Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Letterpress Life in Detroit

Detroit is probably best known for making great American cars.  But it also was a center of great letterpress work in the past. Today it's also contributing in innovative ways to the revival of interest in letterpress printing crafts.

On a recent trip to visit family, Tampa Book Arts Studio Letterpress Coordinator Carl Mario Nudi stopped by Signal-Return, a community letterpress workshop that opened about eight months ago.

Ryan Schirmang, director of the storefront operation in Detroit’s Eastern Market district, enthusiastically greeted Carl and his sister, Patricia, who joined Carl on his adventure.

Ryan helped launch Signal-Return as a project manager for Team Detroit, the international advertising and marketing firm. Team Detroit established the print studio as a way to bring traditional and modern techniques of printing to the community, and to provide a workspace for artists and designers to produce unique prints for retail clients.

The smell of ink and type dust was in the air as you entered the studio, Carl noted.

Erika Turner, self-described “shop girl,” stands in front of some
of the posters produced at Signal-Return.

“Samples of the posters and broadsheets hung from clothes lines in a smart display of the work these young people were producing,” he said. “It was exciting to see letterpress being used as a means to bring people to the inner city.”

Joel Grothans, shop technician, holds a poster he produced
at Signal-Return recently.

The studio’s name, Signal-Return, plays on the maritime history of the Motor City. Besides the auto industry, shipping on the Great Lakes is one of the big economic engines of Detroit.

“It’s a signal to return to the seas after a rough storm,” Ryan explained. “We like that image for Detroit. We also think of the signal we are sending out by rooting our creative practice here, and excited to watch the community respond to and inform what we do.”

Walking around the spacious studio, which was carved out of one of the old buildings in the wholesale market district, Ryan pointed out with pride all of the letterpress equipment and its history.

A Glockner Cylinder Press donated to Signal-Return waits to be restored.

The Vandercook 325G is from Alma College in Michigan; the Glockner Cylinder Press and Intertype from Fosdick Printing, a decades-old firm in Detroit; the German-made Triumf proof press was shipped over from Germany; and some table top C&P pilot presses came from Cass Techincal High School in Detroit and were salvaged before the building was demolished.

Fosdick also donated two cabinetts of California cases filled with fonts of type. There were several other full type cabinets that came from Alma College.

Ryan Schirmang, director of Signal-Return, stands in front
of a Triumf proof press that was shipped from Germany.

Ryan introduced Carl and Patricia to two of his assistants, Joel Grothans, shop technician, who graduated from Detroit’s College of Creative Studies with an illustration and design degree, and Erika Turner, self-described “shop girl,” who is a neighbor of Ryan and has a print design background.

Bryan Baker (center) owner of a letterpress studio in Detroit's Corktown
area gives Cesar Chavez Academy High School 12th graders
Arturo Amzon (left) and Javier Lara (right) instructions during a workshop
at Signal-Return.
Cesar Chavez Academy High School students Veronica Garcia (left)
and Javier Lara (right) set type during a workshop at Signal-Return.

As luck would have it, a workshop was in progress during the visit. Students from Cesar Chavez Academy High School, a public charter school, were learning the fundamentals of letterpress printing.

The instructor, Bryan Baker, a letterpress printer and owner of the Bran Baker/ Stukenborg shop in Detroit’s Corktown, worked with the students, leading them through design of their project, hand typesetting with foundry type, locking up the form on the Vandercook and printing several copies.

Cesar Chavez Academy English teacher, Amy Berkhoudt, said she received a grant to expose these students to an industrial craft that was the main printing production process at least three decades before they were born. English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher, Rachel Troutman joined Amy’s class for the workshop.

More information about Signal-Return and the work they do can be found on the websites: and

1 comment:

MayIbeexcused said...

I remember a room full of such impressive pieces collected in Milan Michigan in 2005 at the print shop there. It delights me to see these used.