I make a trek on Texas sidewalks that have rarely seen soles to meet John Earles and Jennifer Blanco of Workhorse Printmakers. And when ex-New Yorkers meet, they contagiously reminisce of the Five Boroughs. The conversation first dashes through old haunts, the morning rush, bagels and coffee, donuts in the Lower East Side, messenger bags and wash days.
After moving to New York together and seeing ten years in that charging machine of a city, John and Jennifer decided to transplant their steely design edge into their Houston roots. They co-opened WORKHORSE PRINTMAKERS and SPINDLETOP DESIGN, specialising respectively in quality letterpress printing and creative branding. Jennifer muses: “I don’t think we literally set out to introduce a hyper speed to Houston. But it became apparent early on that we’re workaholics and we’ve attracted the ideal people we’d like to work with in both the printing and design fronts. We’ve managed to meet some of the sharpest, interesting people that also have big aspirations for the city.”
Their studio at 1304 Malone with wood rafters spaciously vaults the ceiling. It was apparently a 50′s manufacturing warehouse for a furniture maker. Since, the space has been re-interpreted as a bachelor pad for a bike enthusiast, a photographer’s studio and a summer children’s camp. Now secured as Jennifer and John's design HQ, a portion has been sectioned off as a pristine white-toned, computer-humming design studio. The other half is the audibly mechanical portion of the printery.
I take a closer look at the noise and whirling gears to which John explains: “Things aren’t made like this anymore. These days a button is pushed on a box, something happens inside and a job, be it a printed piece or soup being warmed, is done without the user seeing the process.” Not so at Workhorse.
“I like that the entire process is laid bare. The machines groan, creak, clank and tick. They rotate and move and there’s no attempt to hide that work is being done. You hear it, see it and feel it. These were the pinnacle of printing technology and it boils down to mass and applied pressure. 2,800 lbs applying 1,200 psi to transfer ink from 12 point type to a wedding invitation. It’s Sisyphean in its marvellous inefficiency. And the best part is that the record of it is left in the impression on the paper. It’s an artefact of the process that all the applied technology in the world can’t duplicate.”
How could one refute such a poetic outlook? Especially when some of these machines, chugging and groaning, impressively date back to the 1800s. But their flair to history doesn’t keep them from developing high-stake plans for world domination from behind the black-painted facade of Workhorse Printermakers.
GABRIEL: If I may pry, you two go back a number of years – where does it begin?
JOHN: Jennifer and I met in the undergraduate Fine Arts Painting program at University of Houston in 1999. She had always wanted to live in New York and when I was accepted to the MFA program at School of Visual Arts, the perfect opportunity presented itself and we moved there in August 2001. We’ve been inseparable ever since. In retrospect I would consider us meeting to be the defining moment in both of our creative lives.
GABRIEL: What originally inspired or generated the idea of opening your studio space?
JENNIFER: We started our first company, Product Superior, while still living in Brooklyn in 2008 and I’d been doing quite a bit of freelance work in addition to a full time design job. Running a design studio wasn’t really a goal for me, so I’d only been doing the freelance work because it was occasionally fun. Very early on we shared a small office with a photographer friend and now the fourth studio later, we’ve found a great space of our own on the edge of the oldest neighbourhood in the city, the Heights.
GABRIEL: You know there’s plenty to love about living in New York. What do you love about life in Houston?
JOHN: For me I love the sense of inclusiveness. In other cities many of the cool or interesting things are guarded with exclusivity or by only having a select few participate. In Houston there’s a big push to get everyone who’s interested involved. There’s a huge community of craftspeople and individuals making astonishing things that are just becoming aware that the rest of the world would be interested in what they consider a hobby. It’s an exciting time to be here and the best part is that everyone gets to participate in making their city a better place to live!
GABRIEL: What’s so exceptional about old machines, ink, and paper?
JENNIFER: Running the presses - especially the proof presses - is kind of like punk rock. I appreciate many have spent hours and days meticulously setting a message to print, but there’s also something so freeing about quickly throwing down some type, inking, and rolling paper with the cylinder to press.
GABRIEL: So what’s the story on these printing machines?
JOHN: At Workhorse Printmakers we focus exclusively on letterpress printing. We run Chandler and Price platen printing presses: a 8 x 12″ old style built in 1898 and a 12 x 18″ Craftsman built in 1929. Both are hand fed meaning the paper and the printed piece have to be exchanged manually. We restored both to their current condition and the majority of our printed work is done on them.
In addition we have two Challenge cylinder proof presses that we use for larger work or pieces that require more precise printing at the expense of speed. We have a 15MA which has manual inking (ie. you turn a little wheel to distribute ink) and a 15MP which has a powered inking drum. Houstonians will often see our yellow 15MA out at various events where we print onsite as it requires no power whatsoever.