"How'd They Print That?" Business Card Fiction

The Hornbeams and Willie Voltaires. The Blackbucks. The Ismays and Chrysties. Beluga, the tobacco importer. Da Fontano, the promoter. Mr. P. Jewett, American Legion head. These are some of the characters that Nick Carraway, protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, encounters at his neighbor’s parties. From this colorful guest list, Jason Kernevich—co-founder of The Heads of State, a design and illustration firm in Philadelphia, PA—crafted a poster imagining their business cards, drawing inspiration from the barest of descriptions.

Kernevich designed all 32 business cards over the course of four months, using a mix of period typefaces as well more contemporary ones that clearly weren’t available in the 1920s. Kernevich sought to capture the spirit of the time, more than typographic historical accuracies. And to translate this vintage spirit into an actual product, there was no better option than letterpress. Based in Minneapolis, MN, Studio on Fire is both a design firm and letterpress studio. The latter has grown from what it describes as a single press that “occupied a spot between the boiler and the litter box” to running a dozen presses with 15 employees. The firm was tapped by The Heads of State to bring to life “The Great Gatsby Business Card Print.” One of the first things one notices about the poster is the backgrounds that delineate each business card: printed cream, red, gray, or yellow against the stark white of French Paper’s Dura-Tone line; they are anything but even and lightly splotchy, as if the ink never adhered. “Salty” is what letterpress printers call it and was once considered a “drawback” of letterpress: the inability to print solid blocks of color. But to elicit the spirit of the ’20s, it was perfect.

Studio on Fire ran this job on its 21-by-28-inch Heidelberg S Cylinder, a machine built in the early 1950s. Printing on 20-by-26-inch sheets and working towards an 18-by-24-inch trim size, polymer plates were output in-house with the utmost care, as any speckle of dust or scratch on such large areas of polymer can easily show up on press. Another concern with the solid blocks was the effect the plates and pressure would have on the paper as it can start to ripple and distort. As opposed to cottony papers, French Paper can handle this type of pressure better: a must for a sheet that has to go through the press four times, each time changing its surface and density.

Because so much ink was being placed on each poster, and there were a lot of design elements that overprinted, each color pass required overnight drying. Adding to overall production time was makeready, which took about 60 or 90 minutes—in contrast to, say, the 15 minutes it takes to set up a business card—plus an hour to run the limited-edition of 100 and another 30 minutes for wash-up.

The effort and time certainly was worthwhile. The poster has been well received—including by some high school English teachers who see it as a teaching aid—and a second edition of 150, this time on French’s Poptone line, has been completed. Luckily, Studio on Fire keeps most of its plates in case of reprints. (They advise keeping plates sealed in plastic bags and in a dark room, as light makes the polymer brittle over time). The only thing left to wonder is what Gatsby’s business card would look like. PN

Armin Vit is co-founder of Under Consideration, a graphic design firm and publishing enterprise. Check out his FPO (For Print Only) blog online.

Editor’s note: Printing News is excited that “How’d They Print That?” returned last month after a 15-month hiatus. For years, the wildly popular page graced the back of the now-defunct Graphic Arts Monthly magazine.

Armin Vit is co-founder of UnderConsideration, a graphic design firm and publishing enterprise all rolled into one. Among the handful of design industry blogs he runs is FPO (For Print Only), celebrating the reality that print is not dead by showcasing the most compelling printed projects.