I'm Birdy27 and I'm so ready for spring! I'm sure you are, too. This month's "A Crafty Life" in-depth interview features Ursula Jaroszewicz of Pepper Press. Ursula is a thoughtful, intense, and striking brunette and, when I saw her in January at a team gathering, I knew she would be a great interviewee. I wasn't prepared, however, for the level of openness I found. Ursula answered each question thoroughly and earnestly. Fashion trends may come and go, but greeting and note cards are always in demand. In meeting that demand, Ursula has found her calling. She creates unique cards and other specialty paper goods using the truly old school "letterpress" printing technique. Ursula's designs have a traditional yet modern feel with textures you don't have to touch to feel. I also create greeting and note cards, so I was really stoked that Ursula agreed to the interview.
The last time I saw you, I noticed a trace of an accent. Where were you born? What brought you to New York? And can you tell us about your educational background?
I was born in Poland and lived in there until I was 11. In 1991 I moved with my parents and my sister to New York City. My parents moved here to pursue economic opportunities available in the U.S. that weren't so much available there, so my sister and I came with them. I studied graphic design first at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I took a break from school to work and travel, and then finished at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. I've been in New York City my entire life since moving to this country. I have a lot of family in Poland, so I try to visit on a somewhat regular basis.
That's a great story! I imagine going back to Poland regularly helps you keep in touch with your cultural roots. New York and Poland must be very different, right? Do you feel that both places contribute to your creative process and your world view?
I guess I tried to process what was happening in my own way at the time, that things would never be the same. Poland, like so many places outside of New York City, isn't very diverse. Like in many other European countries, everyone is pretty much from there. No one ever asks "what's your background," etc. And it's a LOT smaller in size and scope compared to the U.S. So it was rather a huge culture shock: to come here and see people from all walks of life, from every single place on earth imaginable. It was very eyeopening. At the same time, Poland was always a cultural place. My parents would take us to plays, films, and philharmonic concerts when I was young. A lot has changed since then. Every time I go home for a visit, it's fascinating to discover the new trends, fashion, ideas, etc. It's surprising and wonderful to see all the new changes.
As to my world view, I do strongly feel that both places have influenced me so much. New York City was, as I said, eyeopening, and in Poland, during my childhood, I received this foundation which makes me value family and nature, preserving it, and living a "non-disposable" lifestyle. And we had good homemade food all the time.
I agree with you that most people know it once they see it, but often don't know what's behind the finished printed piece.
Exactly! For the letterpress newbies like me, can you give us a brief history lesson?
Letterpress printing goes all the way back to mid-1400s. (Well, there are accounts of earlier presses in Asia.) Johanes Gutenberg invented/developed a movable printing press which utilized movable type. He created individually cast-in metal letters and punctuation. At the time, this was revolutionary as it allowed for speedy composition and printing multiple copies quickly. (Quickly is a relative term, however, as it still takes a painstakingly long time to compose something letter by letter, line by line. Even so, it was way more efficient than the options existing before: copying the entire thing by hand, one letter or character at a time.) It was THE method of printing for over 500 years and it was just known as printing, instead of "letterpress printing." Traditionally, printers had entire cabinets filled with different typefaces and sizes of individual metal and wood letters, using those to compose newspapers, theater bills, and all kinds of printed media. In addition, one could (and still can!) use a linoleum block (a semi-soft rubbery block) and carve a design into it. You would carve out everything else except what you want printed, so the part that remains is raised. Essentially, letterpress is "relief printing": the part that you want to print is higher than the non-printing area and the ink covers the raised areas. It then makes contact with the printing surface (paper). Rubber stamps are a form of relief printing, too; the raised parts are coated in ink and then transferred directly to paper.
In the 1960s newer methods and techniques replaced letterpress printing, especially in commercial settings. A group of old school printers kept the presses alive (although many didn't survive). In the meantime, digital technologies allowed printing plates to be made directly from digital files. Eventually letterpress printing went through a revival; book artists and artisans elevated the somewhat forgotten printing method to new levels of craftsmanship. So these days, many letterpress printers have their digital file (created in Illustrator, for example) made into a photopolymer--a kind of plastic--plate. This allows for infinite designs to be press-ready.
That's fascinating! How did you decide to create Pepper Press?
