Creative Team Spotlight - Cathleen Titcomb with Curious Fox Press
As someone within the industry, sometimes it's difficult to remember that there is verbiage, processes, timelines and logistics that are completely foreign to anyone outside the wedding industry (namely the client). That's why I'll be starting a new feature called Creatives Spotlight that will showcase a specific professional in the field that you might not know as much about so you can gain insider knowledge on that part of the industry as well as get to know some of my absolute favorite talented people that I have the pleasure of working with!
This week we'll kick things off with Cathleen Titcomb of Curious Fox Press. Cathleen is a letterpress stationer located in Loudoun County, Virginia with a passion for pretty paper. Cathleen has several antique letterpress machines in her basement studio, some that weigh more than my car. They are large, impressive and she seems totally in her element working on them. When I sat down with Cathleen, a light behind her eyes illuminated when we started to discuss her passion for her work, what makes her tick and her favorite parts of the job. Photos by the wonderfully talented Alicia of Love Knot Photo.
We started down the stairs into her basement studio where an array of paint cans, mixing tools and Pantone color guides sat poised and ready for their mission.
"the inks are mixed according to Pantone, but sometimes the right color doesn't exist in Pantone and we have to go rougue and custom mix to just the perfect shade so that's the start of production!"
She has 2 hydraulic paper cutters that she says "would literally chop your arm off, you can put a thick stack of paper and cut it down with no problem." The large machine is daunting and impressive compared to my $20 Michaels paper cutter that barely cuts through a single piece of cardstock cleanly. She puts her husband to work to do a lot of this work because it's pretty intimidating but she is happy to do the part if her husband isn't around and there is a deadline!
"I'm a paper snob, I don't deal in yucky paper"
She shows me a large 3-4 feet sheet of paper that's called a parent sheet takes up the entire space of the shelf under a table even cut in half. These are the large sheets she cuts down for escort cards and business cards. She likes the vellum (a term that refers to the rougher, toothy pattern in the paper) of one called Arturo, and she shows me the beautiful rough edge of the paper or what's called the "deckle". The consistency and texture unlike any standard paper I've felt before, rich and patterned with dimension beneath my fingers. This particular sheet is a duplex which is 2 pieces of paper glued back to back to layer and increase the thickness which is again, all done by hand.
The paper all comes in a variety of thicknesses, finishes and color, her favorites come out of Europe. But when I ask her about what fun new things she'd love to work on she says she's always coming up with crazy new ideas, her newest idea is to work with different materials like leather, fabric and metals. She shows me invitations to a recent industry event that is made out of copper foil. There's a beautiful map that was tied together with the invitation with a rich velvet ribbon and wrapped in velum and a dark green envelope. This project was fun to work on, she says, because she was able to take her own creative journey with the suite.
When discussing industry events and styled shoots, she says she doesn't like to work with something for an editorial that she couldn't reproduce for a client. For example something that couldn't be scaled in an economical sense unless someone is going to be paying tens of thousands of dollars for their invitation suites. She isn't bashing it by any means if someone has a hefty budget and appreciates the craft, but she insists that pretty paper should be available to everybody and she is always conscienscous because of her background in accounting so practicality is at the forefront of her mind as well.
I ask her opinion on stores like Paper Source and she doesn't bash them at all. She will stop in occasionally if she has a tight timeline. She mentioned a celebration of life she had done work for a few weeks prior that she was given a 4 day timeline for and couldn't order from her typical paper supplier. She used them in a pinch showing her ingenuity, practicality and that she isn't pretentious, just passionate about her work.
Then we get into the main event and what could quite literally be the elephant in the room based on size alone. We turn the corner and she shows me her letterpress machines, beautiful Chandler & Price Platen presses made of of metal and gears standing regally in a line, some of which aging back to the 1890s. They seem like something you'd find in a turn of the century museum but make no doubt about it these are ready to spring into action with an artful and skilled flick of her wrist.
She puts her hand on one of the pieces in a familiar, comfortable way someone would introduce an adored pet or heirloom. She gives all of her machines names-Old girl, Little Girl and the newest addition to the menagerie- Fat April. So called because when they were moving her in, there was a note on the other side that said "patent pending - April" a young boy that was helping them move the equipment in thought it said "Fat April" and the name stuck. She's from the 1920s.
