Carolyn Fraser is many things. She’s a conservationist of rare books and artefacts at the State Library of Victoria. She’s a writer. She’s a teacher. And she’s a letterpress printmaker. All these things she does with the the utmost care, precision and proficiency. In fact, she’s one of those rare, extemely hardworking people who seems to do everything absolutely ‘properly’ – the old fashioned way. There are no rush-jobs or cut corners in Carolyn Fraser’s world!
On the flipside, Carolyn is also one of the sweetest, most eloquent and softly spoken ladies you will ever meet. There is something truly a bit mesmerising when she talks about her craft. Of course she knows her subject inside out, but more than that, she’s just so patient and friendly and truly generous with her knowlege – you can’t help but be swept up in the passion she has for letterpress printing! She smiles thoughtfully as she talks about the tools she uses, the history of her craft, the limitations of letterpress and techniques she has perfected over time. It is a truly beautiful thing to chat to Carolyn about her work!
Carolyn is so very articulate and entertaining when discussing her approach to business, that I really can’t improve upon the following quote from her website –
‘The business is small, and run rather badly by someone slow to quote and invoice, and reluctant to use terms such as “price point”, “cash flow” or “profitability.” This is a business run purely for the love of fine printed materials, for the pleasure of good design, for the continuance of craft.’
Well said Carolyn! I LOVE that.
After many upheavals between different studios (and hemispheres!) over the years, Carolyn has recently relocated her studio, Idlewild Press, to the Compound Interest in Collingwood! Here she shares a fabulous light-filled space with Ryan Ward, who runs a custom framing business called United Measures. Do visit Carolyn’s blog for updates on her workshops and endless creative projects!
Tell me a little about your background – what path led you to what you’re doing now?
I’ve always loved books and writing, and love making things. My mother is a very talented craftsperson and I grew up sewing, knitting, making macramé and pottery. I was a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University when I took my first letterpress workshop at the New York Center for Book Arts. Later, I gave up academia to print, and worked as an apprentice at the Yolla Bolly Press in California. My experience with Jim and Carolyn Robertson at Yolla Bolly was highly instructive in how to make a life printing fine books. I established Idlewild Press in 1999, and it has had three incarnations so far: in the Buckeye Ribbon & Carbon Building in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Nicholas Building, Melbourne and now at The Compound Interest Centre for Applied Arts in Collingwood. I make artist books and printed ephemera, write for various magazines – mostly about the history and culture of craft practices – and work in preservation at the State Library of Victoria.
What have been some favourite recent projects or collaborations?
My favourite projects are my own artist books: 17 Reasons in 1999, The Extinguishing of Stars in 2004 (with Holly Morrison), and Envelope in 2009. It is becoming clear that it takes me five years to conceive and then produce an artist book. Each book has been a creative and technical Everest: every time, I’ve finished thinking, well, that was fun, but I’ll never do that again. Recently, I printed a jacket for a limited edition of Caroline Lee’s Stripped, a novel designed by Stuart Geddes. It is rare for me to collaborate with others, so I was very happy to see how well it all came together.
What is it that you love most about working with letterpress?
I love the quiet, meditative work of setting type, the bite of type into soft paper, the fine adjustments of ink and impression, the checking of the integrity of letterforms under the loupe, the rhythmic work of hand feeding the press. I’ve never tired of seeing something come off the press – it’s deeply satisfying.
In addition to doing bespoke Letterpress work, you also run letterpress classes at your fabulous Collingwood studio – how do you find the balance between practising and teaching your craft?
I don’t have balance at all. My workshops are infrequent – only every other month – but I’m very passionate about teaching. I was very lucky – by virtue of location, really – to have access to presses and mentors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Letterpress is not an easy vocation to take up – it requires considerable equipment even on a small scale. It’s not for everyone – letterpress demands patience and hand skills. A person might think he or she will love letterpress, but won’t really know until they try. I love watching someone else fall in love with letterpress in the way I did.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
This depends if I’m at my studio, at the library or at my desk. I could be in the studio working on a job for a client, or working on an element of a personal project. I might be researching or writing an article or conducting interviews. I could be at the library making boxes for rare books. I probably should be home taking care of bookkeeping etc., but unfortunately, this is unlikely.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, local and international press, books or the web etc?
I’m inspired by good writing, by well-made objects, a change of scenery, a new romance.
Which other designers or other creative people do you admire?
Agnés Varda, Mirka Mora, Louise Bourgeois.
Janine Vangool at Uppercase Magazine in Calgary, Canada.
Jeremy Wortsman, founding partner in The Compound Interest Centre for Applied Arts.
Writers – Geoff Dyer, Anne Carson, WG Sebald, Jonathan Safran Foer, John Berger.
What is the best thing about your job?
Making things from scratch. Creative autonomy.
What would be your dream creative project?
Printing my own novel.
What are you looking forward to?
Autumn. Daniel Kitson’s new show. A trip to New York.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
Fitzroy is where my heart is – it’s where I misspent my youth in $50pw share houses.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I am very excited about my birthday dinner next week at The Commoner. I know it will be great.
Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?
I am lucky not to have to shop for the tools of my trade, but if I were starting out in letterpress, I’d be scouring the Trading Post, badgering old printers and making friends with scrap yard guys and press riggers. I buy my paper wholesale, but if I need to browse, I’ll go to Melbourne Etching Supplies or Neil Wallace, both in Fitzroy.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
At the farmer’s market. The Gleadell Street market in Richmond most Saturdays for some gentle flirting with Tony, my fruit & veg guy, and the Collingwood Children’s Farm on the second Saturday of the month. The Children’s Farm certainly isn’t a secret, but to me it’s one of Melbourne’s most special places. I always have a rhubarb tart and, if there’s time, tea at Kappaya in the Abbotsford Convent. Since moving the studio to Keele Street, I usually have lunch at Cibi on Saturdays (always the soba salad) before starting work in the afternoon. One day I will try something else on Cibi’s menu, but that day hasn’t arrived yet.
Melbourne’s best kept secrets?