In 2010, a good friend of mine took a letterpress class and highly recommended it to me, saying it would be right up my alley. She knows me so well! Upon Donatella's recommendation, I signed up for an evening letterpress class at Cooper Union (taught by the very knowledgeable and ever helpful Dan Morris of The Arm Letterpress) so I could get back to working with my hands and get away from the computer. (I'm a graphic designer by trade.) Long story short, something just clicked and it felt so right! I found what I was looking for. The letterpress printing process, despite being so old, feels very new in the age of all things digital. I find lots of enjoyment in mixing inks by hand, tinkering with the machine, adjusting the pressure, checking the rollers, and cranking the handle to get the paper to meed the ink. The convergence of graphic design and true hands-on process is a perfect combination. It never ceases to fascinate me.
After the semester-long course ended, I continued going to The Arm, where I printed a plethora of designs. My friend and I were thinking of starting something so we could keep doing it, like creating wedding invitations. Well, I ended up giving some of the cards I printed in the class and afterwards to friends, colleagues, and neighbors in my building. One day one of my neighbors told me that she was soon opening a neighborhood "cheese and gifts" shop right around the corner. She asked me if I would make some cards so they could sell them. And that's how my business was born! I didn't plan on--or plan on so soon--having a stationery biz, but one thing led to another. Other neighborhood stores ended up contacting me to carry my cards, and it sort of evolved very organically.
I love when that happens. I'd say you experienced true "cosmic synchronicity": the universe was working to fulfill your dreams. I can tell you really love what you do. What are the benefits of letterpress over other types of printing like offfset, silk screening, digital, etc.?
The tactile quality achieved with letterpress is what does it for me. Texture can so beautifully be achieved on paper; you can create a great interplay of light and shadow by printing even without ink. (This is called "blind color" because, even though there's no ink on the press, the print still goes through the press and is imprinted.) Now generally thicker or "fluffier" paper is made specifically for letterpress; however, any kind of thicker stock will work, too. For example, the kraft cardstock--thicker brown cardstock--I use for my map cards isn't made for letterpress, but it still gets the impression.
Compared with other methods, are there any drawbacks or limitations?
There are some disadvantages. Because it's printed one color at a time, it's generally good to narrow down the color choices, otherwise it can become a costly and time intensive affair. Also, it's not ideal for large areas of solid color coverage, as it tends to be uneven in color.
Letterpress is best for limited color palette. The inks are semi-transparent, so if you have too many colors overlaying each other, it would get muddy. (Most of the ink suitable for letterpress isn't fully opaque; it tends to be somewhat transparent.) So think of the colors as transparencies, and what colors will look like when they interact with one another.
I could keep adding more colors to one design, as well as account for colors that overlap when printed that create a third color. However, because each color adds to the cost and time of printing the piece, it can be cost prohibitive. In general and in my opinion, letterpress looks ideal with limited colors in a printed piece.
I see. One of the most interesting things about letterpress is the texture. You mentioned how much you love texture. I love the feel of yarn when I'm crocheting or knitting; however, my greeting and note cards are digitally printed, so there is no texture to speak of. How does tactile sensation contribute to your sense of satisfaction?
I've experimented with a variety of "hands-on" arts and crafts, etc. Professionally, my favorite jobs involved packaging design: something tactile, multi-dimensional, and with a potential of surprise to the user. So when I got into letterpress, one of the things that I loved about it was that tactile quality (in addition to being able to utilize my design skills). It became a whole new layer on top of what I already knew (design) and adding a printing method on top of that.
I love that you're so analytical about what you do. I can imagine you at the press with a smile on your face when everything comes together perfectly. What type of machine do you use? How much is manual?
In my studio are two presses:
1) Chandler & Price Pilot: This is a vintage tabletop press with a manual lever that I have to pull down every single time to make a print. It's a small press, so it's generally good for smaller things: business cards (if done one by one), coasters, and small prints. For people who get into letterpress, this is often their starter press because it's small. However, it's still heavy! It's approximately 200 pounds of cast iron!
2) Vandercook Universal-1: This is a huge! It's 1,200 or so pounds of metal, gears, and rollers. From around the mid-20th century, it uses a small motor that powers the ink cylinder, which in turn inks the rollers. The actual printing, however, is done by manually cranking the handle.
So in essence, both my presses are powered by manual labor.
Let's talk paper. Do you use one particular cardstock or does the weight vary according to the item printed?
For my greeting cards, for consistency's sake, I use the same cotton paper throughout, as well as the same kraft cardstock for the map cards.
I use a variety of paper stocks for different projects (such as custom work, etc). Sometimes a thicker and sturdier paper is requested, or just works better. For example, thicker paper works well for two-sided prints so the printing won't show through to the other side. Sometimes a project calls for not so thick paper, such as business cards. But it really varies according to the individual project's preferences and needs.
