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Amy Constable of Saint Gertrude Letterpress

Studio Visit

28th February, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 28th February 2014

Details from the Brunswick studio of Amy Constable of Saint Gertrude Letterpress. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Recent work by Saint Gertrude Letterpress. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Amy's desk at Little Gold Studio in Brunswick. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Amy working the printing press at her Brunswick studio. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Today’s interview is a joy to read, partly because Melbourne based letterpress printer Amy Constable is another inspiring creative who has followed her passion and turned it into a successful business, but also because she is an experienced and highly competent writer!  (No copy-editing necessary!) Prior to discovering and falling in love with letterpress printing, Amy studied arts with the intention of becoming a writer.  Six years in the advertising game was enough to turn her attention to other pursuits though, and these days her work revolves around a bustling shared studio space in Brunswick, and an impressive 800kg hunk of machinery called Gordon.

Amy’s early childhood years were a little nomadic - she started Primary School in Uluru, followed by a treechange to Kyneton in the early 90’s.  After moving back to the city to complete her VCE, Melbourne has been her much loved home ever since.  Amy now lives in Melbourne’s inner Eastern suburbs with her husband John and daughter Hazel, and as you may be able to tell from these shots, they’re expecting baby number 2 very soon!

Amy's passion for letterpress began after discovering the work of established printer Carolyn Fraser of Idlewild Press in 2008. 'I had seen printing processes before, but seeing the work that Carolyn creates and the machines she uses blew my little mind' says Amy below.  After acquiring a second hand printing press of her own, Amy launched her own business, Saint Gertrude Letterpress, in 2009.

From her studio in Brunswick, Amy and her small team of 3 produce a great variety of custom cards, invites and stationery, all printed on a hand-fed, 100-year-old press. Alongside their bespoke design and printing services, they also run 'Letterpress Academy' workshops!  Previously a design industry only affair, their first 'open to the public' workshops for beginners will commence on Saturday March 8th - more details here!

Despite Amy's inspiring start-up story and her impressive creative output... there is one very sweet personal project which I feel I must highlight over and above all her others!  In 2012, she and partner John staged their own surprise wedding, catching all their guests completely off guard.  Using clever typography and ink-mixing, Amy created a letterpress invitation that, at first glance appeared to be her daughter's 2nd birthday invitation, but when later viewed with 3D glasses - announced the news of their wedding!  We couldn't help but include a few snaps of this brilliant and very personal project - genius!

Huge thanks to Amy for sharing her story with us today.

Tell us a little about your background – What were you doing before you launched Saint Gertrude, what path led you to launch your own custom letterpress business?

I’m a huge book worm so I actually studied a BA at Melbourne Uni with the intention of becoming a writer when I grew up. Not really knowing where one begins a career as a writer, someone told me once that Bryce Courtenay had been a copywriter before he was a novelist so, in truly ignorant Gen Y style, I took a job at an ad agency thinking that copywriting was to novel-writing what burger-flipping was to being a chef. Anyone in advertising will laugh at my naïveté; Bryce Courtney was actually a pre-eminent creative force in the Australian advertising industry and hardly a burger-flipper.

Once in ad agency land, I did almost everything except copywriting, the closest thing being the occasional proof-reading job or writing a classified ad. I met a young designer who coaxed out of me a long-forgotten childhood skill for illustration and we began working together on collaborative projects (the first of which was creating a font of my own handwriting) and with that confidence I furthered my education in design, developed a portfolio and landed a job as a Creative Director’s Assistant. I worked in the industry for almost six years until I started my own business in 2009.

I still love expressing myself through writing so I recently launched a blog with my fellow creative partner in crime Caroline Kennon. Daughters of Eccentricity is a blog dedicated to creativity and parenthood, written by two daughters of creative parents who are now creative parents themselves.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll do a Richard Adams and write my first literary masterpiece in my fifties. And maybe I’ll do an Anais Nin and self-publish it by printing every copy on my manual printing press. Either way, I haven’t totally forgotten how I got here and much of my work is heavily inspired by my bookish background.


Studio details. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
How did you initially become interested and then involved with the letter press technique of printing?

I came across the work of Carolyn Fraser of Idlewild Press at the end of 2008. I had seen printing processes like foiling and letterpress in my job, but seeing the work that Carolyn creates and the machines she uses blew my little mind. I started looking at buying a press and was fortunate enough to find a very rare manual Diadem from a retired printmaker in Moe. I affectionately named him ‘Gordon’ and I think it’s necessary that he has a name seeing I probably spend more time with him than I spend with my husband. I know Gordon inside out, and have built a commercial letterpress business on an entirely manual printing press. I can’t keep my clothes clean and my hands are ugly, calloused and grease-stained, but I love it.


Freshly pressed work by by Saint Gertrude Letterpress! Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process and what letterpressing actually entails? What materials and equipment do you use to get that amazing embossed finish?

About half the work I do begins with my own design, and the other half I print on behalf of a designer. My own designs are heavily inspired by words and letters and books and when I’m creating them I need to be in my own little world which isn’t always easy in today’s eternally connected world. Phone switched off, headphones in, head down. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and work if an idea hits me or sleep alludes me.

