Tucked onto an Eastern Market side street, Signal-Return is the ultimate anachronism. A print shop that uses machines resurrected from the dead: movable type, ink that stains, and bulky presses that are turned by hand.
But letterpress is undergoing a revival nationwide, riding the tide of fascination with what those Shinola copywriters like to call "the glory of manufacturing" — a renewed appreciation for a mechanical era largely gone. If you grew up with a MacBook Pro and Kinko's, you can experience the glory of clanky machines and high rag content paper with fresh eyes, without unpleasant memories.
Voila: An old-fashioned print shop seems more like a revelation than an antique that rightfully belongs in Greenfield Village. Just as the tools of the printing trade seemed bound for extinction, they regained luster as objects of desire for a generation eager to celebrate making things the old way.
"This is the stuff that was disappearing. It was being thrown out," says Lynne Avadenka, Signal-Return's executive director, who is also an internationally recognized artist.
She and other staff members made discoveries around the country — finding an old press as close as an old Gratiot Avenue shop and pieces of wood block and lead type from around the country that now fill large cabinets. There's a cast iron book press rescued from oblivion.
Over its four years, the space has developed a following, both from the arts community and from Eastern Market explorers, who wander in on Saturdays, and wind up taking classes in making posters or journals or photo albums.
To a group of graphic design students who showed up Thursday, Signal-Return provided a hands-on encounter with printing as an art form. "We weren't that enthusiastic about coming here," said Emily Minnick, "but once we got here and began working with the type, it really inspired me to want to do something amazing. We're working with our hands, rather than clicking a button, which is what we're used to."
Minnick, a Grand Rapids native majoring in graphic design at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, found her poster project to be both exhausting and fascinating.
"You really feel like you've done something when you're done," said Mandy Espinosa, who worked with her on a poster based on a quote. It read: "My work is play and I play when I design," a quote attributed to Paula Scher, a graphics designer known for her magazine and Broadway poster work.
They were startled to discover that their computer graphics and typography terms were based on the physical reality of printing — including the word "leading," which referred to actual lead type. "It's a way to get them excited about typography," said Mary Bush, an adjunct professor at LTU teaching typography. "They have to get their hands dirty. They have to think about how ink gets mixed, how it goes on paper."
Once used for egg crate manufacturing, the space at 1345 Division, just off Russell, was rescued in 2010 by Toby Barlow, the ubiquitous TeamDetroit creative director who serves as the board chairman of Signal-Return, and architect Ryan Schirmang. It's become a space for entertaining, poetry readings and other art happenings, along with workshops teaching book-making, card-making and crafting wedding invitations by hand. Its wares — including cards and art work — are sold online (signalreturnpress.org) and in the storefront.
At the other side of Eastern Market, another letterpress shop, Salt & Cedar, at 2448 Riopelle, operated by artists Megan O'Connell and Leon Johnson, demonstrates that competition is inevitable, even in the 21st century world of 19th century business.