Reykjavík Letterpress

It was a rare and lovely sunny day in Reykjavík when we went for a visit to Reykjavík Letterpress. Situated not far from Laugarvegur, the city’s most famed shopping street, and in a small industrial building we found the entrepreneurs, Ólöf and Hildur waiting and greeting us with a big smile. Though the building is quite industrial and cold, inhumane it is not, quite the contrary – it has all the qualities of a working area but is also as homey as one could wish for. Right of the bat we got to talking…

We purchased the hardware from an 84 year old Páll Bjarnason, a printer by profession and he had been operating it out of his garage. He even taught us how to use it before handing it over.

Before this came about you both worked in graphic design?

We worked together in an advertising company for five years.

That industry suffered like most other after 2008?

Yes and no, we were both working at half capacity after the bust but that gave us plenty of time to plan and work towards this project of ours, Letterpress.

So not your a-typical crisis success story?

Maybe not, but it gets you thinking on what you can do yourself and how not to be dependent on others. This might not have happened if the collapse hadn’t occurred and we had been doing a full time job or even more than that, as the custom is here in Iceland.

How long was the birthing period?

Year roughly, no let us see, exactly nine months after we started airing the idea we moved in here at Lindargata 50.

Did the idea start off slowly and then gain momentum, and were you certain that this was the model for you?

From the start we had a really strong idea of what we wanted to do but we were by no means certain that it was achievable, we didn’t have knowledge of how the market would react, how we were to fund the idea, etc. It´s been hard to get a grant when your going into a competitive field, as it needs to be innovative.

Might even depend on the mood of the person looking at the application?

We don’t see us competing with pre-existing companies. When we speak to printers they don’t see us as a threat, more that we provide greater range of service and this is something that they can gain from. We have heard that for the last few years the industry emphasis has been more on speed and cost reduction and nearly no tinkering or “nostur” is done.

It seems to me that there is a movement; a sort of post digitalization that is centered on going back to handcrafting. What is this giving you as opposed to simply working it in the computer?

For us it means variety. We design and print, then in other cases we design for other printers, then again we print for other designers. The projects that land on our table are for the most part the intricate and special project that you get only a few times a year in an advertisement agency.

Is the work process in anyway different than for example, on the computer?

No, we apply the same process. There are just small differences in what the machine allows, for instance we can’t print photographs, so that might cause us to think differently but we use the same computer programs and the same methods of research. Now there is a lot of time that goes to hands on labour. It´s great to be able to stand up from the computer once in a while.

Typography can be a obsession, would you recognize that?

We can attest to that as we spend a lot of time working with fonts on these special projects, there is seldom a large body of text – it’s more headlines or stand-alone words and it’s so much fun playing around with them.

How does the process work from sketch to the final result?

Sometimes we will use the movable type, there we use what we got with the machine as it’s not being produced anymore. It’s our dream to get some of the big woodblock letters. For the most part we use a plastic photo polymer, then we use the computer and send the result in the form of a PDF to a company that creates for us these printing plates that work like the moveable type and in that the printed part is embossed. Having only the lettering is really restricting. The paper you use must therefore be of supreme quality? The paper that we use is 100% cotton.

The condition of the printing press is astonishing.

That´s all down to Páll who is a delight and our guardian angel.

“Facebook is so large in Iceland that everyone is just on it”

I’d like to ask about the Internet, you certainly have a great following there and it seems that you have been active there from the get go?

Even before we started we were on Facebook, with friends and family looking at what we were doing but then people in the field started following us and we have just been showing how we have gone about it, from the first print, blending colors and everything really. Pictures from when we moved in, that was really a big undertaking.

So this self documentation has been, in a way,
your advertisement?

It has been amazing. Facebook is so large here in Iceland that everyone is just on it and we have put that to a good use, it really is the only thing we have done to promote our self. As well, there are Austrian documentary filmmakers making a film about Iceland post collapse and its effect on people, they interviewed us about what we had been doing and they were also really surprised to learn that we only had been using Facebook.

Not just American Psycho anymore? (reference to business cards)

We do a lot of them in all shapes and sizes, like these bundles that you can rip one of each time you need to hand one out, then there was one woman that came in with used milk cartons and suchlike, that after printing was superb. These prints aren’t comparable to digital prints, there is just something about the texture and feel. Also there is really no end to how varied they can be.

How complex does the work get?

The major complexity is that we can only print one color and therefore people haven’t been using more than one or two colors in business cards or invitations, at least so far and it’s more expensive but not undo-able. Again the issue is that we don’t print photographs unless they are put into one color and printed with the polymer but it extends to serviettes and invitations, doing them for instance in the same format.

“There isn’t a lot of free time, we even forget lunch!”

Dream project or are they all dream projects?

They are all fabulous, the beauty of invitations for instance is that you are involved in an important moment in peoples life, weddings, confirmations or big birthdays. Getting people in here with strong ideas or couples that might not agree and then working it out with them so you get to be a passenger in their adventure. People are really making an effort and they are paying a bit more, they could print from the home printer or do it digital and they will be fine invitations, but they have set the tone and decided to go this way and they care about the process and we feel such gratitude when it goes well. They sense the difference.

That brings me onto the question of self employment,
are you in control of your own working hours?

Yes! maybe not into the night but there have been many occasions where we have worked well into the evening, come in on weekends and holidays and there isn’t a lot of free time. Sometimes we even forget lunch! We didn’t think that was possible. When you came in at 2 pm we where eating toast! Contrary to what you’d think that one might be relaxing coming in at a certain time but you are driven to show up.

We are the worst slave drivers out there, which was a surprise but we have needed to be as there has been so much work to do and you have to pull your weight. This job just gets more and more fun as we
go along.

Long term plans?

More, expand! Hire people and open a store, well that´s the dream. We’re working on making time to work on our own line of cards, and products like that, but there are so few hours in the day. There are many possibilities out there, that´s for sure.

Between the constant phone calls and people dropping in, we witness how vibrant and fun workplace the Letterpress really is. For too long now, we have been a distraction and we see the girls need to get back to work, so with much learning behind us we say our farewell.

With so many new companies and innovative ideas around these days, one wonders how well the start-ups will fare in this climate of uncertainty. But that’s not the case with Letterpress, though young they may be, they have already in a very short time made the grade and earned all the plaudits they have got.


Interview: Guðni Rúnar
Photographs: Nanna Dís