Earl Kallemeyn insists that he is not a designer. He is not a businessman. He is not an artist or an engineer. He’s just the person who puts the ink on the paper.
Kallemeyn, 63, owns and operates a letterpress print shop inside a small mixed-use factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Letterpress, unlike the more common offset printing, applies ink to paper by rolling it over three-dimensional reliefs.
With his letterpress reputation firmly established in New York, Kallemeyn today uses his four German-made presses – direct descendents of Gutenberg’s 15th-century invention – to print jobs for a range of clients, including big names such as Chanel, the banker Jamie Dimon and the pop star Lady Gaga.
For most of his life, Kallemeyn’s hands have been ink stained.
He grew up on the far South Side of Chicago, where his father ran a community newspaper print shop, which used offset printing. Kallemeyn, the oldest of 10 children, helped out at the shop, but he considered such printing little more than a chore. When he was old enough, he went away to college to study English and philosophy.
After college, he discovered letterpress and his fascination with printing was rekindled. He bought his first letterpress machine when he was 26; about two decades later, in the 1990s, he opened his print shop in Brooklyn.
Today, he spends about 10 hours a day, six days a week in his shop preparing his presses in a process called “makeready,” and printing jobs that include note cards, business cards, invitations and posters. Kallemeyn charges $200 for the most basic job; complicated assignments cost many times that.
But, Kallemeyn says, it isn’t money that drives him.
“I get to see the wet ink on the page,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
In the video, Kallemeyn prepares a press for a job. This involves adjusting the registration and impression of the machine, evening the ink rollers and cutting and pasting strips of tissue paper that will help evenly distribute the pressure.
Earl Kallemeyn insists that he is not an artist or an engineer. He’s just the person who puts the ink on the paper. To do this, he uses a 500-year-old printing technique called letterpress. With decades of experience, he attracts big name clients, such as Ralph Lauren, Jamie Dimon and Lady Gaga.
In some ways, it’s so simple. So shockingly simple that the most depraved criminal could do letterpress printing perfectly. You know, the cop takes his thumb and puts it in the ink: perfect. I’m basically the person who puts the ink on the paper.
My father made the mistake of sending me to college, really. Otherwise, if he hadn’t, I’d still be in his print shop in the South Side of Chicago. I fell into the hands of these philosophers and they kind of impressed upon my that your work is more than just your work. You know, it has, perhaps, a spiritual side to it.
Ok, let’s see what we have.
When you’re confronted with it, you get this deer-in-the-headlights look. You don’t know what’s going on, but your eyes are just zooming all over the page, having all this fun, and we’ve been deprived of it.
It’s inevitable that I’ll get a Kindle and be reading from screens. I mean, what’s not to like about reading from a backlit screen. But there’s something in our genes that has to do with books. I have no fear that they’re ever going away anytime soon.
Kallemeyn's website (still in development): kallemeynpress.com/
A rich online guide to letterpress printing: fiveroses.org/intro.htm
Letterpress classes open to the public in New York City: thearmnyc.com/information/letterpress_classes