Tim Chapman is one of the founders of Press New York, a Manhattan-based letterpress and design studio. Both Tim and his business partner, Sloane Madureira, come from fine art backgrounds, and this training is evident in their work’s creativity and elegance. In his free time, Tim fools around with a variety of musical instruments, and mentioned that he’d love to work for a record label. When I suggested that he do a record company in conjunction with Press New York, he said, “Turning something you’re passionate about into a business is really tricky. Burning out on something you really love—I’m afraid of that.” For more about music and printing and the value of analog objects in a digital world, read on!
Why don’t you describe to me your current profession?
I own and operate a letterpress printing company. It’s a lot of wedding invitations, business cards. It’s a little bit more on the high-end—it’s not an inexpensive process. When it comes to business cards, you have people who want to make a statement with their card, not just have a card. It’s kind of like the scene from American Psycho [where the characters are one-upping each other with their business cards].
That’s an amazing scene.
It’s exactly like that.
Have you actually ever seen a situation like that?
People tell me about it all the time. Or they see somebody else’s card and contact me and say, “I saw so-and-so’s card and I must have it.” When you hand somebody a really thick card, it just keeps the conversation going.
It also says something about your brand. That said, we’re moving into a world that’s more electronic. So how do you stay relevant in that environment, given that what you do is completely analog?
I know, it seems like it’s something that’s obsolete, but it’s not. We’ve done better every year that we’ve been in business, which is about ten years.
And that’s with the rise of electronic life, which is very interesting. Do you have any thoughts about why that would be?
I think there’s a trend, especially in the city, for elements of the analog lifestyle.
It’s like the farm to table version of networking.
Yeah. Vinyl sales are higher than they have been in years and years. It’s one of those trends in people’s tastes. And like I said, we do a lot of wedding invitations, and that clientele is very traditional. It’s one of those things that’s not really going away.
And how did you get into this business?
I stumbled into it. I was working for a grants organization that gave money to artists.
Are you a creative?
I make music now, actually.
You know, I saw the Sonic Youth poster on your wall, and I was like, this guy is totally a musician.
Music is a huge part of our work environment. It’s always on. Patrick who runs the press—he does most of our printing now, while I’m managing projects—he’s a musician, and it’s one of those things that’s always on.
You guys need a soundtrack to your day.
Exactly. And it varies wildly. It’s extremely diverse. Patrick is really into hardcore noise.
What does he play?
And what do you play?
I tinker with a lot of things, but mostly guitar.
Have you ever played a theremin?
Yes, I have.
Was it amazing?
It was very cool. I love a theremin. It’s just so fascinating to be able to create sound without even touching anything. It’s magic.
You were saying you started at an arts organization. Then what happened?
I got laid off, and I needed a job. I actually started working for my current company doing temp work. I was hand-binding photo storage boxes for Kate’s Paperie. When I was done with the job they offered to keep me on permanently, which I agreed to if they would teach me how to print. Sloan’s [my current business partner] previous business partner taught me how to print. After a few years, he wanted to get out, so I stepped into the position.
What did stepping into a printing company as a partner entail?
It’s a little crazy. One day you’re the employee, and the next day you’re the boss, which is kind of weird. In this particular circumstance I did not have to put in money. The idea was to keep me on board so that I wouldn’t leave, because if I left there wouldn’t be any business.
So you have to go out and do business development? Is that primarily what you do now?
Sloan’s previous business partner was the printer, and when he left, I was printing, and I knew what I was doing. I became the partner in order for her to keep the business. Without the printer, what is there? Sloan is a designer, but without the printer there is no business. Now I have Patrick, who does most of the letterpress printing.
So he does the actual printing?
Most of it. I do most of the foil stamping and die cutting, stuff like that. I’ll step in and do some of the printing, but he does most of it with the letterpress now. We got to this point where we were so busy that I needed to handle projects, handle clients, maintain the books, write checks, order materials, and that sort of thing. We needed somebody else to come in and do that work, so I’d have more time to do other stuff. It was tricky, because you can’t just put an ad out for somebody to letterpress print. They have to be trained. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Center for Book Arts, but they do letterpress classes. It’s on a hand-cranked Vandercook kind of scenario, which is what we’re using.
What is a hand-cranked Vandercook?
The machine is a Vandercook. We’re using a late 70s machine, but it’s a system that has been around since the dawn of printing.
What are the skills that doing letterpress entails?
It’s a combination of mechanical ability, because you’re making fine adjustments to the press as it’s moving, because you’re not only trying to get a good print, but also just to keep the press going. It’s automated to a certain degree, it’s picking up paper and moving paper and printing—all of these things at the same time. You have to have this sort of artistic eye, I think. Most of the people I’ve trained to print have been artists of some kind. I was a studio art major in college. I think that really helps. It’s one of those things where you have to have a very keen eye to know what is good and what is not. It can be really subtle.
What are the fine details that most frequently get in the way? What’s something that makes the difference between good and not good?
It can be going too deep into the paper, or it’s too inked, or the rollers are too low. When the rollers are too low, the type looks very fuzzy. It’s not clean and crisp. The rollers are having too much contact with the plate, so it’s smearing on extra ink.
It’s really quite fine balance.
There are a million little adjustments that need to be made to any given job. It’s pretty cool.
What’s satisfying about it?
There aren’t many jobs where when you’re done you have a product, something you’ve done, something you’ve made. You can really tally up what you’ve accomplished, because you can see it and touch it. Almost every single piece of paper has been touched by one of us before it goes out. It’s an easy way of taking stock of what you’ve done. And it’s a fun thing to do. I’m playing with big, old dangerous machines. You get to listen to music all day. You don’t have to dress up. It’s a nice environment to be in.
Since you’ve mentioned music several times, I’d like to know three bands you like to listen to—and why—while you print.
- Springsteen. It seems very manly. You finish up the day with really filthy hands, and it just seems like Springsteen is the thing to listen to.
- Superchunk. It’s fast, it’s peppy, you want to get stuff done.
- Fleetwood Mac. It’s just so fucking good.