The Letterpress Renaissance

07 Sep

Posted in Art

Thanks to our current love of all things vintage we are seeing a resurgence in the traditional craft of letterpress. Once again we are able to enjoy this hand-crafted printing technique that is perfect for poster, flyers and invitations.

The art of letterpress involves applying ink to the surface of metal type which has a raised surface with a reverse image, the type is then pressed against paper to make an impression. It results in a beautiful imprinted image with a thick layer of ink that you can feel.

It was invented by Johann Gutenburg in the 15th century and was used for five centuries until offset lithography became popular during the technology revolution.

A letterpress machine at Anonima impressori, a graphic design and letterpress studio in Italy

A letterpress machine at Anonima Impressori, a graphic design and letterpress studio in Italy

So old it’s new

David Jury in his book, The allure of the handmade, defines the printing press as, ‘So old it’s new.’ So why when digital is now the mainstream are we seeing a renaissance in letterpress?

We asked Emilio Marchiorello, senior graphic designer at Favini, why letterpress is enjoying a revival. He sees it as being based on two main principles – technological development and trends. “Although it may seem like a paradox, technology has an important role in the rediscovery of letterpress. In particular, the development of automated printing machines and computers have made applying this technique much easier. As for trends the current market is seeking vintage and hipster style craftsmanship and customised and tailored products in limited quantities – letterpress is able to answer all of these needs.” 

A romantic reply to digital

Although customised work and small print runs are achieveable when printing digitally, the end product is incomparable with letterpress results.

“All you have to do is close your eyes and be driven by the sensation of touching words printed in relief,” says Emilio, “These are emotions that only letterpress can give. It is no longer a piece of paper, it is an elegant piece of design that can be touched – it has come to life.”  Emilio believes that the craftsmanship of letterpress offers something unique that digital cannot achieve.

“Even the smell of the ink takes you back to the past, to a distant era when the importance of detail was essential”
Letterpress BV

The rich texture created by the impression adds a level of intimacy and uniqueness with each piece.

The multi-sensory revolution

But while we talk of the tactile nature that letterpress offers today, it was this relief effect that was frowned upon in the past. The strict rules of letterpress printing meant that a good printer was recognised by their ability to be able to print with the right pressure, without creating any kind of relief.

Type on the move

The type used in letterpress printing can be in different sizes and made of various materials such as wood, for less precise effects, or lead, for more detailed results. Today, thanks to technological developments it’s possible to create movable characters through 3D printing.

The fonts, or characters, most commonly used in printing are the classic Times New Roman, Helvetica and Bodoni. Many others have been created based on these old favourites. The most frequently used are stick characters – solids that allow you to play with colours if you superimpose them.

The pleasure of the unpredictable

The result of each press cannot be predicted or planned on a computer. This is one of the features that makes this technique unique. A more or less diluted ink, the choice of wood or lead characters, the amount of pressure applied and the type of paper used, are all variables that affect the final result. It guarantees that each copy is different from the previous.

The thick of it

The quality of your printing results will depend on the type of paper used. Emilio recommends using large sheets of thick rough paper, “The thickness is important because it allows you to add lots of pressure, without breaking or damaging the paper.” Favini’s ecological paper, Crush, is ideal, “It has all the necessary qualities for letterpress printing,” says Emilio.


Favini’s ecological paper, Crush, is ideal, it has all the necessary qualities for letterpress printing

Making an impression

One of Anonima Impressori’s most original jobs was also printed on Crush for a florist looking for unusual presentation boxes for flowers. The combination of letterpress used with modern graphic concepts and beautiful materials resulted in a charming product for the client, Fiori di Anna.


It is design possibilities like this that Anonima impressori’s print manager, Massimo Pastore, thinks is driving the letterpress renaissance, “The materials and in particular the movable characters still arouse lots of charm. The necessity of rethinking graphic design even in a touchable way pushes lots of designers to reconsider the letterpress process.”

Anonima Impressori’s graphic and printing business all started with a passion for letter fonts and printing. Today the workshop has a collection of over 700 alphabets in either wood or lead, and the collection continues to grow with the search, recovery and restoration of further font families.

With so many font families to choose from could they possibly have a favourite? “We don’t have a favourite but one of the rarest and more interesting fonts we have is ‘Triennale’, designed by Guido Modiano for the Reggiani foundry in 1933,” says Massimo.

Anonima Impressori is passionate about craftsmanship and print and hopes that the revival of interest in letterpress continues to grow, “We can only hope that there will always be more attention given to the quality and details of print. We hope there will be constant interest in the culture of letterpress and in its vast and important heritage made of skills, hard work and passion,” says Massimo.

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