THE STORY OF REVIVING LETTERPRESS PRODUCTION AT ICICLE
It all started with a passion for print production...
An industry friend has a 1956 Heidelberg Windmill Platen type machine sitting in a dusty corner for years. We got curious and asked if we could make good use of it.
In fact, the machine is older than almost all of us at Icicle. Many of us have been in the business for more than a decade, but very rarely do we see commercial production from this type of machines. The technology went out-of-date around the 80s because of the rise of desktop publishing and offset printing technology. Most people’s impression of letterpress production is that the presswork is exquisite and textural; very different from modern printing. I am not saying that modern printing from offset or digital presses does not produce good work, but certainly the work lacks texture and artisanal qualities. Back in the old days when letterpress production was the mainstream printing technology up until mid-20th century, printers being craftsmen, would handle the whole process and master the machine on his own, the products of which are full of personality and sincerity. It is a very human process; whereas printing now, everything is digitized, and the sense of human touch is fast disappearing. After all, printers are makers. Printing is a craft, a craft to be preserved and passed on generation after generation.
Finding craftsman to operate the machine hasn’t been easy. We all went asking around the industry and with a stroke of luck, we found a master in his 60s who has been so kind to offer to help us start up the operation and train our next generation of machine minders. All coming from his passion for the craft of printing.
Being in Hong Kong, a city that races ahead, there is no one who left able of making movable types nor etched cuts, sometimes known as ‘zinc blocks’ for letterpress production. What we did was that we looked everywhere for antique hand-set types and started building a collection of them. Things in those days were built to last, and the quality is so good and beautiful. Though they may have been left untouched, idle and discarded for the past half a century, they are still usable and the presswork they produce are nothing less than stunning.
For producing new artwork with letterpresses, we either engrave our resin blocks, or work with partners in China to etch the cuts. It might take a little longer, but the discerning clients who appreciate letterpress are rarely looking for fast turnaround. They are after quality and exclusivity, and more often, they are drawn to the allure of craftsmanship.
You would think many people would not want to invest time on an old and dated technology. On the contrary, for those people who have devoted their careers to production like myself, they are all lovers of craft. Everyone at Icicle got very excited and curious, and started researching and reading up about letterpress production. Everyone’s enthusiasm towards the arrival of this machine was extremely motivating and almost emotional. I guess this is called passion.
When the letterpress machine moved in Icicle’s headquarter at Quarry Bay, it went past our busy digital printing presses in the company. A thought crossed my mind, "What would Gutenberg think if he travels to the future and witnesses all these developments in human history of industrialisation and digitization that have been made possible by the seed he planted with his invention of the printing press?" An unconsummated sense of romance was in the air.
The letterpress machine, Heidelberg Windmill Platen, now sits proudly with dignity in Icicle’s atelier, where it is being tended with love and care and gets to make itself useful again every time a discerning customer comes along. Every piece is unique, every piece is made by hand and every piece is a fine work of art.
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About the author:
Michael Chan - Michael is a veteran of Icicle, joining the company in 2005 as a master of his trade -- printing.