Ok so it's another one of those features today where I begin by saying I CAN'T BELIEVE I haven't interviewed these guys before now! Another major oversight, I know. Husband and wife team Jenna and Simon Hipgrave of The Hungry Workshop have made quite a splash since they arrived in Melbourne just three years ago, and launched their custom letterpress business. Their combined design experience, drive and relentless work ethic have turned a fledgling operation into a thriving little business in almost no time, and with countless collaborations, exhibitions, and other creative projects under their respective belts (and more in the pipeline!) The Hungry Workshop's reputation continues to grow. In short, these guys are killing it!
It's pretty amazing the twists and turns your life can take. Jenna grew up in Missoula, Montana, a beautiful little town in the Rocky Mountains, and met Simon whilst completing her third year of university abroad, at the Queensland College of Art in Brisbane. Here, Simon was also studying graphic design - and the rest, as they say, is history.
After completing their studies, both Jenna and Simon spent six years working in design in Brisbane - Simon as an art director at a Brisbane advertising agency, and Jenna at a tiny design firm. It was a chance encounter with two lovely retired printers, Bob and Ken, on the outskirts of Brisbane, which ignited in Jenna a passion for letterpress printing. This enthusiasm was clearly contagious (!), because it didn't take long for Simon to follow suit. But it wasn't until they moved to Melbourne in 2011 that things really started to gear up for this industrious pair.
After securing the perfect shopfront / studio space in High st Northcote, The Hungry Workshop finally had space to grow. They've since taken on fulltime designer / printer Adam Flannery, and are hosts to a steady stream of eager interns. Together, the workshop takes on a great range of design and print projects, from identity, to packaging, stationery, and even digital design projects. They also spend time collaborating on various 'love' projects, collaborating with local designers and hosting exhibitions in their versatile studio space.
Huge thanks to Jenna and Simon for sharing their story with us today! For a closer look at their stunning work, do pop over and check out their website.
Simon: Before The Hungry Workshop we were both working in the creative industries in Brisbane. I spent about six years as an art director at an advertising agency in Brisbane called Junior. It was an awesome place to work, not only because the work they were producing was really creative, but mostly because the creative director, Steve Minon, was one of the two owners of the business. I wasn’t interested in working in a creative environment where the boss was a business guy. They were both driven and generous with their time and knowledge. When I was a just starting out I was paired up with Steve to work on some big projects. They really threw me in the deep end, but it was a great experience and such a fantastic opportunity to learn. When I started there it was a small agency of about 13 people, and by the time I left it had grown to 40+.
Jenna: By contrast, I was working in a boutique graphic design studio called Oblong that employed between four and five people for those same six years. It was a great studio and an excellent environment to hone my skills.
Simon: These two different backgrounds really influence the way we work. I have more of a conceptual approach to projects, and am good at getting things started. Jenna, on the other hand, is much more detail oriented and has the most amazing eye, perfect for finishing projects. I feel like this is what is at the core of our design and print work; I like to think it's both tight in its execution and has substance.
Jenna: Letterpress printing is part of the history and culture of design and communication, so it was always something that we had an interest in, but I never thought we would have the opportunity to get involved with. That was until our neighbour mentioned in passing that she had been learning letterpress at a historical village on the outskirts of Brisbane. She gave me their phone number, and I arranged to meet. What I found was two lovely retired printers, Bob and Ken, who loved their profession and were keen to pass on their knowledge to anyone who would listen. They taught me how to hand-set wood and metal type, operate a hand fed printing press, ink it up and clean it down. They also taught us how to shuffle a one tonne printing press from the front of the shed to the back, with a crowbar and a pair of metal rods!
My first print job was a small business card with just a few lines of type. It took me a whole month of Wednesday mornings to print it, on their 100 year old Chandler & Price Platen Press.
Simon: Jenna's studio let her take half a day every Wednesday to learn letterpress printing as part of her professional development. I was at work on Wednesdays, so it took a little while for me to find an opportunity to visit. She eventually coaxed me in to visiting one weekend, and while Jenna had been enamoured with the antique hand fed presses, I was more interested in the slightly more automated German presses. The Heidelberg Windmills are beasts! Operating one is like standing in front of a steam train.
Eventually, Jenna was up there on Wednesdays and with me on Saturdays… then Sundays. Soon, any spare afternoon, evening or public holiday would be spent up in this hot and humid tin shed, tinkering with machines and exploring this antique technique of print making.
