Studio on Fire has been making letterpress prints for over a decade and boasts seven presses and people working on high grade design and print work.  Studio on Fire founder Ben Levitz tells us about the basement origins of the business and details that go into the art of letterpress printing.

Photos and interview by Kelsey Johnston

Secrets of the City
: Where are you from Ben?

Ben Levitz: I am from Minnesota. I grew up in North Branch which is north of the Twin Cities a good 45 minutes away and have remained in Minnesota except for a brief couple year stint in the Bay area.

SotC: How did you get started in the field?

BL: I got started post college at College of Visual Arts with a communication major. In the foundation year you have to declare a major and in the sophomore ending year I was really trying to decide between a sculpture major and a design major and went for a design major I because, I wanted to eat. I figured I’d get my design job and then after that I can go back and buy a welder and do the sculpture thing.

I graduated in 1998 and got my first design job working at a Company Kilter doing retail design work, especially for Target early on. In the case of retail design it was 8-10 hours a day in front of the computer and not really building anything with my hands. Not painting, drawing, or making anything; that “making” aspect was really missing from being a design professional. I had done my senior thesis on a typographer from 1920’s and began to get an understanding how the earlier guys did it. This was a very blue collar industry and the guys who knew how to draw types knew how to cut types and understood the process.  I found that after going to school I didn’t really understand the production side of what I was doing. You can design so much better if you know what the capabilities of what the work involves.

That was an eye opener for me and when I did my thesis I when I went to a St. Paul Art Crawl and I saw this old late 1800’s C & P letterpress like the one that’s in our lobby and next to it was a G3 Jelly Bean Mac and when I saw those two things together I remember thinking it was the perfect juxtaposition of design technologies. I entered it as a hobby, working, experimenting in my basement. I got situated between the boiler and the litter box. I had to share with the cats. I don’t like cats. My wife likes cats.

SotC: Tell me about the recent work Studio on Fire has been doing.

BL: Our studio has expanded in the last couple years has been working in conjunction with other designers. Our blog beatspieces.com which chronicles our projects going through that are unique or are featuring and they’re from designers all of the country, even all over the world and the client base has expanded too. Working closely with other designers versus designing everything we produce has been a good way to keep the work going through the production, certainly at a volume and keep it interesting for the guys who are working here.

Everything that we print is custom we’re not producing a library of wedding invitations and I think a lot of letterpress design studios have gone that direction and they produce their card line or cherry blossom wedding invitation with script fonts you know and name it something clever in their library. To me that rings just a little bit hollow in terms of design capability.

SotC: Who are your clients?

BL: Our clients are other designers so agencies, design firms, some individuals; with individuals we’ll design and produce the project. Those are some of the more satisfying projects because we are owning the whole process. Those people tend to be entrepreneurs, starting a business or giving their look a reboot. A lot of photographers.

SotC: Letterpress is a very old, almost ancient process, what excites you about the history?

BL: I’m excited about the tactility that comes with letterpress and it’s always been a medium of mixing materials with the different papers you can use to achieve a more sculptural look which is more modern. We had the guys that were doing letterpress 30 years ago look at the work we were doing and they ask “were you trying to dye cut this?”. They were almost disgusted with the quality from a design standpoint to have that much pressure was not considered good printing.  What’s exciting about modern letterpress is that there’s a flow of information from your desktop still able to put on these old presses.

SotC: What’s your favorite piece of equipment?

BL: The new Swiss press that we had come up online called a Gietz and it has parallel impressions. It is able to be hand fed so you can use some really thick material and not have to worry about trying to get it to auto feed through the press. Sometimes it’s nice to slow down and do things by hand.

SotC: Words of advice?

BL: Try and find somebody to be kind to.

SotC: What is the best part about working in Minneapolis?

BL: Truly the diversity of the business and artistic community. I think in a lot of ways they co-mingle and support each other very well.

SotC: Favorite Minneapolis establishment?

BL: I have been really admiring those businesses that make a conservative effort from a food standpoint or be local and to be organically responsible. The two that come to mind are Brassa and Red Stag.

SotC: Who shot the Serif?

BL: It was Helvetica.