or, I said the “F” word at Hatch Show Print!
As a preface, a portion of the history of Hatch Show Print is documented in a book, so trying to give you a history lesson would take several posts. I am going to focus on the present. For those that haven’t read the book or heard the history, Hatch Show Print is an old fashioned letterpress shop that has been in existence since 1879. The shop has had its ups and downs over its history, and their clientele has varied a great deal, but they are most known for their show posters for entertainment acts. Their history follows Minstrel Shows, Circuses, Country and Blue Grass stars and the list goes on. If you don’t have the book, it is a great addition to any design library and a very entertaining read for just about anyone (not just designers). Hatch has changed ownership over the years but it is now owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame. The shop is now a working museum and as the man (Jim Sherraden) that has taken Hatch to where is it today says … “preservation through production”. To keep Hatch alive they are a very active letterpress shop that prints posters (among other things) for a large variety of clients.
I recently spent a week down in Nashville to help out at Hatch and to learn from, and breath the rare air of a working letterpress shop. I will share a few of the things that I learned while playing the role of intern/volunteer. I will start at the very beginning.
Printing on the Vandercook, a thumbs up from Brad and a quick and casual tour of the front portion of the shop.
I met Jim Sherraden at last year’s HOW Conference and we talked briefly after his session about letterpress and such. He mentioned that I should come down for a week and join the gang, and I finally took him up on the offer. Jim’s offer doesn’t really show how great of a letterpress designer I am; it just shows how good of a guy and great of a promoter (of letterpress and Hatch) that Jim is. At this point, a big part of Jim’s job at Hatch is a promoter of the shop and I would guess that a good deal of you have heard him speak at some event. I can tell you for a fact that Jim is on the road a lot, and on the phone even more. He keeps the heart and gospel of Hatch going while the rest of the team try to keep up with the work load. The only printing that Jim really does anymore are the restrikes and monoprints that he hand inks and runs through a giant Vandercook. We were lucky enough to watch him run it like he was riding a bike while we were there.
Jim Sherraden is testing some new paper for the historic poster restrikes.
At the HOW Conference Jim made sure to point out that they were not “big dogs”. What they do is amazing, but from my experience I get what he is saying. They handle over 600 new jobs a year. Hatch has never been about the big bucks, inflated budgets and famous musicians. Hatch is a print shop. They produce a huge amount of work for a wide variety of people and they enjoy doing it. It doesn’t matter who you are, a Hatch poster is within reach of your budget. There is a price sheet for every client. It doesn’t matter if you are Tanya Tucker or a struggling musician that wants some great-eye-catching posters made, you will pay the same price. I think you can get 100 two-color posters printed for not much more than $200. Of course if you want to own the rights to the designs, you would have to pay a royalty fee.
When my wife and I arrived at Hatch . . . I’m sorry I forgot to tell you about what my wife is doing at Hatch. She is a printmaker and she thought it would be fun to jump in the mix as well. She is also very supportive of my crazy adventures. When we showed up at Hatch we half expected a little “hey those crazy kids are here to help us out”. What we did experience was a little dose of how crazy Hatch can be . . . especially on Monday mornings. Delaney (the person that I talked to about my visit) was out sick, Jim was on the phone and no one else seemed to know what was going on (with us anyway). They called us interns and it took us a little bit to figure out that that is what we actually were. While we may not have been expected, the Hatch staff does know what to do with interns when they show up. Give them a brief tour, show them where the stuff is and have them start putting type and furniture (the spacing material) away from the already printed jobs. While not exactly glamorous, this is exactly the thing that any person would need to do to be able to actually design at Hatch. It was fascinating to see the efficient, methodical disarray that is the Hatch way. I’ve done some letterpress on my own, but not the sort of printing that Hatch does. I’ve worked digitally and with a bit of wood and metal type here and there, but I’ve never worked in a fully stocked letterpress shop. There were many things that I learned at Hatch, but for starters, I didn’t even know that wood type isn’t measured in points, but lines or picas. Of course it makes sense, but it had never crossed my mind that it would be more efficient that way. It is much easier to write 15 Line Gothic 1 rather than 180 pt Gothic Condensed.
The main composing area at Hatch.
So there I was, participating in this little piece of design and music history. I was helping out and learning where all that crazy type gets put away. This is probably a good place to explain how the designers at Hatch edit the entire collection down to what they want to use in their designs. While it is still hard to imagine knowing where to begin when designing a poster, the designers do have a little bit of “natural selection” helping them narrow the field down. A good deal of the type and woodcuts were created for giant (small billboard) size posters of bygone eras. I couldn’t believe that the designers were actually using the back of giant woodcut letters to compose their posters on. The standard “one sheet” and “half sheet” posters that they create today are just too small to incorporate some of the amazing old type and cuts. Not to worry, they still have plenty to work with and they have fun doing it (as far as I can tell).
A portion of the type and image collection.
It was fun to see the individual designers work with the type and historic woodcuts. The turnaround is fairly fast, so they don’t have a ton of time to rummage through the collection, but they do seem to have a good deal of freedom. While it appears that Hatch as a business doesn’t pay special attention to the big clients, the individual designers can’t help it. When the job comes for the James Taylor concert at the Rhyman Auditorium, a little bit of extra interest (and fun) is added by the designers. As an example, when the James Taylor poster was being designed, all the designers in the immediate area jumped in and threw in their ideas. In a fit of collaborative, letterpress athletics, the designers would begin rummaging through the archives to find the best wood cut. It would go something like this . . . “Nothing says James Taylor like . . .” and the designer would walk to the wall of archives and start pulling out random cuts to throw on the table. Someone would say something like “Nothing says James Taylor like . . . a little girl with an umbrella” and then the mediocre responses would come back. “Maybe not!” Half of the suggestions, were completely ridiculous, but that was the point. Throw out ideas and see what comes out. In an attempt to be overly literal, I said . . . “Nothing says James Taylor like . . . Fire and lets sets see . . . Rain” I repeated this mantra, hoping to magically find the images in the vastly unfamiliar collection. I then realize that I am being reprimanded and Brad the designer is repeatedly knocking on the wood composing table. He says “Bennett stop saying the ‘F’ word!” I know I didn’t say anything close to that, until he explains what he is trying to get me to stop saying. “FIRE” He says look at what this place is filled with (i.e. mineral spirit soaked wood) I get the point. I am beginning to think that this “F” word, and not technology, is the arch-enemy of Hatch Show Print. This concept is not just a show either. When someone says “fire”, without hesitation or hoopla, someone will knock on wood and keep on working. They also, never set mineral spirit soaked rages on the wood floor, but instead they go straight to the metal bins. While they use this archive everyday, they also have a great respect for it.
While I tried to keep “Fire” from coming out of my mouth, another strange thing happened while I was at Hatch. I inadvertently took them into the digital age. Sad, I know. Stay tuned for part two.