One Wednesday evening Jenna came home and told me that Bob and Ken had offered her a printing press to take home. Initially we laughed it off. We were living in a small apartment on the second floor, so had nowhere to store a 1.5 tonne press. After we had slept on it, we decided to go for it. Fast forward a few weeks and we had a printing press sitting in my parent’s family room, and had decided that we were going to go into business for ourselves.
Simon: Letterpress is simply relief printing via a press, or, an easier way of thinking about it, is that letterpress is like a giant rubber stamping machine. There are three ingredients that go into creating letterpress work: paper, ink and plate. A thick paper with a high cotton content, a beautiful ink and a polymer plate is what we need to achieve the quintessential modern letterpress look, with a deep impression. The simplicity of the process is what we love about it though, as each of these elements are able to be manipulated, explored and played with. I think our creative background makes us inclined to push these elements more than a traditional printer might.
For example, traditional letterpress prints would be created using moveable type made of wood or metal, but you can take a print from anything that is flat and the correct height (0.918 of an inch). We've even printed from a laser-cut vinyl record, which captures both the image of the cut out areas, but also the inked grooves of the record, adding another layer of meaning and tactility.
The same goes for the paper. Our production press uses a flat sheet feed rather than curling the paper around a roller so we can print on really thin paper, through to really thick paper. We've experimented with fabric and wood, but we can print on found paper as well, like pages from an old hot-rod magazine or giving a new life to the incredible waste that is the Yellow Pages.
The last ingredient is the ink, which we mix by hand. We love the way the colours sit high on the paper with letterpress, creating rich and vivid colours, especially with the metallic and fluorescent inks. And because the ink well is a simple mechanism, we can print with any medium that has an inky consistency. For a client obsessed with wine, we boiled down a bottle of red, mixed it into the inkwell and printed their job with a wine-ink mixture!
It's these experiments that really excite us with letterpress. It blurs the line between commercial printing and creative printmaking.
Jenna: After one of us takes our dog, Olive, for a walk, we'll make a pot of coffee (we're hooked on pour over) and read a few emails (including The Design Files, of course, and Seth Godin's daily tips). If I'm printing, I like to get a start on it early, so I put on my apron, and gather up the paper and plates for the job. Setting up the press is second nature now and it's a lovely rhythm of mixing ink, taping up the plates, slotting the rollers into place and hearing that first hum of the motor starting up. If I'm not printing that day, I'll spend the morning working on design projects, then catch up on emails over lunch, and spend the afternoon designing, quoting new jobs, posting online shop orders, ordering supplies, packaging up printed jobs or trying to keep up to date with bookkeeping. We're a small studio, so it really is all hands on deck, and we couldn't do it without Adam or our lovely interns. Olive keeps us on a regular schedule, so one of us will take her for a walk around 6.30pm and either answer a few more emails or figure out what to make for dinner.
You’re partners in both life and business – how do you find working together? Did you always plan to go into business together? Do you have any wise words / tips for managing working relationships like this!?
Simon: My aunty and uncle run a creative business in Sydney together called Search Party Locations and they have been a major inspiration for me throughout my life. Before we started The Hungry Workshop I asked them the same question: ‘What’s it like working together?’ my uncle replied simply, ‘It’s like working with your best friend’.
And it turned out to be true. Though, to be honest, I was still quite apprehensive about it before we started. Thankfully, I quickly discovered that we have very complementary skills. Like I mentioned earlier, Jenna has a keen eye for detail, and is great at finishing work. I am good at starting projects, and getting the ball rolling. As tacky as it sounds, she’s the brains, I’m the brawn, the sweet and the sour. It’s a real yin/yang thing. We are rarely, if ever, trying to do the same part of any task.
I couldn’t imagine going into business with anyone else. Our business goals are always aligned, and so are our lives. We are saving for the same things, we can invest the same amount of money into the business as each other, we take holidays at the same time. It’s all very convenient.
I think the trickiest part is handling honesty. We are able to be very frank with each other when working together, more than you might be with someone you are not married to. Sometimes we can be too honest with each other!
Ultimately though, I feel so lucky to be able to spend my days and my nights with Jenna, and am still amazed that we don't drive each other nuts.
Our bookshelf is by far the number one resource that we turn to for inspiration. It’s full of books and magazines, the majority of which we’ve sourced from op shops. Titles are varied, and cover a range of (mostly illustrated topics) including Diagnosis Prevention and Treatment of Tropical Diseases through to The Concise British Flora in Colour and Stanley Gibbons Simplified Stamp Catalogue, Whole World, 1963. And then there are the contemporary design books, about designers like Sagmeister, Frost, Tibor etc. More than once have we hit a brick wall on a project, only to turn to the bookshelf to find the answer right there in front of us.
