Chris and Hannah Barker dreamed about owning their own print studio when they were at university, but it wasn’t until Chris was made redundant for a third time that they took the plunge and bought their first Adana press. Now they run The Smallprint Company from their beautiful studio in Derby, where they create letterpress prints and cards and offer tailor-made stationery for weddings and special occasions. We talked to Hannah to find out more…
Can you introduce yourselves and describe what you do?
We’re Hannah & Chris Barker of The Smallprint Company – a letterpress studio based in Derby. Chris is the printer and designer and I create the illustrations for commissions, some bookbinding and other finishing work together with the running the business day-to-day.
Can you explain what letterpress printing is?
Letterpress is the art of printing from movable type. For us though, it’s much more than that. It’s the allure of the antique fonts, the found picture blocks and being custodians of the vintage presses. It’s one of the oldest methods of print with a history going back over 500 years and we feel very privileged to be a part of this community.
We sat down to watch a documentary called Typeface about letterpress in the US. Two hours later I was searching for an Adana on Ebay and the rest, as they say, is history!
How did you discover letterpress printing?
We had been introduced to an Adana tabletop press at university. Chris went on to train as a commercial printer after graduation, further developing his print knowledge. The print industry suffered heavily throughout the recent recession and as we faced Chris’s third redundancy, we sat down to watch a documentary called Typeface about letterpress in the US. Two hours later I was searching for an Adana on Ebay and the rest, as they say, is history!
We have four printing presses – the Adana tabletop press, a Cropper Charlton, which is a proofing press for poster work, a Cropper Charlton treadle press that’s awaiting restoration and a Squintani, a large treadle press, which is our workhorse.
Do you use that Adana press to create all your prints?
We actually have four presses now – the Adana is a tabletop press, a Cropper Charlton which is a proofing press for poster work, and a Cropper Charlton treadle press that’s awaiting restoration. The Squintani, a large treadle press, is our workhorse. This came from someone’s garage in Manchester. Apart from needing completely new rollers, which had to be custom engineered, it was in magnificent working order. She’s a real pleasure to work on.
Chris and I met at university during our fine art degrees, and had grand dreams to run a print studio even then.
Have you both always been creative?
We have – it’s a part of who we are! Chris and I met at university during our fine art degrees, and had grand dreams to run a print studio even then. We fell into nine-to-five careers and raising a family before discovering the Green Door Printmaking studio, which happened to be just around the corner from our home. Green Door reignited our creativity and love for printmaking and brought us back into the world of fine art print. They literally opened up the door on to a printmaking community and I doubt we’d be where we are now if it wasn’t for their dedication to the studio and its members. We now share studio space with Green Door on the ground floor of Banks Mill, which is an incubation unit for creative businesses.
The bare brick and white walls of our studio fits in beautifully with our vintage equipment and it’s where we love to be, mug of tea in hand and listening to the radio.
It sounds perfect. Can you tell us more about your studio?
Banks Mill is a 19th-century mill operated by the University of Derby as incubation units for early-stage creative businesses – it’s been a huge help for us, having support and advice from the University team. Within the studio itself there is space for a small kitchen that we share with Green Door and their members. The rest of the space is jam-packed with letterpress equipment, papers, books, boxes, shelving and the presses, of course. It has the original mill windows to one side and has concrete floors, so it’s a little cold in the winter! The overall look of bare brick and white walls fits in beautifully with the vintage equipment and it’s where we love to be, mug of tea in hand and listening to the radio. We wish we’d done it sooner!
A big inspiration in our lives is my dad, Rob Chapman. He’s an illustrator and fine art painter and printmaker. I’m really pleased to say that The Smallprint Company has inspired Dad to rediscover printmaking and he’s been developing linocuts and wood engravings, which we have the pleasure of printing.
Who or what inspires you?
