The rhythmic whirl of the printing wheel, the overwhelming smell of fresh ink, the tactile pleasure of running your fingertips over thick, cotton paper. These are all simple pleasures that compose the daily toils of Alischa Herrmann, the graphic designer who left a successful career as a corporate art director to explore her passion for the art of letterpress. Almost five years on since she made the decision to follow her heart rather than her head, her home-based studio Bespoke Letterpress is delighting people worldwide with its menagerie of carefully created paperie.Life’s turning points often materialise when we are feeling somewhat lost. After receiving a scholarship to study graphic design in Sydney, Alischa Herrmann had successfully worked her way up the ranks from graphic designer to art director in the corporate world. But at what some may have considered to be the zenith of her career, she soon began to realise that it wasn’t quite the right fit.
Her mind began to wander through career alternatives. Then, one night during a fortuitous session surfing the internet, she stumbled across the concept of the letterpress. “It was years ago, before letterpress had become popular – I didn’t even know what it was,” Alischa recalls. “Instantly I was just in awe of it, because graphic design originally comes from letterpress printing. It’s like what we do as designers but taking it back a century.”
The more she researched letterpress, the more she fell in love with it. At the same time, the more she worked in her corporate job, the more she felt increasingly burnt out and creatively stifled. As if compelled by the hand of fate, she began to keep her eye out for an old printing press she could acquire, talking to people from old museums and printing presses to see if they could help. But it was to no avail – most had been condemned to become scrap metal years ago.
Things finally began to fall into place after three years of searching, when Alischa got a call from a gentleman in Canberra who had heard of her quest to find an old letterpress. “He had an old 1893 letterpress sitting in his shed,” Alischa says, reliving her glee. “It had just been sitting there for about 20 years, going rusty. So we went down there with an old ute and picked it up – it was about 800 kg – and took it back to Sydney.”
But while she now had the press she had been seeking so dearly, she realised that she had no idea what to do with it. “It was so daunting,” Alischa laughs. “How do you make this thing that’s 120 years old actually work?” In 2007, around that same time, Alischa’s husband Hayden, a pilot for Virgin, received word that he was being transferred to Brisbane. Alischa seized the opportunity to start a new chapter in her life.
The couple found a house just a few blocks away from the beach at Scarborough and set about renovating it into their new abode. The letterpress sat quietly downstairs, continuing the solitude it had been keeping for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Alischa started teaching graphic design full time at Shillington College and continued for the next 12 months while she delved deeper into her research into letterpress printing.
By a stroke of fate, she encountered an old letterpress printer nearing his eighties, named Bob. “He was so excited that I wanted to learn about printing,” she reflects fondly. “He had all this knowledge, but he was going to die without anyone to pass it on to.”
Bob gladly took Alischa under his wing as a quasi-apprentice, passing on to her all that he knew about the art of letterpress. “I’d go and help him two days a week and on the weekend, and he would teach me little bits and pieces,” she says. “It was almost as if I was going through the apprenticeship that he had almost 60 years earlier. He taught me everything he knew over the course of a couple of years.”
Alischa soon reduced her teaching to part-time and leaped into her new career, beginning mostly with wedding invitations and then branching out into stationery, cards and other paperie. In late 2008, she came across another letterpress to add to her mechanical menagerie – a 1973 Heidelberg T Platen, which she affectionately named ‘Herbie’ (joining her original press, ‘Charlie’) – which she purchased from an old printer in Ipswich. The two ‘boys’ were then joined in 2011 by ‘Helga’, a 1972 Heidelberg T Platen, to complete the letterpress family. Charlie, powered by foot treadle, usually takes care of smaller print runs, while the more sprightly Herbie and Helga are in charge
of the larger printing tasks.
In addition to the three letterpresses, Alischa also calls upon the assistance of her studio manager, Ruby Tuesday – a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever with a lustrous copper coat and angelic eyes – whose primary responsibility is greeting couriers. Several part-time assistants and Alischa’s husband Hayden also lend a hand to ensure the home-based business runs efficiently.
Asked where her love for such large, lumbering machines comes from, Alischa admits to a childhood fascination with her father’s earth-moving machines and the smell of oil and grease that would emanate from his workshop. Also citing her mother’s unrequited creative streak as an influence, Alischa reveals that as a child everyone always told her that she would one day become an artist. “But I can’t draw to save myself,” she giggles. “I think I’m more creative than artistic. I used to make hair clips and sell them at school and I soon realised that I could produce things that other people couldn’t be bothered to, or didn’t know how to.”
Reflecting on her career to this point, Alischa admits that being an entrepreneur in charge of her own fate is far more work than the life of a corporate art director – but she wouldn’t change it for a moment. “It’s all-consuming and it’s such a different life,” she says. “I wake up and start work and people come in to help me. But then they all go home and I work all through the night and then go to bed. And then it all starts again the next day and never really stops. I’m always talking about work and it doesn’t disappear, but that’s what makes it work in the end. I absolutely love it and if I had a choice to be sitting watching TV or to be sitting making something, I’d always choose the latter.”
Her greatest challenge, she reveals, is realising that she can’t do everything herself. “It’s a really hard thing to learn,” she says candidly. “When I first started I was pretty much doing everything myself and I couldn’t. I soon realised that, in order to make it successful, I had to let go and let other people help me.”
But the whimsical designs of Bespoke Letterpress, Alischa emphasises, will always come from her own hand. “I just couldn’t let someone else design for me,” she says passionately. “Because that’s the part that I love the most.”
Having just turned 30, what she is most proud of is the fact that she has chased her dream and caught it. “I had to be willing to make no money for the first few years and really just be brave,” she says. “At the time, I don’t think I thought about it too much – I just knew I wanted it and I loved it and believed it could work. If I was going to inject everything I had into it, how could it not work?”
And therein lies Alischa’s wisdom to the world. “Be brave and follow your own path,” she advises. “Believe in yourself – you’ll get a better result by going where you want to go rather than following in someone else’s footsteps.”
interview & photography by