I ask about the newer presses and if the quality is still there, or if like other things in life the quality has degraded with the years of mass-production. The newest letterpress printing presses she has are Heidelberg Windmills that come out of Germany from the 1950s. There is a lot more automation, they are autofed (with air actually! Little suction grabbers take the paper through the printing process. The C&Ps and Pearl are hand fed. She said they made a handful of these in the 1980s but the bulk of them were made from the 1930s -1960s so finding anything after that time is rare.
The mechanics of a letterpress job are the epitome of bespoke. For each design a custom plate is created and for each color that is required, a different setup and press run. She shows me how a press run works where the she continuously steps on a pedal and turns a wheel where an ink roller inks the metal plate and she inserts the paper onto a platform while the machine cycles from the plate and the plate meets the paper for the impression. It's quite an impressive process requiring the hand-eye coordination, skill and timing that I personally don't have. That's where it's apparent that Cathleen has not only the passion and artistic intuition but the technical skill to seamlessly create with a giant metal contraption that to me might as well be a lathe or a spaceship.
Because of this intricate, custom process, letterpress is typically not for someone looking to create something small scale. The custom plate and the system of labor are the same no matter if you are printing 20 or 200 but economically, a larger scale makes sense since the production value remains the same. Understanding the mechanics is one thing but I was also interested in Cathleens process when a client reaches out to her for their very own job.
Once the design is approved and it goes to plating. Photo polymer plates take about 1-2 days to get to her after the design is approved and sent to the plate-maker. During this time she is sourcing her paper. She has a an inventory but other items like not in stock items, custom color envelopes, mixing the inks, cutting the paper down, preparing things for printing and the registration process which includes making sure the plate and the paper meet properly, it's not printing heavier in one place rather than the other and so on. There are so many subtleties involved where even a fraction of an inch off will throw the whole project. She shows me a whole stack of paper that has been run through to test and calibrate to ensure that this custom design is precisely layered on the paper and meets her quality standard. She can go anywhere from 1-2 hours to 4-5 hours just synching up the press and the plate to ensure everything runs smoothly.
It doesn't just end with paper though. She showed me some wood pieces made of cherry and walnut that are thinly cut and beautifully match a custom wood envelope that can be processed in the mail just like a typical invitation suite.
When I ask her about her favorite project to work on, she instead talks about her favorite clients to work with. She says she loves the process of working with weddings since there is a personal nature to both the letterpress and the wedding that brings such a magical and special touch to what she does. It's clear she is organized, calculated and good at what she does which would make her an excellent wedding planner. But with two kids at home, one who has special needs, it's clear having a role in the wedding day without the time constraints and stress of worrying about whether her family will need her on the wedding day gives her the freedom and flexibility to contribute in a beautiful and sentimental way while crafting it around her daughters schedule.
She also shows me letterpress and foil, a technique that creates a beautiful, shining imprint on the suite where the ink would be. The foil is used with a heat plate that gets to 200+ degrees. In this case she shows me a solid copper plate that is heat-resistant compared to the polymer plates for standard ink that would melt when dealing with foil.
She wants to create the paper version of them and their event. Something that conveys what their event is about and evokes who they are as people. She likes having clients who come to her with a general vision but need artistic guidance. Clients who have a general theme and overall inspiration but will allow her to create a design custom and unique for them is the ideal use of her artistic services. I liken it to going to a dress designer for your gown. You wouldn't ask a custom designer to recreate another gown you saw elsewhere, you would just buy that particular dress that is already created. Similarly, coming to Cathleen with an idea and a feeling for what you like and don't like, what emotion you are trying to evoke and the overall feeling of the event is the best use of her artistic brilliance so she can work together in a collaborative way. Her attention to detail and her passion for each individual project is apparent in even the smallest of details like the packaging and ribbon she uses to deliver the projects to the clients. In a world of mass-produced, internet deals that beckon consumers to buy more stuff with less quality, Cathleen is an old soul. She's a talented artist whose medium is paper. A passionate maker, creative and business owner who truly excels at what she does and it shows through in the beautiful pieces she creates.
If you would like to work with Cathleen on a beautiful, sentimental invitation suite, branding or marketing material such as business cards or stationery or more, you can see more of her work on her website and can reach her directly at Cathleen@curiousfoxpress.com.