30 dedos letterpress workshop in Mexico
From wax boards to laser printing, the most successful method to reproduce information has been, without a doubt, –due to its long-lasting nature– the movable type, whose birth in 1450 resulted in a technological revolution that accelerated book production, made reading popular and maintained itself as the main printing medium until the first quarter of the 20th century.
The introduction of technological progress that allowed for an even faster and greater production didn’t necessarily represent the disappearance of movable types, although it did dramatically reduce its use, to the extent of constraining it to the printing of paper, business cards and invitations, or to the sporadic and expensive printing of handcrafted books, because from its origin, the invention attributed to Johannes Gutenberg had served to lower the production costs by substituting parchment for hemp paper or rag paper; to currently produce this type of resistant paper and invest that much time in printing an copy is very costly.
However, there are true enthusiasts of this technique in the world, which intrinsically entails love and respect for the processes, the typographies and the textures. One of those passionate people is Mexican designer Alejandra Portilla, head of the workshop “30 dedos” (30 fingers).
Her story with movable types is one of love, accidental at first, and later, essential in her life. One day, a couple of very dear friends of Alejandra’s decided to get married, so as a designer, she didn’t doubt what her gift to them would be: she would make the wedding invitations. To get inspired, she looked for designs and models on the internet, and it was then that she found out about the letterpress technique, or printing with movable types. She liked the cards made with letterpress most, so she decided to find out more on that technique. Little did she know she was entering a search that would surpass the limits of the conceivable and would become the first stage of her professional future.
At the beginning it was almost impossible to find anyone who wanted or could print the invitations like that, so Alejandra thought that the best solution would be to make them herself with the help of two other friends. Why not? Thus, the three researched where they could get the machines and types, they found out about the process and discovered the danger their fingers would get into (hence the name of their workshop).
Even though the company they had taken on represented a colossal effort, Ale and her friends kept going, but along the way, her friends gave up and only Ale remained. In the following process, she met the printers of the Obrera neighborhood, the work that is done in the US and Europe, got her family involved, was contacted by a peculiar paper maker, lover himself of movable type print, until, little by little, she began acquiring skill and knowledge in paper types, typography, inks and clients.
The small workshop that began in a little bodega in her parent’s garden is today a building where three of the machines she’s acquired fit. The tools, typographies and machines have been, mostly, found in downtown workshops that shut down because of lack of work.
To this day, Alejandra considers her work is still in a stage of “trial and error.” She also knows this it’s what she’ll do for the rest of her life, which is why she has added a technique to her know-how as a designer and her ability to give workshops. Facing the apparent extinction of the profession she has embraced, Alejandra proposes a rapprochement through “30 dedos” to the technique that goes from the modern, digital viewpoint, to the traditional and artisanal, which is how she has become a part of the international community of typographers and printers and rescues something that seemed to be lost.