In the warm, flowing hills of Citrusdal, South Africa and nestled near the scenic Piekenierskloof Mountains is a tea, flower, and citrus farm. Explore just a little bit deeper into the farmland, and you’ll be surprised that amidst the sun-soaked fields is Essie Letterpress, the cheery printing abode of Ben and Vanessa Grib. From beginnings rooted deep in interior design, illustration, and a need to create, the printing duo took up letterpress as a means to satiate their creative cravings. We caught up with Ben and Vanessa between print and harvest runs to catch the scoop on how beautiful life can be with just a little more letterpress in the world.
FIELD CUT FLOWERS BY DAY, LETTERPRESS BY NIGHT We are a husband and wife team that operate from a flower farm on the Piekenierskloof Mountains in South Africa. We love creating notebooks, artworks, coasters and everything in between. Vanessa does all the printing and the day-to-day running of Essie Letterpress, while Ben does the design work when he is not farming. We just had our second little boy.
CREATIVE BEGINNINGS Vanessa started out as an interior designer. When she lived in San Francisco in 2001, one of her flatmates was taking a letterpress course and she fell in love with it. Ben has always been interested in illustration and design, and decided to teach himself while he was still a fruit trader. When we decided to move to the country, Vanessa needed a career change and was looking for something creative to do. Letterpress seemed like a new and exciting option, because it was not really done in South Africa at the time. It was quite a story to get the necessary equipment sourced and delivered to the farm, but we managed to find a machine in the back of a University storeroom. The rest was trial and error and Youtube videos.
IMPRESSIVE VIEWS Our shop is a large open space with beautiful views of the farm. We converted an old farm shed into our studio, so we still get the occasional odd surprise, like a flash flood through the roof or a snake living in your drawers. It looks over an awesome dam and is surrounded by daily farm activities, so you have to be careful of speeding tractors.
GETTING INSPIRED We wished we could have some mentors, but unfortunately they are all very far away. We had to stick to our manuals and run google hard for solutions. We are very inspired by Studio on Fire, Starshaped Press, Letterpress de Paris and Mink Letterpress. Artists that inspire… that’s a list too long to mention in case we leave anybody out. Every year we compile a list of our favorite local designers and invite them to do a calendar with us. That way we get to work with all our favorite people.
DESIGNED FOR PRINT We are trying to evolve to the kind of studio that only prints our own creations. I know this is not always possible, but we design with specifically letterpress in mind and we try and steer all decisions within the process’s limitations. It’s always fun being your own client. That being said, some projects need a specialized focus and then we get in the big guns for peace of mind.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS The design process normally starts with a spark of inspiration while we are walking our dogs or picking flowers. This leads to some rough sketches and normally ends up on the computer. We like to alternate between digital design and hand drawn, as we believe both have an equally important place in letterpress. We try to steer clear of one specific style, and it’s always most exciting to try a new approach or technique. We like to let the product lead us in the direction that it wants to go.
FULL TIME FUN Vanessa has been printing full time for the last five years, while Ben pops in through the day to fix the machine or mix a new color.
PRINTING FEATS We are very proud our own own little retail space in Cape Town that sells our products to the general public. It is nice to know that people are buying our products and putting it in their homes. It makes us feel that we have a small impact on people’s daily life.
THE IRON-CLAD BEAUTIES A Korex proofing press was our first press. There was a steep learning curve and a very tiresome process trying to print 150 three color wedding invites, one slow roll at a time. We learned a lot about the importance of paper quality and really thin ink.
SHOP TIPS These machines have personality, and as with all personalities, they sometimes have bad moods. So If something is not working, walk away, have a cup of tea, look at the trees, and then try again. It will always turn out better.
WHAT’S NEXT We are currently taking it easy due to our new baby and only printing a few select projects. But we are using this time to re-evaluate what is important and molding our company to a more streamlined and effective beast.
Huge round of thanks and applause out to Ben and Vanessa of Essie Letterpress for letting us get an up close look at their wonderful printing world!