Setting-up for letterpress is a dirty and lengthy process. A printing plate is made using photopolymer (light sensitive plastic) where all the printable areas are raised slightly so that when the plate touches the paper, it leaves an indelible impression. The ink is thick and sticky, mixed by hand/eye from a Pantone recipe. I use either oil-based or rubber-based inks, depending on the colour I’m trying to achieve. From there I need to ink up the press and start the make-ready process which is literally ‘making the press ready’ for its run. It involves getting the amount of ink just right, adjusting the height of the rollers so that they kiss the plate without smudging, and the amount of impression that works best for the design. This set-up and make-ready process is repeated (and a new plate made) for every colour in the design, which is why letterpress is more expensive and time-consuming the more colours used.

Once set-up is done and I’m into the swing of the print run, I feel like I’m actually a physical part of the machine and the process. And it’s not far from the truth; I pump the machine into action using a heavy food treadle and feed each piece of paper in and out with my hands. I didn’t realise just how much coordination and strength operating the press requires until I started teaching classes – it’s kinda like driving a manual car, which can be tricky when you first start. I’m totally used to it now and my mind and body have adjusted to the job. I’m pregnant right now and still printing!


Amy appraising her work! Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?

No day is typical! Doesn’t every creative person say that, though?

I’m usually awake by 6.30am and my husband and I tag-team to get our daughter ready for Day Care. I’m at my shared studio (Little Gold Studios in Brunswick) by 9am where I might share an Aeropress coffee with my studio mate and collaborator Carla (if I’m not already indulging in my disgusting pregnancy craving of bad McDonalds coffee).

I check the emails and refer to my production schedule for the week that tells me what’s on, and what needs to go. Sometimes I spend all day printing, but most days are made up of a combination of design, emails, printing, packing up online store orders and press-maintenance.

My favourite days are those that involve lots and lots of printing. On those days I go to bed aching and stinking of ink and solvent but I sleep really well.


Amy Constable of Saint Gertrude Letterpress in her Brunswick-based studio. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

My daily reads are all pretty standard:

To get inspired (and jealous) about the great print and design work being done all over the world I look to Under Consideration, For Print Only.

To lose myself in gorgeous indie awesomeness, I read every single issue of Frankie.

For great advice for running a creative business and trying to be superwoman, Creative Women’s Circle.

To hear retired printers cutting sick about letterpress (while picking up a few classic tips along the way) Briar Press.

I’m also a recovering addict of Mormon Mommy Blogs, far too many to mention, with occasional relapses. I know, don’t judge.


Saint Gertrude Letterpress HQ. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?

Since moving into Little Gold in July, I’ve been regularly collaborating with my studio mate Carla Hackett. Her lettering and my letterpress are BFFs.

I’m also really proud to be part of the greater letterpress community as a whole and am in regular contact with other printers around Australia. I’m working with Chapel Press at the moment to create the soon-to-be-launched Letterpress.com.au – an online resource for hard-to-find letterpress supplies and forum for Australian letterpress printers.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

In 2012, John and I managed to pull off getting married in a surprise ceremony in our back yard and we crashed Hazel’s 2nd Birthday to do it.

I set myself the creative challenge of designing and letterpress printing invitations to Hazel’s birthday, that could somehow also be invitations to a surprise wedding. Using some smart typography and ink-mixing that was nothing short of a fluke, I created a letterpress piece that was a kid’s birthday invitation to the naked eye, and a wedding invitation once you put on 3D decoder glasses. They guests never saw it coming.

It was named in the 2013 Under Consideration FPO Awards, which is a really big deal for me.


Amy and John's wedding invitations embedded as a secret code in their daughter's 2nd birthday invitation! Photo – Luke Lornie.

The amazing secret-code 3D invitations Amy made for her surprise wedding! Photo – Luke Lornie.
What would be your dream project?

This will sound completely INSANE to anyone who knows anything about letterpress… but I would love to letterpress an entire book on lettering and type – cover to cover, text and all.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m really, really, really, really (like, really) looking forward to the basketball-sized lump that’s welded to my abdomen being gone. Printing will be a lot easier then.

Oh, and the subsequent baby that will join our family will be pretty rad.

Hot off the press! Work by Saint Gertrude Letterpress. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

MELBOURNE QUESTIONS

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Gertrude Street, of course! Before we had Hazel we lived around the corner and it’s long been a favourite haunt of mine. The Australian Print Workshop has some amazing presses, there’s more excellent coffee than any one person can handle and it has a lovely village vibe.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Melbourne Etching Supplies and Neil’s Art in Fitzroy. I’m also a regular at Bunnings for rags and tools.

Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Meatmother in Richmond. As the name suggests, it’s one for the carnivores and the macaroni and cheese side dish was incredible.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Sitting at my kitchen bench reading the parts of the newspaper that John has discarded and discussing with Hazel the joys of our perfectly boiled egg with soldiers.

If we’re feeling particularly energetic, we might take a trip back to the old hood for breakfast at Grocery Bar (the café at the bottom of our pre-parenthood apartment) or Belle’s Diner on Gertrude Street, with an obligatory stop at Title to browse through some records and books.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

I absolutely LOVE discovering a great second-hand bookshop, but nothing ever compares to The Merchant of Fairness (what a pun!) on Whitehorse Road in Balwyn. They’ve been expanding my curious mind since Year 11 Literature.


Amy's hand-mixed inks used for her letterpress work. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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