By Anna Hoeschen.
I love the smell of books, and I know I’m not the only one. There’s a very specific kind of pleasure that comes from cracking a spine, whether it’s one that’s time-tested or just now begging to be broken in. With a book of a certain years, you can feel the gritty surface of worn down pages and faded ink, sunken into the folds of a paper cushion. You can see a collective imprint from the hands of strangers who’ve grazed those pages. On the flipside, there’s nothing quite like the glossy or matte veneer of a new design book, redolent of fresh ink coating those vivid images.
Maybe it’s just that in the age of the almighty digital, these experiences are a little more rare, and therefore a little more special.
Moreover, we’re undermining the importance of a gesture: writing letters, printing books, wrapping gifts. Of course, there are makers who still value those sensory experiences and who exemplify thoughtfulness through their work. There’s Megumi Inouye, with her exquisite packaging and gift-wrapping. There’s the San Francisco Center for the Book, which sustains and encourages fine printmaking.
So how excited was I to meet another paper-enthusiast, a woman with a razor-sharp business sense, a pragmatic soul, and a love of all things print and press?
Jenni Undis, owner of Lunalux, is the kind of maker who has sustained an ongoing passion for the craft while also having the good sense to continue developing her business savvy. When we sat down to talk at the studio, I saw paper trails everywhere. Tiny, textural accounts of the lives of people I’d never met. Bulletin boards and doors were feathered with wedding invitations, personal letters, and handwritten notes. It was great talking to Jenni, because like pressed paper, she was clear, honest, colorful, and, most of all, fun to read.
Tell us about Lunalux. Lunalux was founded in 1993 by Tim Gartman. I started working here as an intern in 1996, right after I graduated from college. In 2003, I had the opportunity to buy the business; I was about 30. It’s been a good challenge to make the business my own. I ran it for Tim a few years before I bought it. I got used to doing things the way they [Tim and girlfriend Jeaneen Gauthier] did them. It’s an ongoing process of thinking about why am I doing these things; I have the freedom to make the studio whatever I want it to be. There are a lot of letterpress printers in town. There are a lot of different things you can do with the medium.
What’s it like transitioning from employee to owner? It is still daunting. It’s hard. I miss having a boss I’m accountable to. I’m not always the most organized person. I always have to be here pretty much. I don’t really get to take vacations. It’s getting to be less the case, because I have good employees working for me right now. Last spring I took a two week vacation to England: was my first vacation in eight or nine years that was more than three days.
How did you get your start in printing? I’m the youngest of ten kids. It’s fun! My family was in the printing business. My dad’s retired, and my two siblings run the business now. My brother [the one in England] works for Kluge and travels all around the world helping people set up and install presses. When I was really little, between eight and ten, my dad’s business was in the garage. I have this vivid memory of my dad printing sleeves for seven inch records: yellow and red. We would punch the holes out in the middle, in the table in our kitchen. I loved that. I always loved paper… digging in trash bins and finding paper things. I loved the smells and sounds of the print shop. In high school, I was the secretary there. I didn’t like it at the time, but it was good to be exposed to the business in that way.
What did you study? When I graduated, I didn’t think this was what I was going to do. I went to Macalester for Mass Communications. I thought I’d be a magazine writer. I was an editor of the paper; I thought I’d be a feature writer. I also got a minor in studio art. I worked closely with Ruthann Godollei, a printmaker. She’s still there, and I’m still in touch with her. One semester, I worked with her to do small offset press work. I made graduation announcements, posters for an art show. That was my first exposure to hands-on printing, to actually doing the work of printing a lot of different kinds of materials. I still didn’t think of it as a career at the time.
Describe the process. We work exclusively with letterpress printing. No one manufactures letterpress printing machines anymore. Our newest press is from 1965; our oldest is probably from the late 1800s. What distinguishes the press is the raised surface, the lead type and the wood type; the types are inked and pressed into the paper. There’s a textural quality to it, one that you can’t achieve with digital printing. Usually, we use lead type. We’ve produced a decent collection of those types, which we use for posters and smaller projects and personal stationary for some people. When we make custom stationary we make plates. We’ll start with design work on the computer and use the layouts to make plates. You end up with a beautiful printing surface that indents into the paper. With plates, there is more flexibility. You’re not constrained by the physical materials you have [limited quantities of lead and type]. We can create layouts to show the clients and edit them quickly. I really like the lead and wood type; it’s precious for me. Usually a commissioned project can take one to two months. If it’s really compelling, even faster.
