My love affair with letterpress began long before I ever understood the technology—there was just something about the way it felt and looked that made it seem special. Letterpressed greeting cards were the last to be used, and invitations and posters were stacked and stored on my book shelves, even if I’d never made it to the advertised event. Ben Webster, founder and owner of The Mandate Press, nails my infatuation with the medium easily. “The appeal is that impression, that tactile quality. It becomes literally a little more intimate of an experience,” he says. “You experience something that has been letterpressed: You can see it, you can feel it—it has some character to it. It has some soul.”
Webster, who founded The Mandate Press in 2004, studied graphic design in college, graduated to land a job working in a modern print shop helping with pre-press, and eventually took a letterpress class through the University of Utah’s Book Arts Program. “I was hoping to get a history lesson on type, which I did, but along the way was introduced to these old presses, which fascinated me,” says Webster. Shortly after the class ended, Webster stumbled upon an old press that someone was trying to get rid of and purchased it for the price that the owner would have gotten if he’d sold it for scrap metal. Eventually, Webster opened up a space in Poor Yorick studios and began printing business cards, art and greeting cards. “It grew to the point that the hobby was big enough that it was encroaching on the day job,” he says. “I happened to be in a spot where I didn’t love my day job.” Using his 2004 tax return to jump-start the business, Webster officially opened The Mandate Press in 2005 with two presses, only one of which really worked.
The Mandate Press’s current digs are a world away from their humble, one-room beginnings. Last year, Webster relocated the business to a brick building just under 8,000 sq. feet on 1077 S. Main Street. The new building features an impressive storefront that doubles as a gallery, and also displays five pieces of older printing equipment—two hand-cranked Vandercook 4 cylinder presses (one which Webster says is in a state of perpetual restoration), a paper cutter and two almost-identical, 10 x 15 platen presses—one from the ’50s and the other that is over 100 years old, the oldest press in the shop. The older of the two presses was actually retrieved from a basement a few blocks away from Mandate’s current home. Webster explains that, while still housed in Poor Yorick, an ancient man came through, saw his existing press and asked if he was interested in another. “Turns out his dad had been a printer and printed out of his basement,” says Webster. “I used to print a lot on it. I’ll never get rid of it. It has some local history. To me, it meant something that it was his father’s press.”
The ancient technology that sits in the front of the house is interesting, but it’s the functional machines in the back room that are most impressive. An automated Vandercook Universal 1 cylinder press, a Frontex Automatic, two automated Heidelberg Windmill platen presses and one massive, 11,000-pound automated Heidelberg S Model cylinder press share this space and process the majority of The Mandate Press’s daily work. Webster flips one of the automated windmills on and it begins to huff and wheeze as it goes through the motions it takes to create a print. The fascination with letterpress becomes clearer. These archaic machines, built like tanks, awkwardly large and incredibly heavy, are as beautiful as the work they create—but as the technology is obsolete, and the majority of companies defunct, when something breaks, it’s typically up to the owners to attempt to cannibalize something from another machine. “You end up being part-time mechanic and part-time printer, which is really half my interest: in the machines themselves,” says Webster.
Although Mandate has yet to expand their number of presses, Webster says that moving into the larger space will eventually accommodate that goal. He plans to eventually add another massive, automated Heidelberg cylinder press to the back room.
Despite opening their storefront, which has expanded their local presence, Webster notes that the majority of their jobs still come from out of state—rattling off projects like actor Tobey Maguire’s personal stationary, and letterhead and business cards for the Johnson & Johnson company as some recent work. “Only five to 10 percent [of our business] is in state. It bugs us––we want to do a lot more here,” he says. Their in-state work may not dominate their workload, but the pieces they have created are memorable. In the past year, Mandate has printed the cover of Tyler Densley’s zine, Acid Math, posters for X96’s Big Ass Show and a handful of collaborations with Salt Lake City’s AIGA. They also designed the label artwork for the X96 and Squatters collaborative “Red as Hell” ale.
On July 7, The Mandate Press will present some of their letterpressed glory during the 2012 Alternative Press Fest, held inside the Salt Lake City Main Library. Check out their table for prints and sketchbooks, or visit them online at themandatepress.com to order some of your own letterpressed gems.