Dumbo Feather is full of inspirational stories from people of all different walks of life, a mix of people that we’ve heard of and those that we haven’t. It’s a perfect introduction to other creative and driven individuals and their insights into their craft and success.
This American Life is a weekly American radio broadcast (available via podcast). The host, Ira Glass, is an amazing story teller, and the reporting covers a huge range of subjects. Listen and you will be absorbed 100%.
99U.com is about serving up insights on making ideas happen. It’s an awesome resource for creative people who need to get things done. Tips about productivity, forming new habits and generally being awesome at what ever it is you want to do. They also have started to publish a series of books about the same subjects which we are slowly working our way through.
DesignWorkLife.com is a graphic design blog run out of Connecticut, USA. Courtney, who runs it, has an awesome eye so it’s a beautifully curated blog.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?
One of the best parts of our job is that we get to work directly with clients on design projects, and with other designers across Melbourne executing print projects, which means we are exposed to a wealth of talent across many different industries.
Rhys, Tom & Claire from The Company You Keep are consistently putting out amazing design work. They are some of Melbourne’s finest designers.
We are loving the work of illustrator Guy Shield. His work creates really vivid snippets of daily life illustrated with an incredible use of colour.
We had the opportunity to work with Hugh Altschwager of Inkster Maken, to design the branding and identity for his range of lighting products. His work comes from a very honest place and the work he creates is really evident of his history, personality and interests. He is a modern craftsmen, and we really relate to that in the work that we do.
Che and Kareen from BTP Studio are another design studio producing some of Melbourne’s best design work. Check out their project for Starward Whiskey.
Seb and Charlie of Open Season are awesome. They cross the line between design studio and entrepreneurs. I personally dislike the word ‘entrepreneur’. It gets thrown around a lot by people who do very little but it’s truly worthy for these guys. They’ve been operating for less than a year and are already, amongst regular design work, running an independent cinema, Deja View, and have set up (with the lads of Everyday) the best damn bake sale you’ve ever seen, Flour Market. They’re full of ideas and make real, tangible, awesome things happen.
Simon: For me, it’s having had the opportunity to grow our team. Adam Flannery is great on the tools, an accomplished printmaker and talented designer. He’s also a rock solid bloke.
Jenna: Last year we were asked to work with Gorman, my favourite dress shop in town, to create custom shoes for a charity event. We spent an entire weekend playing around with techniques and had a ball creating our pair. Rumour has it, one lucky lady received our shoes for her 30th birthday!
Simon: On the bucket list is to help a local charity with design and print work. Something collaborative and meaningful, that makes a difference.
Jenna: I have always wanted to design a cookbook, especially if it involves taste testing the recipes. George Calombaris, are you out there?
Simon: We have some exciting plans for the space, the studio and something new which will hopefully be realised early this year. But we better get cracking!
Jenna: We are just about to move into a new house, but there is a bit of renovation work to be done first. I can’t wait to have all our friends over for big dinner party, to celebrate our new home.
Simon: Northcote is fantastic. We lucked into it when we moved here. The rent was (kind of) affordable and we found the right place with enough space for the press, the studio and somewhere for us to sleep. The area is constantly changing, so it’s always full of surprises, like stumbling on a back street billycart race on Melbourne Cup day with thousands of people in attendance, or happening upon a new bar with a secret back room. We think it’s pretty special.
Simon: Our tools come from all over. The presses are mostly German, from the '60s, except for our hand fed Chandler & Price which is over 100 years old and comes from Cleveland, Ohio. Most of our supplies and tools come from the states, but we do love local paper suppliers like KW Doggetts and Spicers. You might also find us wandering the aisles of Bunnings looking for a specific bit of hose to replace something on the press or stocking up on rags.
Simon:I love the Maze Soba (summer style ramen) from Dojo Ramen on High Street in Northcote. It’s just like regular ramen but without the broth, which gives you more room for an ice cold Sapporo.
Jenna: Further down High Street is a new cafe called Barry. They make an incredible California Superfood Salad, it feels so healthy and tastes so delicious.
Jenna: You will most likely find us taking Olive on a walk through the park and then to one of our favourite local coffee shops for breakfast: either Red Door Corner Store, Short Round or Lowlands.
Melbourne’s best kept secret is most definitely The Grey Eye Society, which is tucked away in a loft space on Melbourne’s Hardware Lane. A drinking club with a drawing problem run by a very talented artist, Andrzej Nowicki. It’s a five week program that matches drawing techniques with various styles of wine. Rumour has it that Andrzej will be running a whiskey class soon… which will also involve some drawing.