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Letterpress exhibit features boldly designed posters

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It sits on lower Broadway in Nashville, completely at home surrounded by boot shops and honky-tonks that play country music all day long. With 5,500 square feet, 10 employees, three rotary telephones and two cats, this iconic space creates and pays homage to an art form that changed the world.

The place is Hatch Show Print. The art form is letterpress printing.

The busy print shop has none other than Johannes Gutenberg, who invented letterpress in the 1400s, to thank for its craft.

"Gutenberg was responsible for this printing press and moveable type system that completely democratized communication and created the thirst that ultimately paved the way for the Internet," said Lisa Cumbey, managing partner and creative director for Propolis Design Group in Richmond.

The Library of Virginia is giving visitors a glimpse into the world of letterpress and its Nashville-based standard bearer with “American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print.” 

Organized by Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions Services (SITES), it features about 50 brightly colored, boldly designed posters old and new. They advertise everything from musicians and movies to everyday items such as Holsum Coffee, Graves Sausage and Frigidaire.

Brothers Herbert and Charles Hatch opened Hatch Show Print in 1879. That was the year in which Thomas Edison introduced the incandescent light bulb to the world.

Jim Sherraden is the show's curator. He's also the manager of Hatch Show Print, where he's worked since 1984. Sherraden calls the shop a "working museum."

The "museum" part of the equation means celebrating the legacy of letterpress printing and entertaining the 50,000 people who walk through Hatch's doors every year. The "working" part means handling a busy workload of 600 print jobs a year, many for today's top musical acts.

"I can guarantee you that we've done a poster for most any music that kids have on their iPods today," Sherraden said. Those acts range from Clint Black to Coldplay, Arcade Fire to Alan Jackson, Minnie Pearl to Pearl Jam.

According to Sherraden, Jamie Mahoney of Virginia Commonwealth University was one of the first college instructors to predict a revival of interest in letterpress among today's students. About eight years ago, the professor of graphic design started a class in letterpress printing. Interest in the class is so high, it's filled through the spring of 2013.

Mahoney said there's often an "aha!" moment for students when they connect the dots between letterpress's past and its continuing relevance.

The typographical term "leading," for example, originated from one part of the process in which a lead strip is inserted between two lines of type in order to separate them. The terms "uppercase" and "lowercase" evolved from the fact that letterpress shops stored capital letters in one case and non-capital letters in a separate case beneath it.

How to explain the revival of interest in letterpress, particularly among college design students?

For Sherraden, it's that letterpress is "tangible, earthy, the antithesis of digital design. It's their mystery. Mine is how Bluetooth technology works. This is theirs."

For Cumbey, it's that "the computer has only been ubiquitous for a short time, and already there's a revolution happening against the sterility of the screen." She added, "What's so wonderful about letterpress is that it's like a prehistoric creature that breathes and groans. It's slow. It's measured. It's tactile. It's so different than what we do today."

For Mahoney, it's that "this generation of students cut their teeth on digital technology. At the same time, they're fascinated with creating work with their hands."

All of which leads us back to Hatch Show Print and why it's perhaps more relevant than ever. "Hatch," said Cumbey, "is the consummate reminder that our hands matter."

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