It seems like just yesterday that I was marveling at the fresh new work from a little printing studio in the Midwest calling itself Hammerpress. It was with great pride that I included them in New Masters of Poster Design, showcasing their inventive take on letterpress for the world to see. Soon after, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw their cards and stationery work in some of the coolest shops in town. Success couldn’t come to a nicer (and incredibly talented) bunch! Amazingly, the studio has now reached its 20th year. Stretching from their humble beginnings to become one of the most influential letterpress shops in the world, all while staying true to the roots. I had a chance to talk with founder Brady Vest about the twists and turns of the last 20.
What was the initial inspiration to start Hammerpress?
I was fortunate enough to be at the Kansas City Art Institute when the band The Coctails was formed back in 1990. They were making all of the crazy posters, dolls, buttons, comic books, etc. It was really the first time I had seen something that was the next level of what me and my friends had been doing in high school with zines, stickers, etc. I also had the good luck of having Matt McClintok as our shop tech in the printmaking shop. He and John Upchurch went on to start Fireproof Press, eventually moving to Chicago. A lot of us at that time were collaborating on a book projects, making record covers and posters in the printing department.
Where were you working out of? How many times has the business moved over the last 20 years?
I started the shop in the back of my printmaking instructors studio in the second floor of a building full of artist’s studios and lofts. It was very generous of him to give me the space until we found a more suitable location. We have moved about 5 times since then over the course of the last 20 years. Each spot was an evolution of the business. We are preparing to move to our 6th location in 2015.
What has been the one lesson you have learned over the last 20 years that you wish people knew when they were first starting out?
That you can’t do everything by yourself. As an only child, it took me a pretty long time to get good at working with people in a business that I started. It’s the biggest lesson that I have learned.
What has been the biggest surprise in running the shop for so long?
I think the biggest surprise is how much of a following Hammerpress has developed. I think the explosion of Instagram probably helped with that but it’s always a surprise to me at how far reaching the name has been recognized.
What inspired you to start the wholesale part of the operation? What portion of the business is now dedicated to that side of things?
I really had no idea about any of that business until I met my wife. When we first met, she was involved in the design world and really had other insights than I did. It was probably my way of trying to become somewhat more of a stable person in a financial sense so she wouldn’t hit the “next” button and kick me to the curb. I also think that it seemed like a great way for us create the work we wanted to outside of the world of posters. It was probably the best direction for the business to go now that I look back. The wholesale part of Hammerpress has grown to about 60% of our business, if not more by 2015.
Any new products on the horizon?
More cards of course. Also, we are trying to develop more print projects and desk accessory related items. Nothing too specific yet.
How important is it to be in Kansas City for Hammerpress? How does that color what you do?
Kansas City has always been the home of Hammerpress. I really don’t think that we would have been able to do what we have been able to do anywhere else. Economically it is, or was, much easier to exist here and have a business like ours. It’s also a very loyal town and one that stays true to itself. I have always been a mid-westerner so I feel like that has always affected the work somehow in a way that I can’t really pinpoint.
One of my favorite things that you shared in the past was that you would start each print with the last piece placed on for the print before it. That is a thing that is unique to working in letterpress and was much easier to do when you were just doing posters. Do you find yourself adding any little touches or personal quirks like that still?
I haven’t really done that in long time. Maybe it was just a personal challenge at the time, I’m not sure. I had an instructor in college that would take a single etching plate and make a series of a dozen or more prints off of each drastic evolution of the plate. Maybe that was my attempt at doing it with letterpress. I think the main quirk lately is that I can’t seem to make anything without it being 6 or 7 or 12 layers. I just get fixated on the layers and trying to keep everything in registration.
Putting you on the spot now—over the last 20 years—what was your favorite piece that Hammerpress produced?
Oh man, that changes each time I do something I’m happy with. I think it might be a label design and project we did for Boulevard Brewing Co. here in Kansas City. They were doing a collaboration with Sierra Nevada called Terra Incognita. They came to us to do the design and the printing for these labels. It was the first time Boulevard Brewing Co. has ever had an outside designer do a label design, which was a huge deal to me. They basically gave us free reign to come up with two concepts, which were completely designed on press using handset type. We also printed 5000 labels and hand applied each one. I think it was our favorite for a number of reasons but that was a good one.
What was the hardest job you had to do in the last 20?
For a brief period, I got into some book publishing in the late 90’s. We did a few books that were ridiculous endeavors. One was 70 pages, three colors on each page. I think we were doing an edition of 750 copies so the whole thing was about 168,000 impressions on a hand fed press. I was much younger at time and it was probably a challenge, but that was such a ridiculous project.
Now that you have 20 years of trial and error behind you, what would be the perfect set-up for the shop?
I think we are moving to that space in January. It should be big enough for us to separate the sections of the shop as needed. We will have plenty of space for production, quiet space for office work, a great store space in an amazing building. We are all very very excited to be in that new space. My biggest goal is give everyone what they need in order to be productive and happy. Also, I have resigned my personal space to a bit of a hobbit hole to make more room for production, so I hope to have a little more space for myself to be able to work on some projects again.
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