August 18, 2016

The Mark Makers | An Interview with Prickle Press

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Image by Holly Booth, courtesy of Prickle Press. 

Strong marks, beautiful paper stock and an essence of rhythm and experimental techniques – these are all things that make up the wonderful world of design and letterpress studio, Prickle Press. Founded by the lovely Rachel Stanners, Prickle Press began life in 2010 and has since changed from pursuing a hobby in letterpress into a full time day (and night!) job. 

Having fallen in love with their stationery a while back at Pulse London, I’ve kept in touch with Rachel and followed the Prickle process via their InstagramEvery piece starts out life as an organic experimentation of ink and watercolour, something I admire the freeness of and that I wish to do more of myself. The finalised designs are then printed on to some of the most luxurious stock around and their patterns are screaming to be prints, although the wrapping paper would cheekily do the job too. 

With Rachel now eight months pregnant, you may expect things to be slowing down and while yes, she’s looking longer term with her collections, she’s still fully stocked (also in the likes of the TATE and Anthropologie) and ready with her 2016/17 collection so read on to discover more and get a few little life lessons in the world of business!

Image courtesy of Prickle Press.

You initially trained as a designer for dance and theatre. Is this still a part of your life? Has it inspired the Prickle Press ranges?

Yes, I studied theatre and set design and then did an MA in Scenography where I focussed on lighting design for Dance at the Trinity Laban in Greenwich. I no longer work in the industry because once I was a couple of years into Prickle Press I found I couldn’t easily balance the two and so I decided to focus all my efforts on letterpressing. However, the skills I learnt are invaluable to my letterpress business. I use my set design, scale modelling and technical drawing skills when it comes to planning and making market and trade show displays. It also taught me a great deal about design in general and how to manage my time and a design budget. I can also see influences of my lighting design in the watercolour wash cards. My aesthetic has definitely remained the same!

What was it that initially sparked your interest in letterpress and would you mind telling us a little about the process?

I hadn’t heard of letterpress until my partner at the time decided to buy an Adana (a small bench-mounted letterpress) to play around with. I loved the tactile indentation a letterpress impresses into the paper but it took a lot of trial and error to get the hang of the machinery. I’m a slap dash kind of person and letterpress is all about precision and detail so I found it very frustrating at first. But once I got a handle on the machinery and eventually saw my own designs printed perfectly, I was hooked. 

I do some type work (using metal and wooden type) but the majority of my work starts as hand drawn illustrations or hand lettering. Every colour has to be printed separately so a lot of work goes into planning the design. I then scan and edit it before sending off to have polymer plates made of each part of the design. Then I can start the printing. First, I mix the ink to get the right colour before dotting a tiny bit of it onto the ink plate, then I attach the polymer plate to the base plate and sort the packing (this makes the indentation). The next stage is to get the design perfectly lined up and can take a lot of time especially with designs where the colours are closely linked, like my Little Prickle cards

Once I’m sure I’ve got the exact position, the right ink colour and quantity and the perfect impression I start printing by spinning the wheel and then treading the treadle by foot as I move the paper in and out of the press. After that I have to clean everything off, and start again with the next colour. It’s very labour intensive but incredibly rewarding and once the press is all set up I can print quite quickly (as long as I’m not 8 months pregnant like I currently am!) 

Image by Holly Booth, courtesy of Prickle Press.

You’re currently based in Brixton. Do you think the local area influences your designs in any way?
I feel really inspired by Brixton, by the people I have met through local organisations like Crafty Fox, Makerhood and Restart. There are new startups popping up in Brixton all the time and it’s encouraging to see and meet others running small businesses they are passionate about. However, my style and aesthetic is much more influenced by experimentation and process – I love sitting in my studio and playing with paint, ink, pens and colour and seeing what happens. I know I am constantly absorbing life around me, my community, nature, family, art galleries, social media etc but I do try to not be too influenced by trends and other designers. My intention is to create lasting, timeless designs which are very much my own aesthetic and so I try to keep my head down especially while designing new work.

This year you produced work for Vogue and Manolo Blahnik which is obviously such an honour. Can you tell us how that came about?

