In an otherwise ordinary building on Somerville Avenue, a spiral staircase brings you to a small room filled with letters. There are cases of them—wide, flat drawers of them stacked in what could almost be dressers. Others are assembled and at the ready, negative spaces carefully tucked around them.
Eli Epstein was told it was unlikely he’d be able to make a career designing with his hands. But he didn’t heed that advice, and went on to become the owner of Union Press, a letterpress print shop and design studio.
Epstein describes letterpress printing as the intersection between art, design, printing, and engineering. At Union Press, he uses 19th and 20th century machines that are mostly manually operated to create posters, business cards, wedding invitations, and more.
“I think the appeal is the tactility,” he explains. “Letterpress printing affords you the opportunity to make an impression in the paper, which you can physically feel. I think for us technology-dependent humans, who are dealing with very smooth and flat and sleek computer objects, I think we do desire some other form of tactile stimulation. I think it feels more substantial, in a lot of ways.”
The physicality is part of the draw of letterpress printing for Epstein, too.
“It all made sense—the smells and the physical feelings and the things that I was seeing, the way that I was able to use the skills that I had acquired as a graphic design student, but apply it to a more hands-on process,” he says of finding letterpress printing. “It was way more fluid for me.”
Much of Union Press’s work is with local organizations, including the Somerville Arts Council, Union Square Main Streets, and the Somerville Homeless Coalition. Posters for SomerStreets festivals, album tours, and the Union Square Farmers Market line the walls.
“What feels really important to me, and what I feel lucky to be doing, is to be working within my neighborhood and my community, and making work that people see hung up around town and are able to identify where it came from,” Epstein remarks.
He credits Martha Stewart with prompting a renaissance in letterpress. She featured the craft in the 1990s, and its popularity grew as it found its niche in a computer world.
Letterpress offers something extra for special occasions, for example.
“Often what I’m producing is work that is intended to commemorate something or to celebrate an important milestone or event, things like wedding invitations and birth announcements, posters for bands who are playing an album release show,” Epstein says.
It’s also more unique—Epstein pulls out drawers of type to show how the wooden characters have absorbed colors over their years and even gotten scuffed up a bit, which lends the printed words character and a distressed style.
The characters themselves, from the big numbers to the small, fancy “catchwords” (“and,” “the,” “or,” and so on) are integral to the design.
“This process [is] so attached to materials—both the equipment but then also the type and imagery that is printed,” Epstein says. “Often the style or aesthetics are dictated by the collection within the shop, and so having printed here for nine years, I’ve begun to define a style that is dependent on what is inside of here.”
Union Press is located at 440 Somerville Ave. For more information, visit unionpressprints.com or call (617) 625-1615.
This story appears in the July/August print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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