A big inspiration in our lives is my dad, Rob Chapman. He’s an illustrator and fine art painter and printmaker. Art has always been a part of my life because of Dad, and he’s a great sounding board for our plans and projects. I’m really pleased to say that The Smallprint Company has inspired Dad to rediscover printmaking and he’s been developing linocuts and wood engravings, which we have the pleasure of printing. He is inspired by the countryside around his home and the resulting prints, Hen, Sheep, Cow and Pig, have become very popular cards in our greetings card range. We hope to turn some of his new works into prints this year too.
Do you have any other collaborations or new projects planned?
We are very open to people approaching us with ideas and love a challenge. Last year Green Door approached us with a project based around printmaking and storytelling. Anna and Pandora are the mother and daughter team behind Green Door, and they suggested that Chris set text to illustrations produced by myself, Anna and Pan for an exhibition. The result was Illuminated Tales. It’s heading towards its third show now and appears to be well received. This year we’ll be creating Ex Libris bookplates for their upcoming show, The Beauty of Books at Deda in Derby. We also have a few ideas ourselves for exhibitions and projects based on the Multiples and Mail Art concept of print and hope to bring those to fruition this year.
How do you start a piece?
With our letterpress commissions, the creative process starts with our clients, combining their briefs with our knowledge of process and papers. For example, a client looking for letterpress wedding stationery might already know what they want and they use us to achieve the final outcome. Other clients have no real idea of where to start and we’ll work with them on each step of the process. It often helps in these cases that we have a catalogue of previous work to help inspire them.
For our retail work, the designs are led by Chris and the type, ornaments and flourishes that we hold in our type library. I have to say, I have very little input in these and bow down to Chris’s knowledge of the type and the presses!
With our letterpress commissions, the creative process starts with our clients, combining their briefs with our knowledge of process and papers.
What’s your favourite part of the creative process and why?
For Chris, it’s working on the Squintani – when it’s all set up perfectly and he can get a good rhythm going. Personally, I love working on illustrations for the clients. Seeing the finished letterpress print is always a pleasure. I’ve recently been trying out the gilt edging process which is a rather seductive process.
Are there any other printing techniques you’d like to learn?
I’d like to return to etching and concentrate on developing photo etching techniques, and Chris would like to do electro-etching or foundry work where you cast your own type.
I love working on illustrations for the clients. Seeing the finished letterpress print is always a pleasure.
What’s the most interesting, unusual or demanding commission you’ve taken on?
A particular commission that springs to mind was a ‘word cloud’ print for a friend. It was something Chris had wanted to try for some time and it gave him the opportunity to really test his skills, bringing together different fonts and point sizes to achieve a satisfying result. He soon realised how intensive it was going to be, particularly as it was executed in three colours, which in itself required precise registration. It took Chris about 15 hours to set the type and a further day to print but the resulting print was worth it.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
Everything! I feel very privileged to do be able to do this, particularly working with equipment of such heritage. It’s also job satisfaction – being able to make the decisions, act on the decisions and enjoy the results. For Chris, the best part is going to bed thinking about an idea and being able to work on it in the morning, and having full control for the creative direction of Smallprint projects.
I feel very privileged to do be able to do this, particularly working with equipment of such heritage.
What would you say to someone thinking about selling their work?
Start off slowly. We started with a few designs and tested them on Folksy. We learned what sells and what doesn’t and honed the designs to our customers – you might like it but if it doesn’t sell, move on. From selling online, we tried some craft markets, which were a huge learning curve in many ways. We learned which events work, what stock sells where, and who our customers are. Doing those events really did help inform the business overall. Take advice from anyone and everyone, but don’t think you have to do everything yourself – for example, we pay an accountant rather than deal with the hassle of tax returns when we’ve got a business to run. Finally, network and use social media. I never understood the value of Twitter until we started The Smallprint Company. The first sale from 140 characters soon changed my mind though! And, of course, enjoy it!
Craft is all about using the skills that you have developed over many years of practice. The time and love that goes into each item is breathtaking – and worth every penny!
What does craft mean to you?
Craft is all about using the skills that you have developed over many years of practice. It’s small businesses and individuals creating unique and individual items. The time and love that goes into each item is breathtaking – and worth every penny!