You learned to letterpress in 2005 during a bookmaking workshop. What appealed to you about the process of letterpress and inspired you to start Underwood Press?
I learned to print while taking a bookmaking class as an undergrad. We were exposed to a ton of different print techniques and just so happened to get an overview of letterpress during one of the classes. I had never heard of it, but was immediately intrigued. It’s like we were long lost best friends, finally crossing paths. I ended up teaching myself how to make plates and print over the course of the class and decided to letterpress print my final project which was a series of 5 children’s stories about my adventures in San Francisco with my Nonie. The combination of design, careful planning—but simultaneous improvisation, plus getting to work on my feet and get my hands dirty is a dream. I’m so happy when I’m on press.
My oh my. My love for snail mail started as a young girl. I absolutely loved receiving mail and have fond memories of skipping down the driveway to the mailbox hoping that I might find a letter addressed to my eight-year-old self. I had a strange loyalty to the mail I received and have a large box of letters that I’ve been collecting from a young age. I even have my first love letter from a class mate in first grade. He had attached chocolate kisses to it and I’m pretty sure those are still intact. Did I just admit that?
Please tell me about a memorable piece of mail that you have received.
The first holiday after President Obama was elected, I received a Christmas card from his family. Although it was probably a mass mailing to all of his campaign supporters, I somehow felt so special–and for a second, let myself believe that we are friends, like real friends. The Obamas are now on my Christmas card list and I will continue to send them holiday greetings each year. I’m gonna miss them in Office so much, but am thankful that we had eight years with them.
Bold colors and patterns are part of the Underwood aesthetic. Where do you draw inspiration from for your designs?
I’ve had the privilege of traveling to some seriously color-informed places like West Africa, Istanbul and others. I studied African Art as an undergrad and was really drawn to the use of color and improvisation–which is a gross simplification of a continent’s incredible approach to artistic expression. I learned so much by observing the living art in these places and also had the opportunity to learn in depth about the design and production process of textiles while living in Niamey, Niger.
I also love looking at fashion trends and architecture and seeing where the boundaries are being pushed. I think it’s so helpful to look outside of our industry for inspiration. This sometimes leads to crazy ideas, but it’s necessary.
This is such a fun part of what we do. Scouring through our collection of vintage stamps is like taking a trek through history — they are full of cultural references that always surprise me. We started curating by color when we began the business and have put together some amazing sets that turn the average envelope in to a piece of art. One funny part of the job is that we have a box of “do not use” stamps, which contain stamps that are no longer PC or culturally inappropriate – the mildest of which is a stamp about the Pap Test. I can’t see a bride or shopper being excited to put that one on their snail mail.
Custom work allows me to push the boundaries with production techniques and materials. I love experimenting with new mediums and trying out new color combinations. I recently did a set of business cards for a colleague in the wedding industry. She came to me with a tall order and though I had my doubts, we dove right in. We hand-painted, letterpress-printed and foil-stamped 1,000 business. Oh, and gilded the edges. It was a lot of manual labor but so fun to figure out the production process. The end result was incredible and each card is totally different feels like a little piece of art. I love working with clients who want to see the outcome of artistic challenges and aren’t afraid of surprises.
Well, the most prominent lesson in my mind was to always send thank you notes and to always, always put the date on it. If I didn’t, I usually got a phone call. She also really stressed the importance of dating everything. She was a talented refinisher of antique wood and once she finished a piece, she wrote the date and any details about the piece on the bottom. You could turn any chair upside down in her house and find an interesting story among the details recorded. At one time she had over 100 chairs in her lovely home so you can imagine what kind of journey that could be. I guess her home was a living museum of sorts. Aside from the most prominent lesson she taught me, I think the most important lesson she taught me was persistence. She is an incredibly resourceful person and when I was young, I watched solve problems in a snap or create magic out of nothing. She’s so fun and assertive and in her older years, that hasn’t changed a bit.
Photos: Jen Emerling