Gorgeous. Tactile. Emotionally evocative. This is the experience of handling an embossed folder, invitation, or business card made by Foils + Dies.
Rob Barnes, a classically trained letter press printer, founded Foils + Dies more than 22 years ago. When he first told peers he wanted to start a letterpress shop, many seemed confused — some even may have smirked. Was Barnes unaware of the digital future? Today, Barnes can look back and smile. The company he founded, Foils + Dies (aka Vintage Pressworks), is a fine letterpress printer serving the design community and going stronger than ever.
Letterpress, a type of relief printing, uses a printing press and movable type. A reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper.
The process involves presses that themselves are works of art. Barnes' vintage pressroom showcases his collection of antique presses that includes a rare wood press, circa 1770, and a Columbian press, circa 1864. The main pressroom features a clean industrial space for the printing presses used today.
As design becomes less tactile and more digital, letterpress is becoming more inspirational to designers and more effective for clients each day, resulting in a Renaissance. Says Barnes, "Unique letterpress printing techniques are more than just the 'olive in the martini' for designers — the beautiful print output also results in returns for clients. A recent direct mail piece for Bed Bath & Beyond produced a 9.5% response rate."
Founder Barnes works with a close-knit team of designers and interns, as well as Foils + Dies "Zoo Keeper" Carrie Martin, who takes Barnes' occasional goodhearted pranks in stride and also teaches at local colleges, inspiring and educating young designers.
The Foils + Dies workflow revolves around fully scalable vector artwork, created and finessed using Adobe® Illustrator®. Letterpress designs tend to be relatively Spartan, and are often created using the Pen tool. Designers execute type and artwork all in black, with everything on separate layers. At Foils + Dies, the mantra is "all Illustrator, all the time," and Illustrator files are all the company’s die-makers want to use. Says Martin, "Rule #1 is ensure that the type is exquisite, outline the type, make sure everything is black, and save files in EPS. Rule #2? Refer to Rule #1."
The team at Foils + Dies takes a systematic approach to all their work. And, although the atmosphere is lighthearted, there is a serious undercurrent. According to Barnes, designers often pitch a big client in New York and convey that a letterpress piece can be ready in a matter of days. "Letterpress is not a walk in the park," he says. "Especially because we have many rush jobs, we make sure our interns have all the paper, tools, and so on, all at the ready."
Barnes, who deems Foils + Dies a "collaboratory," says the beautiful wonder of old-world techniques such as foil stamping, embossing, die cutting, and offset printing satisfies the vision and creative urges of up-and-coming designers who know that print is an art, and its resurgence is more than just a novelty. Print, executed in elegant ways, also meets discerning clients' needs and results in returns for businesses. "The craft of sophisticated printing with exquisite type and incorporation of unusual mediums is irreplaceable," says Barnes. "When it comes down to it, we are tactile creatures, after all."