PROVO — Bryce Knudson’s grandparents instilled in him at an early age the importance of hard work and work done well. Even as a teenager, he says he found himself concerned about how the quality of everyday things seemed to be compromised by mass production.
“I was just a weird, purist kid,” Bryce said.
Today, Bryce, 40, runs Bjørn Press and Design out of a studio behind his Provo home. The business specializes in letterpress, a form of artisan relief printing, and is also run by his wife Deborah Knudson.
“I wanted to own my own business, do my own thing,” he said. “That way, I could control the quality of what I made.”
Bryce, who was an English major at Brigham Young University and an avid poet, was initially drawn to letterpress printing because it allowed him to print his own poetry.
“I had artistic control,” he said. By writing his own poems and then printing them himself, he was in charge of the entire creative process. “It was about seeing ideas through, and learning each skill” involved in creating a finished product.
Bryce started printing as a hobby. At the time, few people in the Provo area were printing with a letterpress, a process that involves time, patience and technical skill. Technology has transformed printing over the centuries, but artisan letterpress printing is still practiced by some as a learned craft.
Now, many letterpress printers like Bryce use software to create the design or text to be printed. The design then is printed on a photopolymer plate, which is mounted on the aluminum base of the letterpress. The printer adds ink to the rollers, and the rotating cylinder of the press imprints the plate into the paper. The printer then makes adjustments to ink levels, density, coverage and color.
Bryce said his work has spread by word of mouth, and Bjørn Press and Design today has clients as far as Florida and California.
He and Deborah married six years ago — the second time for both. He remembers worrying about whether she would be OK with his modest lifestyle as a printer. He recalls warning her that he was “just a poor printer.” But she was OK with that, he said.
“That’s my dad,” he remembers Deborah saying in response.
Deborah’s father is a screen printer, her brother a sign printer. Her aunt and uncle were printers too.
“She was attracted to me because I was a poet and a printer,” Bryce said. “And I liked her because she was an artist. She’s authentic. She’s not a pretender.”
Deborah stood in the Knudsons’ letterpress studio Wednesday afternoon. “This is my home away from home,” she said, gesturing around her. A few presses stand idle in the middle of the room. Another is in the corner, warming up, ready to be used. A computer is against the wall, and poetry books are piled along the edge. Light streams in through skylights in the roof, and shelves on one side of the room hold boxes of finished greeting cards, business cards and invitations. Others hold unused paper.
Like her husband, Deborah appreciates not only the artistry and skill involved in letterpress printing, but also its role as an alternative to the mass production of goods today.
Printing with a letterpress, she said, is all about “reclaiming craftsmanship.” It involves highly skilled labor, and the final product is of a better quality. It also is more meaningful because of the work put in by the printer. There’s the personal touch included in the product that’s often absent from store-bought greeting cards.
When printing a wedding invitation or family announcement, Deborah said, she listens to what the client wants and tries to intuit the design or direction she should take. With each job, “we’re committing to someone’s life story. That deserves quality work.”
Deborah sees letterpress printing as an artistic “nurturing process.” She does not work hastily, and when a project is completed, she likes to be able to think, “my heart was in it.”
The textural nature of something created on a letterpress, with the raised type or design, gives it more significance to the client, Deborah said.
“I’ve worked on something, touched something that they will touch.” That texture “reminds you that hands have touched it,” and that allows you to “feel connected to strangers,” she said.