Since texture is such an important part of what you create, is the content of the card secondary to the look and feel?
Hmm... that's an interesting question. I think that the content can be elevated by the right design of the card, or it can make all the statement that you want to make. It's really subjective.
Yes, that makes sense. How do you conceptualize your cards? Does the design come first or the text?
It can go either way. Sometimes a saying or text that I have in my head calls for a certain treatment to elevate it, or illustrate it, and sometimes the visual is there first. And then if I have a complimentary "text" portion, that's great. Sometimes I'll see something and I'll think "This will make an interesting print; it'll look great letterpressed." Half the time, I'm interested less in the specific greeting card type; I just want to create interesting patterns and textures where the message part of the card (such as happy birthday, etc) becomes a universal note card that is good for any occasion.
I love interesting patterns and textures, too, and the one in that link is really lovely.
Thanks. I have ideas brewing nonstop, most of them subconsciously, and I've learned to start writing them down quickly (thank you, Evernote). Sometimes they are so fleeting that I can't recall what that brilliant idea of mine was.
That happens all of the time to me, too. After you decide on an idea, what is your next step?
My idea turns into an illustration (either a sketch in my sketchbook or on my computer). My digital file gets made into a photopolymer printing plate (by Boxcar Press). Each color has to be on a separate plate.
What inspires you?
My cards are really an extension of myself. I can tie the underlying theme to love of packaging and design, as well as nature. Nature is a huge part of my life, and elements of it continuously show up in my work. I'd like to think of it as "urban meets nature," along with the influence of other natural elements such as biking, patterns, urban exploration, maps, organic shapes, and typography. All these things at an (often subconscious) confluence inspire me.
Personalization is so popular now. Is personalization possible with letterpress?
I'm really glad that you asked me the personalized question! I don't have a list of things I offer personalized, although I've done plenty of personalized and custom projects: personalized note cards, business cards (both design and printing services, as well as printing existing designs), announcements, and wedding invitations. If there is something that you'd like personalized, let me know!
In the next year, I plan on putting together a cohesive customizable wedding collection, as well as personalized note cards, monogram cards, etc. Letterpress is definitely customizable. All it takes is getting a plate made, so feel free to inquire about it.
Now that surprises me. I thought that personalization would be challenging. That's good for our readers to know. What are your biggest sellers?
My best sellers are definitely the map cards, postcards, and now prints, too. I started out with a map of Brooklyn, but then personalized it for my neighborhood, Clinton Hill. People love the fact that they can get their neighborhoods on a postcard. I've added neighborhoods as they were requested by different stores carrying my cards, as well as by brides who used the different postcards for their wedding. One bride used a different Brooklyn neighborhood that was meaningful to her and her groom for each table at their wedding. I've personalized my map cards inside with a custom-printed message as part of goodie bags for out of town wedding guests. I thought was so sweet! Currently, I'm adding more cities. I've been getting so many requests for random places: someone's father is from Puerto Rico, someone wanted Greenwich, CT, and so on. I'll be rolling out a selection of different cities very soon.
I love that! You offer your customers something uniquely personal using a technique that is steeped in tradition. And, with your European background, I'm not surprised your designs have an international appeal.
Oh yeah, how could I forget! This past holiday season I met a woman at a holiday market who owns a store in Japan. We stayed in touch and she ended up purchasing pretty much all the Brooklyn and New York City-themed things that I have available, as well as other cards. So Brooklyn goes to Japan! How cool is that?
Very cool indeed!
The Bike Love Couple card has been doing very well, too. People use it for Valentine's Day, wedding cards, love cards, and I've turned it into a wedding invitation. The whiskey card as also sells well. People love booze!
LOL! I'll leave that alone. You live in Brooklyn's up and coming Clinton Hill area. Do you have a dedicated studio? What is your work space like?
Yes, I live in Clinton Hill, but my working studio is a 7-10 minute walk to Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I love having my studio dedicated to just my printing so I can spend time away from all distractions. There are 11 studios in the space occupied by a variety of artists/makers/small businesses and a gallery space for occasional shows and openings. It's great being surrounded by other people dedicated to what they're doing that's outside of a regular type job. It's a great supportive crowd, ready to be asked for an opinion on something, or to lend or borrow something if needed. There's 24-hr access, so sometimes when I'm in the groove I can easily stay there till 2 am--or until i have no more energy left. A short bike ride makes it very easy to get home in just a few minutes. I share the space with my studio mate, who is a fashion designer, so I get a peek at new fabric choices and patterns. Our space is probably around 200 square feet (the biggest studio in the building). It's not huge, but we totally make it work. I think the fact that it's a dedicated space outside of home is what makes it efficient.
