It was kind of frightening to be my sister’s apartment not too long ago and see a Save the Date card on her fridge for a wedding that was scheduled for a month after ours. That was back in February, and by that point we were only the planning stages of thinking about our own announcement card. It took us another six weeks to finally make them and sent them out. It felt awfully late in the game; as such, most of our guests have found out the date through occasional conversation with us. The cards have become redundant. I’m not sure they were ever needed to begin with—but in this case the driving factor was the opportunity to produce art, which was enough of a reason for us.
Back in 2004 I spent a lot of time volunteering at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, filing away lead type in their letterpress studio. My intent was simply to get my hands dirty and enjoy the environment; if I could learn a little about letterpressing in the meanwhile, all the better. The plan worked, and by the time I found the need to make use of the equipment—the invitations to our housewarming party—I had accumulated enough hours to get the job done. More than enough, actually, so we went again a couple months later to produce our 2005 New Year’s cards, done simply with white-inked woodtype on black paper. I put in a few more hours over the next year, knowing that some kind of wedding invitation project would be on the horizon soon enough.
The Save the Date cards were the perfect opportunity. We knew they could be done simply enough for our novice little hands. So in mid-March, with Matthew at our side to guide us through the mechanics (it had been a while for us, and he was fresh out of a letterpress class), we took to the machines.
As is my ethic with almost all design projects, I opted for simplicity over clutter. We needed to convey three things: the what, the when and the who. Everything else would come later, in the invitation or on the website (the URL of which we’d need to print also). I was able to convince Sarah that we could combine our names and the domain name into one element—certainly even our grandmas know what a URL is by now. So it was decided: three elements, two colors—the date in a big gothic woodtype, colored baby blue, and the rest in a small serif metal type, colored brown. All on an ivory card.
Despite my adherence to simplicity, I wasn’t able to keep everything perfectly in line. I found it necessary to push the alignment of the numbers off-kilter a little bit. What would have taken all of four minutes to tweak in a desktop publishing application added at least a half-hour of labor in letterpress land. When you set type in a letterpress machine, everythings needs be tight. And I mean Cameron Fry ass-tight. By shifting the numbers up and down, we needed to hunt through the spacer drawers to find precisely the right size and shape of lead to keep the numbers in place. This was not fun.
After several test runs, everything fell into place and we started production. If it’s been said that desktop publishing loses some of the magic of hand-set design, it’s certainly true. When the first real print emerged, the result of many hours of labor, we gawked wonderously. I could easily imagine myself as Guttenberg, printing his own wedding invitations, thinking “My guests will LOVE this.”
Part of what appealed to us about letterpress was its imprecision—no two cards would line up exactly the same, nor would they have exactly the same look. The ink fades with each pass, making each subsequent print a little lighter and a little rougher. Where the first prints had fairly solid lettering, the ones thirty prints later were like faded blue jeans.
After taking turns printing, we accumulated a total of around 130 cards. A week later we came back to do the brown lettering, a much simpler task, what with the straight lines and better-behaved lead type. Of 130 cards, we screwed up a few getting the alignment just right, but eventually settled into a groove and got things done like we were pros. Even so, I’m pretty sure this is the last letterpress project for us for a while—the prospect of doing all those three-piece invitations is too daunting for a couple of hobbyists like us.