The life of Oakland California’s phenom printing duo has changed fast. From solid beginnings under the guidance of Bay Area letterpress great Betsy Davids to teaching letterpress, the pair behind Volta Press still reminisce about the long nights that honed their trade. During a break between print runs, Boxcar caught up with Laureen Mahler and John Peck for a quick chat.
PRINTERS FROM THE GOLDEN COAST Volta Press is Laureen Mahler and John Peck, a husband-and-wife printer team based in Oakland, California.
LATE NIGHT LETTERPRESS LOVE We started printing while Laureen was in graduate school at CCAC, where we spent countless late nights on the print studio’s Vandercooks. Initially, we wanted to create our own literary journal, complete with letterpressed covers and hand-sewn binding. With invaluable guidance from Betsy Davids (a well-known and much-loved influence on the Bay Area book arts community), we launched Beeswax Magazine in 2005. Now on its eighth issue, Beeswax is still letterpressed & hand-sewn — and truly a labor of love! The journal quickly transitioned into letterpressing for our friends, and we printed everything from poetry chapbooks and LP covers to gallery postcards and party invitations.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS We design and print, although we also work with other designers. Our design process is very much about experimenting with our press and its capabilities; we love to play with texture, size, color, and contrast in our designs, and we’ve learned a lot about the press and our own aesthetic over the years.
FULL TIME FUN A tough question! We did print full time for several years, but to make ends meet that meant taking every job that came our way. We found ourselves losing sight of why we’d become printers in the first place, so we started teaching, took a hiatus from custom work, and focused on building a portfolio that truly represented who we are. Now we teach to supplement our printing income and are happy to say that we’ve found a nice balance of custom work and self-made projects.
PRESS HISTORY Volta Press officially started in 2006 in Betsy Davids’ backyard: she has a meticulously restored SP15 tucked away in an old carriage house. It was a wonderful press, but the building had very little insulation: in the (albeit California) winters, we wrapped up in jackets and scarves to print jobs and had a backup supply of fingerless gloves. Since then, we’ve printed on a range of Vandercooks and C&Ps, and ultimately decided to purchase a Vandercook 3.
In 2009, we moved to our current studio near Jack London Square, where we now occupy two floors in an old pickle factory overlooking the Port of Oakland.
PRINTING FEATS We’re still pretty proud of purchasing our first Vandercook. It’s also really gratifying to be part of Oakland’s thriving small business community, from establishing relationships with other independent businesses to printing everything from coffee bean packaging to bookstore broadsides. Printing what we love and making the press work on our own terms are big accomplishments, though we’re definitely still learning on a daily basis.
BOXCAR’S ROLE We’ve been ordering plates from Boxcar Press since 2006, and we still remember opening the package that held our first Boxcar base. It was like letterpress Christmas, and we haven’t looked back since.
SHOP TIPS Always have masking tape handy, invest in a complete set of Allen wrenches, love the craft and its history, learn to be a grease monkey, make friends, and remember that making beautiful things isn’t always a beautiful process.
WHAT’S NEXT We’ll be teaching letterpress at the San Francisco Art Institute again in the fall, and we’re also working on expanding our in-studio workshops. We’d love to acquire a second press, and we’ve got a crazy idea to build a mobile Vandercook vehicle (though that’s maybe more of a 2014 project!). We’re also working on a literary poster series and a newspaper project, and we hope to launch both of those this summer.
Big rounds of applause for Laureen and John for letting us get the full story on Volta Press!