a photo of Lennon standing next to the print. “We knew John Lennon’s height, so from that we worked backwards to calculate the size of the poster and of each font,” says Richard. “We then had to match the type to what we had in our collection and create what we didn’t have from scratch.” The process took months and became a real labour of love for everyone involved, but the result is testament to a team driven by getting things just right. A film of the project can be found here.
In between all this, Graham still finds the time to track down new type from across the country, often rescuing it from being thrown away. “I rely on old printers closing down who want the type to continue being used,” he explains. “I also look in antique shops – I’m always on the hunt. The problem is once you start this you can’t stop. Luckily my wife doesn’t visit often enough to witness the full scale of my obsession!” He isn’t just on the hunt for type either – Graham happened upon a selection of beautifully intricate stock blocks at a printers in Melton Mowbray which print astoundingly detailed vignettes. “They’re mostly photo-etched, but some are hand-engraved. They have amazing detail – I’d like to use them on cards, but I also quite like them as objects in their own right,” he says.
As a result of the hard work of the New North Press and other presses like it, a renaissance in traditional print is beginning to flourish. “It’s felt like we’ve been discovering new presses every week,” says Richard. “The new generation of printers are putting what they do up on the internet and are open to sharing, which is really good.” Graham adds: “There’s now a letterpress forum that connects people that are looking for type, and it feels like an ever growing circle of friends.”
On the way out of the studio, Graham takes me on a tour of other levels of the building. The top level houses a pair of ceramic artists, below that is a painter and another ceramicist and the ground floor houses gallery space. The workshop spaces are beautiful – flooded with light from giant Victorian windows and packed full of fascinating objects and tools, positively inviting you to don an apron and get your hands dirty. The building has a homely feel, and a real sense of friendly community – of craftspeople and artists united in their collective creative output. It’s heartbreaking to think how many spaces like this might have been lost already, but cheering to see one still thriving in the heart of the city.
At a point in history when it can sometimes feel like everything is about delivering results as fast as possible, the NNP are flying the flag for proper skills, careful craftsmanship and quality results. I would highly recommend popping in for a visit – for either a workshop session or a cup of tea with the team. They are exceptionally warm and friendly, and the work they produce is irresistibly beautiful. If you have something special you would like printed – from a wedding invite to a favourite poem – it makes sense to call on the New North Press. They will treat the project with so much love and care – you’re guaranteed something truly special.