Monday, April 11, 2011

Hatch Show Print Visits Baltimore

This is a guest post from Alexis, a friend of Gilah Press + Design. Thanks, Alexis!

Gilah Press recently took an educational field trip to a lecture by Jim Sheradden of Hatch Show Print, the legendary Tennessee letterpress shop whose posters have influenced a generation of graphic designers even if they don't know it.  

Sheradden's visit was timed to correspond with the official public announcement of MICA's Globe purchase, and hundreds of letterpress enthusiasts showed up to learn and to celebrate. Sheradden, for his part, arrived confident, goateed, and vaguely un-PC, and explained the history of his shop with affectionate zeal.

Sheradden began working for Hatch after his dream of becoming a songwriter had quietly deposited him in Tennessee, jobless. The shop had already been in continuous operation since 1879, and when Sheradden arrived it was in danger of going under due to the advent of faster, cheaper printing methods. What Sheradden realized was that letterpress' historical interest and homespun appeal could be combined with contemporary technology to make a new business model, and rather than trying to update the shop, he chose to celebrate its oldness.

These days, a lot of Hatch's revenue is produced not from the physical prints themselves, but from the scanned images of them. Usually, the shop will receive a commission from someone music-industry affiliated (sometimes a venue, sometimes an agent, sometimes a merch company) and produce a small run of posters which are then sent off to be scanned and reproduced using the modern methods. The hand-printed posters are sold as collectors' items, and the shop also receives payment for the right to copy its images onto t-shirts and mass-produced advertisements. Everybody wins.

What was really interesting was hearing Sheradden talk about how he sees his shop – he doesn’t really see it as "his" shop at all. He calls himself the "steward" of the Hatch collection, and says that he feels a responsibility to the heritage of the shop. For this reason, he's never added any type to the collection, though his employees do still produce original linoleum cuts for some prints. The phrase he kept repeating, his favorite soundbite I suppose, was "preservation through production." He also kept referring to the shop as a "working museum."

Hatch's aesthetic has become so tied to the visual history of country music and rock and roll that most people simply take the look for granted without realizing where it came from. As Sheradden's introducer (a novelist whose name I wish I could remember) put it, "Hatch has put an idea in the reptile brain of designers of what a poster should look like." That horrifying digital font that's supposed to look like old wood type? Nobody ever would have bothered inventing that if Hatch hadn't made hand-done cool.

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