In January, the announced sale of the Palmer Printing plant at 739 S. Clark Street made official what has long felt like an inevitability: there are no more printers in Printer’s Row.
Once one of the nation’s liveliest printing hubs, the Printer’s Row neighborhood hasn’t lived up to its name for decades. Following the exodus of industry giants like R.R. Donnelly, Palmer Printing stubbornly hung on as the Row’s lone survivor, weathering economic downturns and adapting to changing customer demands.
But after receiving an offer apparently too good to refuse for the plant’s prime piece of real estate, ownership finally cashed out on Clark Street.
“Chicago has, from what I can tell, the greatest concentration of independent printers,” said Jenny Beorkrem, owner of Ork Posters, a company she founded a decade ago when sales of her typographic map of Chicago’s neighborhoods exploded.
And of those indies, a sizable number, including Ork, have made their home along Ravenswood Avenue.
Revival of the fittest
Up and down the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor, scrappy letterpress operators and screenprinters are carving out an analog niche in the digital world, setting type with their fingers instead of keystrokes and cranking out greeting cards and prints one piece of paper at a time by hand—kind of like swapping out an iPhone for a rotary model.
Just two decades ago, letterpress was considered so outmoded that idled, made-in-Chicago Vandercook presses, which now sell for $10,000 to $15,000, were being outright junked.
Then along came Martha Stewart. The highly influential domestic doyenne of the 1990s is largely credited with reviving letterpress. Her promotion of arts and crafts and all things handmade spawned a new generation of printers.
Jennifer Farrell, owner and founder of Starshaped Press, is part of this new wave of old school printers.
“Twenty years ago, when I was in school, everything was going onscreen and I thought, ‘We’re removing the hands from everything.’ I got into printing because I loved the type aspect. I loved that you could build something from objects in front of you,” said Farrell.
“People said metal [type] was too limiting. That pissed me off, that’s what pushed me to experiment. I can’t do it? Watch me,” Farrell said.
Working on antique equipment often more than 100 years old and using techniques that date back even further, small-scale printers are thriving by essentially zigging where others zagged and returning to printing’s roots.
Obviously, the scale of printing taking place on Ravenswood can’t hold a candle to the original Printer’s Row.
“When my super powers kick in, I have done about 2,800 impression in one day,” said Amber Favorite, owner and founder of a. favorite design. “Most cards we print in quantities of 200 to test out. Once we know it sells, we print 400-800 per run.”
But there’s a segment of consumers that actively supports and seeks out hand-printed items, even thinking of cards as gifts themselves, she said.
“Chicago’s definitely a stationery city,” said Favorite.
Jim Pollock, who runs Pollock Prints out of the studio next to Starshaped, discovered that buyers actually liked seeing ink smudges of his fingerprints on posters.
“People get sick of all this digitized stuff,” said Pollock. “People just like looking at something so simple.”
Printers attracted to the manual format typically get their start by working out of a basement or garage using a press roughly the size of a stand mixer. The tipping point between hobbyist and entrepreneur usually occurs around the time a printer graduates to a two-thousand-pound press, and the search is on for a studio.
That’s when printers discover that industrial buildings are scarce in Chicago and those that do exist are “gigantic,” said Favorite.
Printers don’t require (and usually can’t afford) a lot of space—1,000 square feet will do. But they do need the appropriate zoning, concrete floors to support their presses, ventilation, sturdy electrical wiring, preferably natural light and it helps to have neighbors who aren’t bothered by noise and rumbling, Favorite said.
“When the press is running, it’s not quiet,” she said.
The Ravenswood Industrial Corridor has a history of manufacturing that dates back to the 1800s. The sturdy, low-slung brick and limestone factories that sprouted up along the railroad (now Metra’s UP-North line) churned out everything from steel to ice cream to billboards to musical instruments to film projectors and more. A number of printing enterprises also set up shop on Ravenswood, including the world’s largest postcard factory and a foundry that cast metal type.
