Posted by: Kath Usitalo | November 5, 2012

Homemade: Signal-Return Presses On

Paige surveys posters created at Signal-Return Press at Detroit’s Eastern Market

There’s a reason I thought of Nashville when I stepped into the letterpress print shop on a side street at Detroit’s Eastern Market, and it wasn’t the sound of music coming from the Saturday afternoon barbecue happening outside of Bert’s Market Place Jazz around the corner.

It was Hatch Show Print, which I’d visited in Tennessee’s Music City, that inspired the creation of Signal-Return Press, according to Erika Turner. A designer and transplant to Detroit, she’d found a simpatico place in the city’s creative community at the letterpress studio, gallery and store.

Erika explained that Toby Barlow, Chief Creative Officer of Team Detroit advertising, was taken with the concept of keeping alive the kind of hand-crafted print and typography that dates to the 15th century and has been done by Hatch Show Print, one of the oldest letterpress shops in the country, since 1879.

Hatch Show Print is known for its concert posters for country music legends including Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. Projects for Elvis and Garth Brooks followed, as have some major corporations that liked the distinctive Hatch look.

The Hatch poster I brought home from Nashville (not actual size)

But its first job was a handbill for a presentation by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, followed by posters for traveling circuses, vaudeville acts and carnivals, as well as concerts and stores and products.

Hatch also creates art posters; my favorite souvenir of Nashville is a red, white and blue poster of a vintage travel trailer, “Ritz-Craft.”

It’s the handmade and imperfect qualities and look and feel of the impressed letters and ink on paper that give the pre-computer-generated pieces life and personality. That tradition and those same time-honored techniques survive and are being taught at Signal-Return Press.

Trays of individual letters fill wooden cabinets, ready to be set in place—in reverse—to spell hand-composed messages.

Designs are carved into linoleum or wood, ink is applied, presses are hand-operated to imprint or roll the inked images onto the paper.

Erika Turner moved to Detroit and found Signal-Return

Drop by during normal hours on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday and you’re likely to see works in progress on equipment that was saved from Detroit’s old Cass Tech High School just before the building was torn down.

There were no elevators, said Erika, so the heavy presses had to be hauled down multiple flights of stairs. In a hurry.

As I looked around the industrial-chic space I realized that the young people who were manually operating the presses were born long after the digital era doomed hand-composed and even cold type or phototypeset pages. They seemed to relish the hands-on quality of the physical activity required to produce a printed piece the ancient way.

The non-profit Signal-Return Press operates on four principles: to teach this hands-on, pre-computer art of typography and printing, to provide a space for artists and designers to connect and create, to produce and to sell the work.

Designs are carved, backward, in wood or linoleum to be inked and pressed onto paper

An email response to my query about the name, Signal-Return, explained that it is “a play on shipping terminology, meaning an all-clear to return to the seas after a storm. It also refers to our stance as a community letterpress shop. We think of ourselves sending out a signal, or a series of signals, that echo or return back to us with the input of our community in Detroit.”

The equipment and studio space are available during open studio periods to anyone who has completed two workshops offered at Signal-Return. Classes range from bookbinding to making calling cards, postcards and holiday greeting cards, and because class sizes are small (eight students) often sell out.

Check the Signal-Return Facebook page and website for workshops and special events.




Visitor Info Clicks:

Workshops teach letterpress techniques


Pure Michigan

Detroit’s Eastern Market

Check out the Great Lakes Gazette post about Gwen Frostic letterpress and block printing in Benzonia, in Northwest Lower Michigan:
Gwen Frostic Prints, Naturally

Equipment was saved at the 11th hour from the doomed Cass Tech High School


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