Describe your clientele. Who’s buying paper? Mostly it’s people from Minnesota, but we certainly talk to and do work with people from all over the place. Things are less expensive here. We do projects for people in New York and San Francisco who do the research and find us. People who used to live in Minneapolis and have moved but still know about us: they’ve been clients for years and years, and they keep coming back.
My favorite people are the ones interested in doing something where they get to engage their creativity. I like problem solving with people, talking about what they like and don’t like. I don’t like printing things for other designers, it’s not my favorite. I like the creative process. The mechanical aspect is less enticing. I most like it when people want me to do something individualized for them, when they say make something that’s me.
In the world of digital, why letterpress? A lot of people appreciate that there is something different about holding a piece of paper than there is about looking at an email. I think we can all agree that distinction is important. Email, facebook, e-invites… I’m all over that. I’m fully engaged with digital things, but when people get something that’s paper, especially when it’s well made, especially when you can see the craftsmanship, they know it’s something important. I like to say to people, “If you spent $10 on your business cards, it looks like you spent $10 on your business cards.” You hand someone this [hands me a card], and they’re like, “oh-wow.” When you’re building relationships and that card catches their attention, they ask questions. To me, that seems like a really premium promotion for business. People perceive you as a person who has certain values. You’re a person who values craft, handmade things, and design. You value human interaction. It’s important enough to hand something to people when you meet them. The same holds true with notecards and stationary, we never get letters in the mail anymore. Nothing will prompt you more than this, it’s exciting, and it makes you look classy. I appreciate the expediency and economy of the digital, but there will always be appropriate occasions for something more substantial.
Can you recall a favorite client? I still remember the client I worked with that first made me feel like a designer. It was the late 90s and they were this young, cool, really hip couple. They came in with the bride’s mom, and they wanted the invitation to be a poster, like 8 and ½ x 11 inches. There was lots of editing, and it was really exciting to learn how to listen to clients and try to understand what they wanted and translate it into a physical thing.
Describe the dynamics when working with customers. More recently, I’ve started to think of myself as a paper therapist. We do work for creative types, freelancers, people who just left a job. The process of producing a business card is, surprisingly, wrought with tiny decisions. “Do I have an email, fax, phone, one of them, two of them, all three? Am I Jenni or am I Jennifer?” It turns into a lot of discussion about how people want to present themselves and be perceived. With brides and couples, it’s interesting to be around when a couple is disagreeing about something. That’s my cue to say, “I’ll leave you guys to discuss…I’ll go sort some samples.”
Throw the mother of a bride or the mother of a groom into that mix. Doing this work puts me into the middle of those interactions. It’s funny to watch people in these situations, people who are thinking and having an inner dialogue: “Ok, I have to be thoughtful about these decisions, because I’ll have this for a long time, and I’ll be saying something and sending it out into the Universe.” It’s surprising sometimes how one person seems like the person in charge, the person who really cares, and then, all of a sudden, the other person will pipe up with a contrary opinion. I think I put my foot in my mouth plenty of times during those moments. I still do, just less frequently.
Favorite words to press? This spring, I was selected for the CSA Art Project through Springboard for the Arts. It’s like a CSA farm share, except instead of food you get boxes of art. They commission the artist to make limited edition artwork that people can buy, and they leave with a box of art.
I printed this on a poster: “Life gets harder and harder and better and better.” I heard a minister say that at a eulogy. It resonated with me. Things do get harder and more complicated as you get older, but I continue to be excited about how things are going to turn out. I used to think, when I get to be 30, or when I get to be 35, or when I get to be whatever age, things will iron out. There was always some peak, or some magical transforming day… but you continue to be disappointed that that’s not true. No smooth sailing. No trick to putting everything together in a way that you never have to work real hard anymore. Everything’s always work in a good way. Just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s not great. We tend to frame challenges as negative. I think they’re standard operating procedure. Being able to face those challenges with a good attitude and grace is something that develops with age. It gets harder and harder and better and better.
I super love that poster, and I can’t make anymore. It’s a limited edition. There’s one hanging on the wall and people come in wanting to buy it. I want so badly to sell it, after all I’m a business owner, I’d love to, but I can’t!
All images by Caitlin Cooreman.