Just like Printer’s Row, the corridor was hit hard by automation, innovation and consolidation, which rendered many of Ravenswood’s manufacturing plants and the products they produced obsolete.
Though a handful of the corridor’s abandoned factories were converted to loft-style condos, plenty weren’t. Building owners carved up these cavernous plants into warrens of studios that happen to be the right size and the right price for printers, and it doesn’t hurt that the spaces look cool too.
“That older vintage charm—exposed brick, natural light—generally I think artists appreciate that,” said Beorkrem. “When you’re a visual person, it has an influence on your psyche. You don’t want to feel like you’re in a jail cell when you’re trying to be creative.”
Further sweetening the deal, CTA and Metra stations are nearby and so are restaurants and shops in the surrounding neighborhoods of Lakeview, North Center and Lincoln Square.
“Along here, you get everything—all of the amenities but you’re commercially zoned,” said Farrell. “That’s made it really attractive to a lot of people.”
A funky mix of woodworkers, shoemakers, yarn dyers and brewers has also settled on Ravenswood. Members of this extended artisan community share knowledge and resources, refer customers to each other and even barter services.
“We’re good friends with the guys at Begyle [Brewing],” said Danni Schneider, an Ork employee. “We do their printing, they pay us in beer.”
Changing the story
Aside from a difference in scale, Ravenswood’s Printer’s Row distinguishes itself from the original in one other critical way: Most of the print shops are run by women, a rarity in a field that’s been dominated by men in nearly every aspect since the days of Gutenberg.
“Women weren’t really making the type or setting the type. They weren’t really in the print shop,” said Vida Sacic, who maintains a letterpress studio on Ravenswood and is an associate professor of art at Northeastern Illinois University.
The physical strength required to operate early presses is often cited as the reason behind women’s exclusion, but plain old sexism was at work too.
How pervasive was the male influence? Farrell has a collection of more than 1,000 fonts. Two were designed by women. Two. And one is a collection of ornaments she created herself.
“It’s so pathetic,” she said of the disparity. As a teacher, Sacic has even noted that printmaking texts are written by men and the examples of printed work within are by men.
“Can we get some other things going?” she asked. The answer from printers like Farrell, Favorite, Beorkrem and Sacic is “yes.”
Women have increasingly been drawn to letterpress for many of the reasons they were initially blocked from the industry, including the physicality of the process.
“I think there’s an empowerment to working with heavy equipment,” said Sacic.
Her students, she said, “are intrigued by the materials, they are intrigued by the presses.”
“When you’re printing, it’s very therapeutic. There’s the hum of the press, muscle memory takes over,” said Favorite. “When your hands are busy, your mind is free to go places. A lot of my best ideas happen while I’m printing.”
Apart from the bad-assery of wrangling a one-ton piece of iron, running a press also gives women control over the means of production, Farrell said.
“[Women] finally are allowed to buy equipment and print the shit they want to say,” she said. That kind of power, in the hands of women, has the potential to ripple beyond Printer’s Row. “Maybe they’ll change the stories being told,” Sacic said.
Do it yourself
If all this talk about printers and printing has piqued your interest, Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood Avenue, offers classes in a variety of printmaking techniques.
“People are looking for an antidote, something not digital,” said Judy Zeddies, director of Lillstreet’s printmaking and book arts department.
“They like that thick paper and big punch”—tactile sensations that were lost in the shift from typewriters to computers, she said.
With letterpress, most of the type is antique and shows its age. But it’s that very wear and tear that printers find so appealing, she said.
“All of those scratches, all of that history is in every print,” said Zeddies.
Among Zeddies’ favorite moments as a teacher, she said, is showing graphic designers the studio’s type collection, which includes physical spaces and leading, elements that can be achieved with a keystroke on a computer but need to be handset in letterpress.
“When people take a letterpress class, they learn how difficult it is,” Zeddies said.