Inspiration at Noah Olmstead's Vintage Letterpress
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Letter ManOctober/November 2014
By Fache Desrochers
Photos: Jacki Potorke
Noah Olmstead gazes calmly into the whirring innards of his 1952 Heidelberg letterpress machine. There’s a hiss of air and a metallic clap, and then with one deft move of his expertly tattooed arm, Olmstead reaches in and plucks out a gift tag from his Christmas line. It is perfectly embossed, meticulously cut and slightly warm to the touch. The tag is not big, but there is something incredibly substantial about it. From the weighty paper to the deep, tactile impressions of the letters, this tag is a little gift in its own right: an obvious object of careful design. But then, with its elegant tools and rich history, the whole art of letterpress printing is a time-honored exercise in careful design.“I just love letterpress…how you can actually feel the design,” says Olmstead. “It’s pretty unique. The whole traditional printing process has always been an inspiration to me.”
Uniqueness and inspiration seem to be the cornerstones of Olmstead’s life as well as his business. Just looking around the Vintage Letterpress studio is a feast for the senses. Located in the middle of an orange orchard in Exeter, Olmstead’s workspace is situated just behind his historic farmhouse home, which is painted as pink as a birthday cake. But once inside his studio, the vibe becomes decidedly punk rock: the walls are adorned with a curation of clever prints and band posters. Letterpress plates and boxes of artwork crowd the tabletops, while crates of vinyl records are stacked thickly below. The steady hum and clatter of print machinery fills the air, blending in odd harmony with the minimalist, splashy sounds of a punk rock band from Olmstead’s own independent record label. It’s a diverse space, to be sure. But this range of aesthetics that defines Olmstead’s life is what gives Vintage Letterpress its ability to create everything from a sleek, industrial rebranding campaign to a beautifully romantic wedding invitation to a cheeky greeting card set. And with a medium as compelling as this one, why limit oneself? “There’s so much you can do with letterpress,” says Olmstead. “And if I think it looks rad, I’m going to do it.”
His hometown of Sonoma is where Olmstead first fell in love with the letterpress process. “I started working at a print shop in town, and I was just amazed at the equipment. The owner was this awesome old German dude, and he had a dozen Heidelberg printing machines,” says Olmstead. “He was the master, and so I learned from a really genuine expert.” Twenty years later, Olmstead still harbors a certain affection for the equipment that got him started. The press he works on now is the same model favored by his first letterpress employer. “It’s an amazing machine…kind of an art object,” Olmstead says, smiling affectionately at his press. “Print people call them ‘Heidis.’”
Olmstead’s core values of creating a good life for his family and pursuing excellence in the print and letterpress world have taken him all over the country. From consulting in corporate print positions to managing mom and pop letterpress shops, Olmstead has pretty much done it all. These days, he is focusing on the things that he finds the most fulfilling. “Moving to the Valley has really given me some time to get into my art,” says Olmstead. “I never really thought I was an artist, but friends of mine have encouraged me to embrace it. Plus, it’s great that I can design and print from home now, because I can be around for the kids.”
Olmstead has only been in Exeter for three years, but with his passion for community, he comes off like a lifelong resident. When Adam Furtado of Visalia’s Velouria Records was brutally assaulted earlier this year, Olmstead wasted no time in creating a collaboration piece with one of his favorite artists to be raffled off at a benefit for Furtado’s recovery. “Doing that benefit collaboration was a personal success for me, because it was helpful to a friend, and it was awesome to get that sense of community,” says Olmstead. “I’m a small town guy, so being here in Exeter is rad for me.”
All in all, it turns out that Olmstead has quite a bit in common with his beloved 1952 Heidelberg: old-school integrity, timeless design skills and a talent for making an excellent impression.
Vintage Letterpress • (805) 776-2500