The graphic designer with a whole new take on being a paper-pusher.
Fifty-six years old, stubborn, occasionally grumpy and weighing more than one tonne, Winston dominates the small garage in Thirroul. The Heidelberg ‘Windmill’ Platen press is the centrepiece of Ruby’s Tuesday, a small graphic design and letterpress company run by UOW graduate Claire Foxton and her partner, Mitch Crowle.
“Winston is powered by a motor, not like his foot-pedalled compadres,” Claire says. “I love all of his moving parts.”
With a very apparent disregard for safety, the only thing between the operator and one tonne of swinging arms and crushing metal is a small safety guard, which also doubles as a kill switch.
“This makes him kind of scary, but also really beautiful,” Claire says. “All of those moving parts are hidden in printing machinery these days.”
The kiss of new life
As the oldest form of commercial printing, the letterpress is labour-intensive because the method and setup have remained largely unchanged over the years.
It’s no surprise the letterpress went out of fashion in the 1980s after being superseded by more efficient offset and digital printers. However, fast-forward 30 years and it’s what was thought to be the letterpress’s most undesirable quality that has led its resurgence.
“The main difference these days is the impression we impart on the paper. The plates are pushed hard into the surface, usually made of cotton, to create a tactile debossed effect,” Claire says. “This was frowned upon in years gone by as the type was only supposed to gently kiss the paper, leaving no visible sign of impression. But it’s now the point of difference that has given the letterpress a second life.”
Winston has taken to this new life with gusto, printing bespoke wedding invitations and custom stationery that feature the clean designs of Ruby’s Tuesday.
Claire believes the renewed popularity of letterpress printing is also due in part to the digital age we live in and a fear of where technology is taking us.
“We’re constantly submerged in the online world, human contact is at an all-time low and we consume like crazy,” she says. “I think people are genuinely after a level of authenticity in their lives, so they are buying more handmade things and taking up creative hobbies.”
For Claire, who completed her Bachelor of Creative Arts at UOW in 2009, the appeal comes from the opportunity to mesh the old with the new.
“There is something so satisfying about taking an abstract idea, transferring it first to paper, then to the computer, and finally through our press to produce a printed piece.”
Patience and perceptions
“I love printing because it allows me to get my hands dirty,” Claire says. “I get to mix the inks and cut the paper and all of that gives me a buzz. The printing world requires so much more patience and I think that has helped me with all aspects of design.”
This patience is tested when a deadline is looming and Winston becomes stubborn and stops feeding the paper or starts printing at a slight tilt.
“There’s no print wizard to tell us how to troubleshoot problems,” Claire says. “It can take days and plenty of blood, sweat and tears before the problem is rectified. But it’s all worth it because I know that, while I’m holding on to the past with our letterpress adventure, it would be so sad to see the art form lost.”
Now, as both a creator and business owner, Claire jokes about the perception that graphic designers just make things look pretty. But after seven years in the industry she knows the two roles are rarely mutually exclusive.
“You need to be able to communicate well, manage your time, solve problems, handle cash flow and sell yourself – the creativity is often just the cherry on top,” she says. “It certainly doesn’t cut it to be able to just make things look pretty, especially if you want to succeed in this industry.”
Good design has the ability to change lives and transform places.Claire Foxton
Painting the town blue
While Ruby’s Tuesday takes up the bulk of her time, Claire has continued to push her own creative boundaries and has recently been making her mark on streets of the Illawarra with her now signature blue portrait murals. In the past six months she has been commissioned to paint six large-scale street artworks, including a five-storey car park in Wollongong’s CBD as part of the three-day mural festival, Wonderwalls.
For Claire, these murals are an opportunity to indulge in her first love: painting.
“I always come back to painting because all you need is a canvas and something that makes a mark,” she says.
“There’s something meditative and relaxing about putting technology aside for a moment to just create.”
Beyond the opportunity to spend a weekend doing what she loves, Claire can see the impact of street art is far bigger than an outlet for artists to express themselves.
“Good design has the ability to change lives and transform places,” she says. “I think festivals like Wonderwalls are great for lifting the cultural profile of Wollongong. It’s great to be able to walk the streets and discover a new piece of art around every corner.”
From making a mark on a simple piece of paper to a massive public wall, Claire seems happiest when she is pushing her talents to new heights, no matter how uncomfortable it can be.
“Starting anything new, like buying the letterpress and committing to my first public mural, is a scary experience, but I like to take on any creative pursuit that challenges me,” she says. “If I feel a little bit terrified of something I know I’m on the right track.”
This story the third instalment in a Meet The Makers series profiling UOW people who are rejecting the mass made and getting their hands dirty making real things.
Photos by Paul Jones