To step into the garage that Jen and Fran Shea have transformed into their studio is to take a step back in time.
Copper-stamping plates, moveable type, and brushes litter the space. The smell of ink and paper permeate. And the steady drumbeat of the clamshell press that does their bidding punctuates the silence.
Welcome to Zeichen Press, a South Minneapolis outpost that is one of several new printing shops to embrace a technique driven nearly to extinction by the inkjet printer (yes, add slow type to the growing list of let’s-all-take-our-time trends).
For the Sheas, the setup is the realization of a five-year-old dream fulfilled.
Designers by trade, the sisters-in-law began printmaking as a creative outlet that they could pursue while staying at home with their young children.
Though they said beginning the business was difficult, they are now printing more than 3,000 pieces a week. Their lines of stationary, posters and custom prints are distributed around the world, and can be found locally at the Weisman Art Museum, Seward Co-op and Mississippi Market.
“We didn't know anything about business, or printing,” Jen says. “We just kind of went.”
The culprit, they say, is the machine.
“It's a machine that's bigger than us, telling us what to do,” says Jen. “We're just along for the ride. Don't think that we know what we're doing like we're in the driver's seat or something.”
“We're in the back of the cab,” Fran quips.
The Shea’s are being humble, though.
In an era of digital prints, their work stands out, even amid the quickly growing letterpress market. While many studios use customized polymer plates, the Sheas stick to the traditional process and look. All of their work is custom.
“It's a pain, but it looks better,” Jen says.
The growth can also be attributed to the fact that the Sheas rarely turn down work. As long as it fits the witty style that has become the Zeichen Press trademark, they say they are willing to pursue almost any project that comes their direction.
“I'll say yes to a project and Jen will just make that sound,” says Fran. “And I'm like, ‘What? It'll be awesome!’”
The moans usually cede to list making – and three weeks of work.
“It always works out,” Jen says.