Escaping my desk is a great way to hit the refresh button on motivation and inspiration. Visiting studios and seeing how others are doing what they do best never fails to impress—in particular, seeing designers who still work by hand, while so much of our own day-to-day work has become digital, is always a treat. At the AIGA annual conference this fall in New Orleans, we were lucky enough to visit and enjoy three local woman-owned shops working in traditional mediums: sign painting, letterpress, and bookbinding.
The unique character of New Orleans and a stroll down its vibrant streets is influenced in large part by the beautiful artisan signage hanging on nearly every building. There is an appreciation among the business, local, and tourist populations alike for this oft-forgotten artform—something we are lucky to see support for in Santa Fe’s historic downtown as well.
Mystic Blue Signs works exclusively in hand lettered signage with no digital components. Customers are offered a limited selection of the most successful handprinted typefaces by way of a large painted board of samples on the wall, as well as a host of colorful iconography and artwork styles to complement their choice of lettering with a handpainted logo. Upon entering the shop, dozens of bold signs greet the eye from walls and ceiling, and a case of implements and tools of the trade give a glimpse behind the scenes. Artists are trained at the shop to master lettering, and the open studio format lets customers watch as they paint. Clients’ templates are created in pencil on trace paper to ensure text is aligned, perforated with a handheld tool outlining the sketch, and pounced (a centuries-old technique for image transferring, in this case pushing chalk dust through little holes in the trace paper onto the prepared sign board). Signs are shaped and cut in-house as well, including elaborate cutouts such as filagrees, water, and steam. Mystic Blue does work with graphic designers’ projects, too; mockups acquire an authentic handmade look and the finished products are truly one-of-a-kind.
As a former student of intaglio and woodblock, I love any work focused on printmaking. Those of us who obsess over high-quality paper and tactile presence have likely been thrilled to see the resurgence of letterpress printing in recent years. Behind a storefront of stationery offerings, Scriptura on bustling Magazine Street has a fully operational shop accepting custom work. With four antique presses in action, the shop is pleasantly busy, including a foil press for applying metallic detail in gold, copper, and silver. Listening to the rhythmic zip of the wheel and plunk of the plate, we watched a job come off the press on gorgeous thick paper with lots of fine detail. There is a labor of love involved in maintaining these huge machines, mostly done in-house by the artists as the heavy presses are so difficult to move and chance at tipping off the dolly. The community is relatively tight knit and there to reach out to for chastisement and eventually advice when a part breaks or a problem happens, a lot like the digital forums we reference for programming snags or Photoshop questions…but somehow more secret and more exciting. There is something about a well-thought one color design on amazing paper that is simple, beautiful, and bewitching. There is also something about a printing studio with wooden floors, a wooden staircase, wide windows, and a couple of dogs waiting at your feet in the Big Easy that feels truly magical.
Across town in the Bywater, a co-op space at The Southern Press runs handcrafted woodblock printing, small exhibitions, letterpress, and bookbinding. Binding techniques are fascinating, and this small cheery space with three artists at work was a treat to visit. We got to try our hand at arranging wood type elements in the tray and rolling paper through the press; looked at how a rainbow of ink can be applied to the plate for a pleasantly unpredictable result; checked out the flat files of thousands of letters and punctuation marks waiting to be placed on the presses; and merely watched a bit in awe as tiny artbooks were being hand-threaded and bound in several traditional Japanese styles. We were even able to try the child size hobby press to print our own cards with sage inspiration advice: To summon lost creativity, pour water from the Mississippi River into the palm of your hand.
This post was originally published on The Design Corps of Santa Fe blog.