You're lucky to have a convenient location and a great studio mate. When you own a small business, there's always a lot to do. Does your family help you?
I get asked about "you guys at Pepper Press . . . " Well, you're looking at her! I pretty much work on my own. However, during especially busy times, like the holidays, my boyfriend has helped me package box sets until super late at night. He also loves to spread the word to his co-workers and friends. My mom and dad are very enthusiastic champions of my work and my dad is always up for a trip to find more parts or to check out the printing museum.
Speaking of your business name, how did you decide on Pepper Press? It sounds spicy!
Pepper Press initially began with Donatella (now of Tella Press), the friend who recommended the letterpress class to me. So it started out as a collective effort. We wanted to continue working on the press as a side project and get paid for it. We thought about names for a long time and went through a long list of possibilities. "Pepper Press" had a nice ring to it and it represented our love of spicy things and allowed for an abstract interpretation of the logo. We're both graphic designers, so that stuff really matters. Eventually, after many conversations and trying to figuring out how this would work logistically, we decided that each of us working separately would be best. But the Pepper Press name remained.
Marketing is a challenge for me. How do you approach marketing and advertising?
It's a challenge for me as well! Most of my marketing efforts have been word of mouth and referrals, both for getting my cards into new stores and for custom work. In addition, lots of people find and contact me through Etsy for both wholesale and custom. I also send my work to bloggers with a wide audience, which is a great way to gain exposure. Soon I'll be sending out direct mailers to store owners, inviting them to check out my booth at the 2013 National Stationery Show (NSS). That will be my next step in marketing.
Getting ready for NSS in May at the Javits Center is scary and exciting at the same time. It'll be my second time officially. Last year I participated in a group booth, but I will have my own booth this year, so the costs and risks are much higher. This puts a lot of pressure on me; I want to have the best possible booth and add some new products. It's going to be a sleepless next two months.
Do you sell well on Etsy?
I am very happy selling on Etsy! It's a great testing ground. Don't know how something will be received? Put it up on Etsy and see what happens. I've done several custom wedding projects because the client saw my work on Etsy and liked my style, or was interested in something for their wedding I had already turned into an invitation. Besides the one-on-one contact with the customers, I get contacted by stores that are interested in carrying my cards and that leads to wholesale orders.
Hmm, in five years, I think I will be much smarter about running a business. I'm still learning. If you think about it, I'm a newbie! I probably know a tiny portion of what I should or will eventually know. In five years, I will have expanded my line and offerings, moving into more personalized work, such as weddings, announcements, etc, and having at least an employee. I will hopefully have reps in the stationery industry who represent my cards and get orders from stores all across the country. My business will be more efficient and allow more time for designing and working on new things. Also, I've been daydreaming of working in a tropical location, somewhere with hot weather year round and great water activities. (Can I check 2,000 pounds of metal on a plane to Hawaii?? ;)
I share your daydream! Lastly, how has being in the Etsy NY Team helped you?
I became aware of the Etsy NY Team because, everywhere I went, there was a cool pop-up shop/tent/etc. I saw the team represented on Governors Island, at Celebrate Brooklyn in the summer of 2011, and at the Brooklyn Flea. It was clear that the group was well organized and able to get members in front of the buying public. I had to join! It turned out it was just the tip of the iceberg. Being on the team has been tremendously rewarding. I got to immerse myself in the world of like-minded, creative, entrepreneurial people. The feeling of knowing that there's this whole support network as well as potential friendships is priceless. The forums are a great way to research different markets, get feedback on different issues, sell or buy supplies, and get invited to great events at Etsy headquarters. I secretly want to work at Etsy, too!
Thanks a lot, Ursula, for a terrific interview! I know you'll be extremely successful at the NSS and in all of your future endeavors. You're inspiring me to move forward with my greeting and note cards, so I'm sure others reading this will be inspired, too.
Ah, sweet April is on the horizon and so is another enlightening installment of "A Crafty Life." Mark your calendars and join me on Monday, April 22. You won't want to miss it! This is Birdy27 signing off. Please support the handmade community. Successful creative artisans can change the world! Chirp, chirp!
Birdy27 is an actor/writer/singer/songwriter/graphic designer/
knitter/crocheter/yarn-based accessories designer/jewelry maker/entrepreneur and founder/president of Birdy27 Designs. Please join the action at the Birdy27 Designs Facebook Fan Page.