Meet the Maker: SORT Design March 20 2014

In an increasing digital age where everyone seems to carry a portable device, we felt it was important that our first considered essential should very much embrace the analogue and nothing does that more than a handmade paper notebook - a forever trusted pocket essential.

We wanted the design to reflect the inspiration and spirit behind Pedal + Tread as well as embrace a more traditional production approach in order to create a very unique and tactile product. With this in mind we turned to our friends; the Society of Revisionist Typographers, otherwise known as SORT, to design and make our first commission.

Consisting of Mr Tom Boulton and Mr Theo Wang, SORT specialises in letterpress printing and typographic design and operate out of two spaces; one in Clerkenwell, London and one in Bognor Regis on the South Coast of England. 

We caught up with Theo at their Clerkenwell studio to see our notebooks come together and learn more about SORT and the craft of letterpress printing.

What made you guys start SORT back in 2009?

We both graduated from the London College of Printing (now Communication) after studying typographic design but didn’t really feel we fitted in to the, mainly digital, design world at the time. We’d both been heavily interested in Letterpress, screen printing and book binding and really wanted to create design work in a more tactile, physical way. Plus we were very keen on the idea of craftsmanship and making things based on skill and traditional techniques. 

How is your working environment set up?

Our Bognor Regis workshop has the majority of our equipment; four full size, upright, treadle pattern presses all dating back from the 1890s roughly. Plus over 200 trays of type and all manner of assorted printing ephemera. Our Clerkenwell studio is based in Cockpit Arts and is much smaller but still has two presses and about 50 trays of type.

We split the work between the two spaces depending on the requirements, so most of the notebooks and stationary sets are made in Bognor where there is more space while things like personal commissions and greeting cards are done up in Clerkenwell which is also useful for clients to visit.

Can you talk us through your main working process - letterpress?

The process itself is one of contact printing, meaning that it relies on physically transferring ink onto a surface. Essentially we’ll compose the design with the type and ornamental blocks from our collection, lock that into place and transfer the composition into the machine.

The machine is then run manually, all our presses are powered by a foot treadle rather than electricity. The machine inks the composition and the paper is manually hand-fed into the machine where it makes the impression. The print is then removed and you keep going with the next one. Most of the time is spent doing the composition and setting up the machines correctly, all the alignment has to be done by eye and the pressure has to be just right to work correctly. But on a good day once the set-up has been done, each of us can put out about 1500 prints by hand.

What are the main materials, tools and machines you use?

Mostly we print onto good quality, 300gsm card stock. Where possible we always try to use recycled or FSC regulated stock. The inks we use are extremely thick and oil based but the process is very efficient and there is very little wastage compared to modern lithography.

 

Pretty much everything we do is carried out on one of our vintage presses. All were restored by us from various states of disrepair. Where possible we always try to stick to using our collection of lead and woodblock type for our designs but we also work with plates for commissions.

What inspires and motivates your work?

We both have a deep rooted love of print, design and ephemera and take a great deal of inspiration from the Victorian era, both in terms of the language they used as well as the visual aesthetic. But we are also very keen on some of the more modernist typographic styles such as Constructivism, Bauhaus and DaDa.

What do you like most about what you do?

Designing and making things with our hands was always one of our main goals. Since we do almost everything in-house, being able to see a project through from the concept stage, design, production, finishing and ultimately having an end product that was done from scratch by you is immensely satisfying.

Do you feel you have a responsibility towards your trade?

We feel that we have a responsibility to promote letterpress as a viable form of print production, for sure. In the last few years it has undergone a bit of a renaissance but when we first started up it was definitely seen by some as a dead industry and a waste of time. So much equipment has been lost or broken down and sold for scrap. We are very keen to make sure that it doesn’t die out completely and that the skills and amazing machinery aren’t lost forever. Plus we also feel that it’s important to show that it is relevant in the modern world as well; that you can produce well made, contemporary, affordable print design in letterpress and not just have it as a niche, artisan novelty.

What would you like people to gain from your work?

Probably to see the craftsmanship that has been involved in the making process, enjoy the unique properties of letterpress printing. But also to use the things we make too! It’s always quite pleasing to see someone with one of our notebooks; well worn, filled with scribblings, doodles and random bits of paper.

What’s to come in the future for SORT?

We are aiming to get our new range of wedding stationary launched very soon, plus we have another exciting event in the works that we should be able to announce in the coming weeks. And we’re always working on adding some new designs to our range of products, possibly a few new formats this Summer.

And finally, what does fresh air living mean to you?

Well Tom is down on the South Coast so he’s never far away from the seaside and bracing sea air! But he also owns an allotment and does a fine line of fruit and veg in his spare time.

I’m based in London so my fresh air tends to be of the park variety but it’s definitely nice to escape out of town once in a while.

For more information about SORT and the products and services they offer, head over to their website: www.sortdesign.com