Interview: Brady Vest Of Hammerpress In Kansas City

For centuries of human civilization, printed matter was one of the most precious things that money could buy. Today, in our internet arena, with its paperless rapid-fire exchange of information, paradoxically it has become even more valuable, thanks to punk-rock posters, gorgeous greeting cards, Gutenberg-era technology and the work of makers like Brady Vest, founder and owner of Hammerpress in Kansas City.

Vest has spent the past 23 years hand-inking plates, designing images and type that grab the eye, and contributing to a global renaissance of letterpress techniques in the modern marketplace.

Keep reading for our conversation with Vest in which we cover design’s place in the world, shaking down strangers for type cabinets and why the Midwest is the ideal place to take a chance.

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Tell me about the birth of Hammerpress.
I started Hammerpress during my last year in college at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), in 1994. There were a couple of guys in the printmaking department who were doing a lot of screen printing and some letterpress work, and they were making a lot of cool stuff that I gravitated towards, like band posters and record covers. More product object-based art. It felt different than the lithography and etchings that lived in gallery spaces. It had more of a place in the world. So, I decided to veer over there and tinker with that stuff. This was all pre-internet, pre-everything that allows everybody to know what letterpress is, so it was still considered a kind of obsolete thing. I started working with friends who were either writers or musicians, and we started making packaging and posters for shows for punk-rock bands.

A lot of people don’t know how letterpress actually works, or how physically intensive and industrial of a process it is. To me, it’s this beautiful design craft that we might associate with something like wedding invitations or hyper-graphic tour posters. How is letterpress actually done?
Letterpress prints are printed one color at a time, so whether it’s being done using printing plates or handset, antique lead and wood type, you’re doing it layer by layer. So if you have a greeting card, for example, that incorporates three colors and you’re doing a thousand of them, you’re running all thousand in one color and switching the plates out for each consecutive color and doing it all again. For some of our band posters, which are really intricate, there are maybe 6 or 7 colors. We do have some newer auto-feeding presses, but on the larger pieces like that, we still do it manually, literally hand-cranking each poster through the press over and over.  It can be tedious, but it sounds worse to people who haven’t done it before. [Laughs.]

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It sounds like music has been at the core of Hammerpress’ story. Your tour posters are some of my favorites. Which have been particularly fun to develop?
Right now, we’re doing a poster for the VIP party after the Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam show. That’s really cool. We just did a poster for X for their 40th-anniversary tour. There are a couple of bands, like Loop, a UK psych band from the ’80s and ’90s, that I’m just a big fan of, and that’s why we took those on. It’s definitely a labor of love.

You started Hammerpress before the advent of the internet and built it into a business in tandem with the proliferation of online retail. I know that letter press became better-known after eCommerce was invented, which is somewhat ironic, considering that the internet is ostensibly a replacement for printed matter. How has that affected your business’ trajectory?
There weren’t a lot of dedicated places where you could buy or sell letterpress equipment [back when Hammerpress began]. It was all just a little more esoteric. I’d just go to old print shops and knock on the door and say, “Hey, do you have any old stuff that you want to get rid of?” Most of the time, people had already thrown in it in a dumpster because it was obsolete, heavy and taking up a ton of space. And other times it would be really cheap.

It’s also changed a lot about how we sell our work. We started our online shop around 2003, and we started getting orders from all over the country—I mean, we just thought the whole world was gonna change. One of the first orders we got was from some guy in the UK who ordered, like, $200 worth of posters, which was almost every poster we were producing at the time. We felt like someone just spilled a million dollars in front of us.

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How would you describe the Hammerpress aesthetic? I know you employ several other designers, and you’re often producing prints for outside designers and clients as well. But for a true Hammerpress original, designed and produced by Brady Vest, what about it is uniquely yours?
For me, there’s a lot of connection to the actual materials of letter-press printing, like handset type, border rule, ornaments and different weird papers that I started using at KCAI because they were cheap. There tends to be a lot of layering, and a lot of really minute, intricate detail, almost architectural layouts of spacing materials and printing materials. It’s a process of putting that all together and trying to find a way for all of it to make sense. [Laughs.]

Why has Hammerpress stayed in Kansas City for the past 23 years? Is it a particularly good place to be a maker?
Yeah. Kansas City is a really place different than it was 20 years ago; it was a little bit of an open frontier back then. But there’s always been a tangible group of people here that are interested in doing cool things. From a design perspective, I think there’s a big draw to Kansas City for designers—so many big agencies have historically been in Kansas City, including Hallmark, which is definitely a reason why so many people like me came to school here and stayed. But then it’s also a city where it’s easy to take chances. It’s easier to start your own business or run your own gallery, because the cost is so manageable. Not to be super pragmatic about it, but because it was cheap, it allows people to plant their roots here and start something really cool.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Images provided by Hammerpress.

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