Yes, what an honour! I was just approached by a PR firm and asked to do some work with a really quick turnaround. I don’t normally work weekends, if I can help it, but when I heard it was to print the invitations for Manolo Blahnik’s new London shop opening with Vogue I said yes right away. The design was already set but they wanted it to be beautifully printed on luxurious paper. So in just a few days I managed to source the paper, digital printing and envelopes and have a plate made of the design they wanted letterpressing. As I always do, I took as much time as I could to ensure the letterpress printing was absolutely perfect and I was really happy with the results. I felt honoured to be asked and impressed/pleased that such a big firm would chose a little letterpress business like me to do it. I was even more thrilled when I got some feedback directly from the Manolo Blahnik shop to say how delighted they were with the invites and would be in touch again in the future. 

Image by Holly Booth, courtesy of Prickle Press.

Of course supporting independent businesses is increasingly becoming more and more important. How do you cope with the pressure of running your own business and what can we all do to raise awareness of smaller companies?

Yes, it’s so important to support independent businesses. I try as much as I can to buy whatever I can from small businesses and local ones if I can like the Turpentine in Brixton, small online independent shops like Scout Kids & Co or directly from designer/makers whenever I can – especially when it comes to gift giving. I also share my finds through my business newsletter, with my friends and on social media so I can do my bit to help support small businesses.

For my own life and business I’ve found a few ways to keep the pressure on my business under control. I’ve purposely kept my overheads really low – I generally try to keep just a small amount of stock, I’ve kept my studio at home (which is a pressure in itself but at least I don’t have to worry about rent!) and I try not to have any monthly outgoings which aren’t 100% necessary. Also, as a family we have structured our finances so they aren’t dependent on my income. That way if I do have a lean month or two I’m never worried about going bankrupt. I’m really privileged to be in this position and it means I do feel very free to try different things and keep pushing to create a business I am excited and passionate about first and foremost. 

I would say the pressure of having a young family at the same time is probably the toughest part of it, the split of focus, the unreliability of babies sleep and sickness and the emotional and financial burden of childcare. I’m trying to remember to have a long term view of these things. I want to create a business that’s still here in 10 years, rather than one that peaks in the short term but where I burn out and miss out on the very precious early days of my kids. So my business model has shifted – I now plan for the long, long term (for example for my next trade show in 2018!), I ask for as much time as I can to delivery on a project, I’ve learnt to say ‘no’ to projects that aren’t quite the right fit so I can focus on things that are, and I try to stay positive and focussed on the future rather than worrying about every little detail of how things are going today.

It’s been really hard to watch a number of small bricks and mortar shops, who had been loyal buyers of my work, close down over the years. I wish there was more I could do. The Just a Card campaign is also a fantastic idea, which I hugely support and hope more will too. I know it can be tough – just the other day I went into the Turpentine with a £10 budget for a present and couldn’t find anything. For a moment I was tempted to walk away and find something from a larger retailer to meet my budget but I decided it was more important that I supported an independent maker and so I stretched my budget – only to £15 but it meant I walked away having supported both the maker, the shop and given my friend a unique and special present she wouldn’t easily have got anywhere else. Everyone wins! Us independent businesses can only be here making beautiful, unique products and enriching lives for as long as we all get out there and buy them! 

Image by Holly Booth, courtesy of Prickle Press.

Finally, what’s in store for Prickle Press for the latter part of 2016 and beyond?

Like I said, I am expecting our second child this October so in all honesty I am going to be very focussed on that. This will be the first Christmas in seven years that I won’t be doing Christmas markets and I’m actually really glad for the break and the space from it all. I’ve spent all this year preparing new designs and printing an enormous amount of stock which (apart from perhaps a few weeks post birth) will continue to be sold from my online shop and to trade for the rest of the year. I’ve done this so that any time or energy I do find can be focussed on planning and designing new products for my 2018/19 collection. I’ve only just finished my 2016/17 range but my brain is already buzzing with ideas of how to expand my products and designs. I can’t wait to get into it all!

Thank you so much to Rachel for taking the time out of extremely busy and very heavily pregnant to answer all of my nosy q’s. I think there’s some extraordinarily important tips in her answers as well as so much passion and dedication – a clear reminder of why we we should all be following these small yet savvy businesses. 

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Emma Jane Palin is a freelance art consultant, interior stylist and multi-award-winning blogger residing in Margate, UK. She has worked with various home and lifestyle brands not limited to West Elm, Apple, John Lewis, Habitat, MADE, Caran D'Ache + No.3 Gin. Emma is also a regular contributor to Hunker where she writes about design trends and interior advice.

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