The Custodians of an Artisan Industry in the Era of Consumerism.
Words and photography: Elizabeth Brown
Perched on a quiet street just outside the centre of Derby, The Smallprint Company embodies a juxtaposition of two worlds. A Victorian-esque ‘jingle-jangle’ bell greets you as you step through the door, and the workshop, full of myriad antique printing machinery, is visible just beyond the confines of the shop. The distinctive sound of an old typewriter is audible from the office, but the shop itself feels modern and bright, full of beautiful artisan, kitsch and quirky paper goods.
Originally meeting at university, owners Chris and Hannah have an academic background in publications, primarily fine art books. A final year trip to the Artist’s Book fair in London sparked an interest in setting up their own studio for book and printmaking. “We liked the idea of making art that was more democratic” says Chris. “It’s more accessible to have multiples of a piece of work, rather than just a singular painting on a wall. We liked the idea of artworks that were of an edition.”
Despite initially applying for a design role within a local printing company, Chris found himself being employed at the nuts and bolts end of the business as a print finisher. “In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It fuelled my love of actually making things, and as I developed skills ordinarily used in industrial printing and binding, I found myself asking how I could use that process in an artistic way.” His next role as a platemaker led him further into analogue techniques, working with litho presses and in the darkroom. He attributes his passion for the traditional to these early experiences, happily shunning the easier, often more efficient digital processes used by the majority of printers now. “Whenever you take the hands-on element out, where you’re able to manipulate the process, you lose some of the organic nature of it all. It becomes less of a craft and more of a push button exercise.”
In their own studio, the first machine they bought was a completely mechanical Heidelberg press, manufactured sometime in the 1950s. “If anything went wrong with it, we’d just take it apart” Chris laughs. “We had the manual, all we had to find was the part that needed replacing, and we could do that either by buying a replacement part or even getting one machined. It’s so much more satisfying to be able to ‘lift up the hood’ and tinker around to fix something. It gives the machines much more longevity than anything computerised.”
Like many traditional crafts, letterpress printing is in danger of being lost, simply because of the consumer attitude to the costs of artisan-made pieces. The couple say they’ve noticed an encouraging shift though, with an increasing appreciation for hand crafted goods. “There’s a move away from the disposable culture we’ve had for years” says Chris. “The Capitalist idea of always needing to make more things has many costs, including the environment. We don’t need to always make more things, we need to look after what we have and maintain the skills to be able to do that.” They continue to accumulate vintage pieces, often receiving donations of typeface or equipment. Smallprint is now not just a business, but a philanthropic pursuit too. “We consider ourselves custodians of the craft” says Hannah, with a smile, and it’s clear that this is a responsibility they take seriously, often visiting design students at schools and universities to give what Chris calls a ‘potted history of letterpress’. “Everything we receive comes with a story” he
says. “It’s fascinating to listen to the histories of people who were apprentice printers fifty or sixty years ago, although many of them are bemused by the fact we do this as an art form. For them, this was often just a job; they’d do it from Monday to Friday and that would be the end of it for them. It never crossed their minds that there was a craft element to it, or indeed that they may have been amongst the last to learn those skills.”
As an artisan business though, the past year has been a testing time, with two of their main income streams - wedding stationery and in-person workshops being affected by lockdowns and social distancing rules. “We lost roughly eighty per cent of our income overnight. What we were left with was retail; greeting cards, prints and some antique printing equipment which we occasionally sell on.” Chris says that this element of the business had always “ticked over in the background,” but as a result of the pandemic, this had now completely changed. “We’ve had so much support - we’re amazed at how far afield people are ordering from, not just Europe but Canada and the US too.”
Online shop sales may have gone some way to alleviate the financial strains placed upon the business, but with the rules relaxing and the first print workshop of the year already a success, Chris and Hannah are looking forward to the next chapter of the business. “People are desperate to get out now, but it’s about more than wanting to go out shopping” muses Chris. “I think a lot of people have re-evaluated what they want to do with their time, and experiences matter more now. There’s a desire to use time in a way that feels rewarding, to create something themselves. We’ve really missed hosting the workshops, and meeting so many interesting and likeminded individuals.”
“I guess that’s what we’ve learned over this last year” Hannah nods, “half of the studio is other people.”
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