Thomas & Brown: Covered In Ink

A final printed letterpress piece or custom made artist’s book is kinetic. Mark Moroney, the printer behind Thomas & Brown, is just that — a kinetic engine full of creativity, intuitive know-how, and ambition. Mark deftly weaves the idea to the rough sketches, to the possible digital manipulation, and to the whirling of the press that produces it. We sat down with the printing aficionado to capture that dynamism.

Letterpress Printer Mark Moroney of Thomas & Brown

All photography courtesy of Amanda Sudimack | Artisan Events

THE INS & OUTS OF PRINTING I am the owner and operator of Thomas & Brown in Oak Park, Illinois. I have been doing that for a little over a year. A couple years before that I worked at Rohner Letterpress in Chicago. Over there, Sam Wilder and Matthew Cordell taught me all the ins and outs of running a Heidelberg windmill. And in the years between I spent time being a dad for two little boys.

IN THE BEGINNING The story kind of starts when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. With a lot of solitude and free time I became obsessed with writing and lettering. Lots of bookmaking and letter writing. Upon returning to the US, I thought I would work my skills into the graphic design thing. After a time of working in front of the computer I found that the translation didn’t always work for me. I sort of have a difficult relationship with technology. What I truly enjoyed was crafting with the hand, touching the material, etc. But fortunately for me, Chicago has the allure of letterpress built right into the city. Heck, I lived in a neighborhood called Printer’s Row. I found myself frequenting places like the Newberry Library and Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts. At the time, Bill Drendel was working at CCCBPA and I was always amazed at the work he was bringing in to exhibit. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing as an artist and designer. He, along with Suzanne Cohen-Lange, encouraged me to apply to the program there. So I did and that is where I finally got my hands covered in ink.Custom letterpress invitations made by Thomas & Brown in Chicago

PARADISE IN THE PRAIRIE STATE My shop is small but capable. I have a Heidelberg windmill, a Challenge paper cutter, and a platemaker. I have lots of letterpress gadgets and I also have a bunch of drawers of type and cuts. It is not terribly exciting but it gets the job done.

Letterpress business cards made at Thomas & Brown in Chicago

DESIGNED FOR PRINT I am a designer/printer and also a jobber. I will do design for anyone who needs it, but I also think it is great working with designers and other creatives who have such wonderful visions. I enjoy helping designers make good choices, understand the medium, and ultimately realizing the project in a physical form. And I think my background in graphic design makes this a lot easier for me.

ROOM TO GROW At this point we do not have enough work to consider myself full time, however with our design and printing we keep busy but of course there is always room for growth. But yes, that would be a goal for the future. And I am working with that in mind.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS My process can go one of two ways depending on the project. If I am designing for a client with a specific goal and and a clear vision, I usually start with a sketch. From there I park myself in front of the computer and assemble the parts. I work on choosing typefaces, take care of leading and kerning. Also, any imagery or graphic elements that need to be included are positioned and refined on the computer. The other way I work is more intuitive. This involves putting together cuts and type together on my stone. I do any color mixing on press, working from light to dark with lots of trans white. I end up with a lot of make ready. Usually designing this way I get some stationery or business cards for a friend. If I am really ambitious it can lead to the creation of an artist book.

Letterpress printed invitations and stationery by Thomas & Brown in Chicago

PRINTING FEATS Well, I have exhibited in juried shows and done artist in residence programs but, in all honesty, I am always most proud when I get a phone call or an email from a customer who was so happy with their project. People can fake enthusiasm when they are looking at an open gallery but it doesn’t happen when they have spent their hard earned money.

PRESS HISTORY The first press I worked on was a Vandercook Universal. The press that I own is a Heidelberg windmill. I’m sure it has been passed around Chicago the past few decades. At one point – maybe originally – it belonged to Bloom High School in suburban Chicago Heights, Illinois.

Chicago letterpress printing

BOXCAR’S ROLE I have a platemaker but I do not have an imagesetter. My biggest problem was finding a local reliable film source. With Boxcar, I can just do the whole process online. And the new online order form makes it really easy. I can instantly transfer files and even hold them there until my project is ready. I know exactly what I am sending and how much it is going to cost me. The time I used to spend making plates is now spent on other parts of the business. Also, I was not particularly great at making plates and with the cost of polymer I was always worried about losing money on that part of the process. I know that Boxcar guarantees their plates and I will have what I need for my jobs.

SHOP TIPS Of course I have tricks, dozens and dozens of them. You can’t do this kind of printing without them. The press does not have a computer with alarms and lights monitoring color and alignment and whatnot. Every job is a different set of challenges with a different set of solutions. My best advice would be to find some salty veterans who are passionate about printing & sit down with them and listen to what they have to say.

Letterpress printing from Thomas & Brown in Chicago

WHAT’S NEXT My plan for 2013 is to get the word out there that we are here. I would like to find some more designers who still care about the end product. And maybe if I acquire an additional press I would like to open up the studio to artists and offer a hands on experience for the local community.

A large round of thanks out to Mark Moroney of Thomas & Brown for letting us take a peek at his shop!

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