The letterpress printing is not as fine art, which exists to exist, but an art serves bigger than itself. — John Kristensen, the owner of FireFly letterpress printing shop.

By Yanshu Li


John Kristensen doesn’t possess a cell phone. He can be reached only by landline. He no longer possesses a car. The only car he had was a 1963 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible, the model that John F. Kennedy was sitting in when he was assassinated. He eventually sold it when the gas became much too expensive.

What he does have is a letterpress printing shop in Boston named Firefly, a space filled with the smells of ink and cotton papers, and the mechanical sounds of the machines he acquired 30 years ago are working.

On a recent Monday morning, the snow on streets of Boston had become less disturbing. Mr. Kristensen took the bus from Somerville to his shop, which he describes as “noisy with artists.” At 10 a.m. the corridor was empty. When he spoke, his voice resounded from his chest and reverberated in the hall.

“You can tell I overly fond the sound of my own voice,” he said, walking ahead smiling.

Whether it was done out of kindness helping a young journalist, or was his own ardor for the craft, Mr. Kristensen introduced every machine in his shop, sometimes his hands would touch them while talking.

“It is a text in every letter in its own piece of metal,” he said, slightly touching the well-set typeface on the layout board. “This was assembled by hands.”

Photo Credit to Jarrod McCabe via The New Yankee Craftsmen on February 11, 2015.

Then he paused for a moment, eyes gazing at the apparatus perching by the window in black, brown and grey, and said, “It came like a bolt from blue in the mid-fifteenth century. In one decade there was no printing, and the next decade there was.”

It felt like seeing a time machine, and the pilot was a man who had silver hair and a beard, and wore a taupe shirt and trousers with some dotted paint on as a uniform. The light illuminated his face and depicted his wrinkles and unveiled the pond of his thoughts.

“Why should they survive at all?” he asked, looking at the machines lined against the wall on the other side.

The whole room became still while he paused.

“The answer is that it turns out, people like the way it looks,” he said, while pulling out a sample of his printing – an A3 cotton paper, printed with black and red, weighted both in the hand and in the eyes.

The letterpress printing works by pressing the type into the paper, rather than just by having the ink laid on the paper, which leads to a certain three-dimension quality, Mr. Kristensen explained. He called it “the physical presence.”

“I’m not saying that it is better, just different,” he said. “And it turns out people noticed the difference, and people like the difference.”

Mr. Kristensen has a Mac in his shop to check emails. He doesn’t use it for anything else. He referred to it as “this cold machine.”

“This letterpress you would do with body English,” pulling out a drawer that stored with one set of typeface out of his typeface cabinet, he said, “You work with a set of how it looks, how it feels, how the machine even sounds. It’s much more visceral thing.”

Mr. Kristensen first saw a printing machine in a hobby shop when he was an undergraduate at Cornell University in the 1970s. He found the machine was very appealing.

“I knew it in 20 minutes of going in that, this was going to be something very important to me,” he said.

After graduate study in Oxford Univeristy, he interned at a small publisher, a place for his initial training in letterpress. Two years later, he found Firefly with a friend. The machines were obtained for free from the business that were closing. They bought some typeface and the business took off.

“I entered at the moment when it (the letterpress printing) was collapsing as commerce. And all that was left was the history and the craft,” he said.

Firefly started as a small publishing hobby. Now it is a printing and design business survives on the local market in the Boston area, where Mr. Kristensen thinks there are more people care about the craft than in any other place of the country. He finds an adequate market for the products, like books, wedding invitations, birth announcements, out of the craft.

A lawyer once walked into John Kristensen’s shop, and asked him to design a business card. She was an immigration lawyer, whose clients mostly were illegal immigrants.

“I don’t want to intimidate them,” she said to Mr. Kristensen.

His philosophy is every printing conveys two messages, there is what the words say, and there is what the design implies. By careful manipulation of every component, as type, paper, color, or ornament, the design can imply the volumes of the information.

“So it’s a simple Roman typeface. But it’s blue, not black. And it’s asymmetrical flush left/right rather than center,” Mr. Kristensen said about the final design.

The lawyer now has been a customer for many years.

Mr. Kristensen is a fine craftsman, but he is not a fine businessperson.

Considering the amount of dedication, the training, the commitment the printing takes, the payback as a business isn’t great. Mr. Kristensen said he earns about $18,000 a year.

“You survival constitutes success,” He said. “You win by not losing.”

Having been in the printing business for over 30 years, Mr. Kristensen stayed away from expensive vacations or expensive cars, “printing is what you have instead of life.” He is happy about being “regarded by the one hundred people,” who are also in the printing business.

“That is fame,” semi-jokingly he said with a hint of content.

For Mr. Kristensen letterpress printing is not just a technology, it also states the foundation of printing. He knows that for people, who are interested in letterpress printing, they don’t necessarily do it for living. But it doesn’t hurt to understand how the letterforms and the conventions of typography evolved.

“The fallacy of modernism is to believe that the things are fundamentally different from the way they used to be,” he said, looking straight into my eyes. “They are different, they are different superficially.”

He pulled out copies of printed papers and put them on the table. Each sample had a different design. He pointed at them and went on, there are typefaces that are solemn, and stern, there are typefaces that are light and lyrical.

“This is Janson, it has a very liturgical quality.” he put his hand on the words “Hebrew Ecclesiasticus,” “so you want something that speaks of churchliness, Janson is a good face.” The things that were true about typography, about conveying meaning in hundreds years ago are still true, he said.

“It’s not that they’ve been superseded. It’s just they’ve been forgotten, been ignored, which is bad,” he said, looking at the samples around.

Photo courtesy to FireFly Letterpress Printing shop.
Photo courtesy to FireFly Letterpress Printing shop.

Sitting in front of his desk, two clocks facing each other and click as the pendulum swinging. One was passed down from his father, a mid-18th century Dutch-made clock, and another one he bought, a 1920 Springfield-made master clock. This is a place where he gets work down, and also where he spends days more time than anywhere else.

When he commutes by bus, he likes to be with his own mind rather than scrolling down on a smartphone screen. He believes the importance of what the past has taught us although there are more facts and more data in modern age. He thinks Bob Dylan is a genius of his generation, and his heart also goes to George Frederic Handel. He used to listen with the CD player in the shop, but now he prefers the silence.

“I realize that it (letterpress printing) was something that was worth doing in itself. It was something that was worth preserving. Worth carrying on, worth having people continue to know about,” he said. “I’m better now than I was two years ago, better than I was five years ago. I know more.”

He has no intention of retiring.

Fortunate enough for Mr. Kristensen, he doesn’t have to worry about retirement, since he was an inheritance to support his life. He is thankful for his luck and is grateful to have wound up in exactly the right place for him.

“I didn’t choose it, it chose me,” Mr. Kristensen said.

The fallacy of modernism is to believe that the things are fundamentally different from the way they used to be. They are different, they are different superficially. — John Kristensen


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