Letterpress is very ‘new’ in Malaysia, when ironically, it is one of the oldest printing methods in the world. It is something that many Malaysians are still very unfamiliar with. Unless you’re a design student, or work within a certain industry; chances of you knowing much about the letterpress process or the end product itself, is nil.
However, once you see how beautiful letterpress can really be – you’ll have a new perspective on this technical art form. It is an olden day form of printing something onto a piece of material, from paper to cowhide – anything that allows you to leave an impression upon its surface. It isn’t easy to produce letterpress work, because it’s very unlike your conventional printer where you can print 1,000 copies at a push of a button. You can make a variety of really cool stuff with letterpress; from name cards to seasonal greeting cards, wedding invitations, coasters, postcards – basically anything to do with paper or impressionable material like leather.
The Alphabet Press (TAP), is the pioneer of the letterpress revival in Malaysia. One of its main founders, Cliff Leong, had kindly obliged some of his time to answer and explain a bit on the business. He starts off on how TAP had come about.
“It began about 3 years ago, when we wanted to print a letterpress name card for our web design company. At that time, we don’t know much about letterpress. We thought it’s just a debossed effect which you can get done locally, and easily. Upon discovering this printing shop in Pudu, we gave it a try, but the post-product turned out really bad. So, we visited all the other printing shops in Pudu, asking one after another. No one knew how to do it.
Baffled, we decided to look for a letterpress company in Bangkok, Thailand. We found one, and asked for a quotation. The cost was so expensive, it literally gave us a heart attack, and we decided to stow away the idea. Some time from then, we were in Bangkok for a trip, and coincidentally found this lovely letterpress card in one of the shopping malls. The touch and feel of it, is beautiful. One of us voiced what the rest of us felt, “Why don’t we do it ourselves?”
From that point, we conducted plenty of research both online and offline. From the history of printing, to the printing technique, we read through everything one-by-one. We learned a lot about this craft in theory, but we still needed to try it hands-on. This led to a hunt for letterpress workshops. They are quite common in New York, but the cost was just too high. Luckily for us, we found one nearby – in Melbourne, Australia!
We started learning the letterpress process by its older method. That method requires using lead types and century-old presses, which makes good impression on paper. From then on, we evolved into using a contemporary letterpress method, which uses a much thicker paper – thus leaving a more pronounced impression. Martha Stewart was the one who made this popular by sharing a picture of a letterpress wedding stationary on her website. It became a hit. Letterpress became a sought-after print finishing that no other printing can match, but that was in the West.
This is what we’re doing in TAP. Merging the convenience of technology to bring new life to the old craft, and bringing that to Malaysia. Although letterpress is an old printing technique, we think it’s also a timeless craft that will only become more valuable and precious with time.”
And it is quite apparent, the beauty and quality of their products, as you can see from some of the examples of their work, that they had kindly shared with me (their own name cards as well). I love how the colorful designs are brought out, and given extra depth with just a simple concept of indenting the material. Loving the local touches too, as you can see in that CNY card and the Ramadan kuih bahulu card. I foresee this as the future of all lavish wedding invitations. Heck, it will be my wedding invitation! 😉
Beautiful, no? That Valentines Day card is mind-blowingly simple, and yet so functional. I’d keep that sort of card forever! I have this habit of keeping and collecting cards, and anyone who gives me cards like these, it’s staying in my ‘keepsakes box’ forever. Now, since the letterpress business is new and quite unknown to many in Malaysia, I had asked Cliff to give a few insights into the company, and the foreseeable future for TAP.
What made you decide to venture into the letterpress business, especially when this is such a niche market in Malaysia?
We’re from web design background and working in the web industry requires a systematic and technical background. However, we also want to produce tangible art with more creative freedom. We love stationery, leather wares and custom-made goods. We admire the craftsmanship of artisans who create goods with limited resources while using olden day techniques. That’s what we want to do.
In the letterpress business, is it easy to find clients who are keen to give it a go? Because in terms of cost, letterpress do cost a lot more than the conventional printing.
“Thank you, finally there’s letterpress in Malaysia!” said one of our customers. We all get very excited about it. Especially when there’s someone out there, appreciating and sharing the same passion as we do. In this competitive world, I think we have to choose the road less travelled (or not yet taken). Do something special, something niche. And of course it should ideally be something that brings value to people and to ourselves. The freedom of expression, and to have total control over the output – this is the most precious thing a designer can have. We want to give people something to love, and at the same time, keep us satisfied too – that is more important above all else. So all in all, for these people who gets it, cost is secondary.
Who are your main target audiences for this business? Students, corporate companies, etc?
Our customers, ideally, should be artisan themselves. People who care about the process, love the meticulous details – something that’s so fine, personal and soulful. Basically, people with good taste for the finer things. We don’t consider letterpress as fancy printing. It’s a craft. We want to target customers who can tell the difference between letterpress and common printing. Those who understand that letterpress is a crafted print with depth, a print that you can touch. It is not something a commercial print’s finishing can achieve.
How is the modern letterpress different from the olden-day letterpress, in terms of technique and tools?
Letterpress was the primary form of printing and communication for the early 600 years of civilization. It is the mother of all printing. The technique of relief printing requires use of printing presses. Here’s a brief introduction of the process: A worker composes and locks movable type into the bed of a press, inks it, and presses paper against it to transfer the ink from the type which creates an impression on the paper. (Johannes Gutenberg is said to have invented the movable type printing press.)
What we’re currently doing considered as contemporary letterpress. As it is a cast icon machine that literally punches your print into paper, we’re able to control the depth of the impression. However, there are many variables that can come into play when we’re punching into the paper; such as paper density, opacity, edge bleed, depth, impression, evenness and so on. Since the process is done on machines that are nearly 50 years old, you’ll find that each print in your order has a life of its own.
What is the average duration to churn out, say, 100 pieces of letterpress cards?
Because of the lengthy process of producing letterpress, we have a print turnaround within 14 working days.
Malaysia is a country where business competitors spring at every opportunity whenever there’s one. Do you foresee any competitors in the future?
Yes we do. But we welcome anyone who is passionate about letterpress to be a part of the community. This is a very niche industry, and so much more education needs to be given to the mass, to spread the beauty of the letterpress craft. It’s good to have someone out there share the same passion as we do. We can perhaps collaborate and work together to reintroduce letterpress to the modern world.
What are your hopes and expectations for your letterpress business, in the Malaysian market, for the next few years?
Next up, we are going to tap into the cultural and creative industry in Malaysia – mainly because our cultural diversity makes us unique. It’s a good opportunity to learn from the rich cultural content, document it, and make something out of it. We want to start with something simple, like a series of postcard that is designed based on the uniqueness of Malaysia, like the food, languages and architecture. We want to document this locality into something relevant to our current society, and of course, it has to be something that looks beautiful. For instance, imagine a cultural map of Penang and Malacca that is letterpress printed on a thick, soft paper. It will not only be beautifully designed, but will serve as an educational medium. We have so much advantage in this area, but it is not often to see someone who actually make it work. That’s where we hope to come in.