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Studio visit at Salt & Cedar

INTERVIEW and STORY BY ASHLEY K. PARKS

TRANSCRIPTION BY NATALIE JORDAN

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN MILHOUSE

It’s no secret that printed text is going out of style, being replaced by its digital counterpart. The eld of printmaking and bookbinding has either become mass industrialized, or revered as a sacred art; the latter values the process, just as much as the text. Countless hours and days go into simple things that we may take for granted in our text – from setting the type on a press, to hand binding the cover to bring together the complete experience of a book. The art of bookmaking and letterpress embraces its original roots to create excellent, tangible pieces of art through and through. The words of Leon Johnson capture this feeling perfectly. 

 

“I’m thrilled that the book can still matter; it’s not about sentimental feeling. It’s a useable system that works. Whether you keep a diary, or whatever; as a system, it reminds us of where we have come from and what we have fought for. The book is in our DNA. We have memories of it that we don’t even think we have. You can hear the pages turn; Megan and I are so bad that when we get a new magazine, we huff the ink (laughs).” 

Tucked away in the heart of the Eastern Market is a family studio taking part in this traditional form of text. Megan O’Connell, the sole proprietor and matriarch of the business, brought her love of letterpress and the printed art to Detroit through her family and their letterpress studio, Salt & Cedar. 

 

“It’s really the most ambitious project to date. We’ve been here for a bit; we just marked our third anniversary, so when I look back on the past three years, I still can’t believe how we have grown. It feels like a decade! We’ve been collaborators and partners, a conduit for so many new initiatives, and our older neighbors in the market. Some really well-known people have come to us, including our very first commission, Mother’s Day 2012...” 

How many fledgling companies can talk about their first commission being in the hands of global artist, Beyoncé, and shared with the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama? What started as a yer in the hands of a friend made its way to the hands of Beyoncé’s friends for the mogul’s rst Mother’s Day gift. 

 

“Apparently, it was something so beloved by Beyoncé. I’ve heard from other letterpress people since that time that she really likes letterpress,” O’Connell said. “We were honored to have done it.” 

 

The family originally lived in Portland, Maine. When Leon was hired at the College for Creative Studies in Midtown, Detroit, Megan decided to stay behind with their two sons, so that the oldest could finish high school. Once they all convened in Detroit around 2011, Megan splintered off from her original position at a press and started Salt & Cedar. The name came from her eldest son, Leander, 22, that found a native plant to the area of Detroit called the salt cedar. 

“There was just this sense that...it would be appealing to people to engage their senses. The two elements have properties of preservation. We knew we didn’t want to call our press anything Detroit related because we’ve seen so many people just overuse the fact that they’re ‘making something in Detroit,’ so we steered clear of that, and we just liked the way it sounded. Beyond its meaning, salt cedar is known to establish itself and thrive under the least likely of circumstances. So we were like, alright that makes sense.” 

 

Salt & Cedar describes themselves through letterpress as being their “focal point for investigations into means of production and dissemination–tapping into creative economies and generating fresh approaches and alliances.” Since their first commission, they’ve grown to produce invitations, books, posters, and even host workshops in their 3,000 sq. ft. studio. While they vary by instructors, Leon teaches a 16th century monastery journal structure; everyone gathers around the dining room table, enjoy some good eats, binds their own book, and share conversation about the experience. “People are very emo- tional about making their rst book; it’s like making their rst loaf of bread. People get involved. It’s a journal, and it’s blank and it’s your responsibility to use it from there on.” 

 

The studio consists of a Vandercook SP15 press; built in Chicago in 1964, it’s a cylinder press that op- erates by pulling the ink across the surface of the material to be printed on. Megan tells us that “working with movable lead type is really the closest we have to how books were produced in the mid–15th cen- tury; the principles haven’t changed at all.” Wedges of wood and font blocks are placed into the printing chamber, the handle is cranked, and letters are pressed.

What started as an undergraduate interest in Minnesota has evolved into a project that touches not only the clients, but also the Salt & Cedar family themselves. Our interview with them revealed that the letterpress life is no easy task. From creating album covers to journals and books, their hands are quite busy. 

 

Leon: “We are working on so many projects right now (laughs). One is for a beautiful restored inn in Newfoundland, on a small island called Fogo Island. They pride themselves in the craft of how furniture is made. There’s a real tradition of ‘if you need something, you make it.’ So they asked us to make the room folders, bound in linen. They’ve also had a tradition of keeping track of the weather, so I’m also handing them two old spiral weather journals, with two entries a page that will be printed on the press. 

 

Each day they can make a note of the temperature and tide. We met each other, and they were interested in craft, and the idea of printing and customizing a weather journal. This is what the shop is here to do. We’ve been working on it for three months. It’s handmade and hand-bound so it can take quite a while. That’s the quality of our work.” 

Megan: “I’m hoping that in the next couple of years, we have the opportunity to reserve some time to kind of focus on more things that have our total sensibility – projects that are of Salt & Cedar, and not just commissions. I’m so grateful for the people who have come to us. There’s just great potential, but it’s the nature of the medium that we use can sometimes pose limitations. You can only produce as fast as your body moves and as agile as your mind is going to solve problems. We visited some other presses, like one in Nashville last year, where you can do so many impressions per hour. It’s incredible and the result is great, but we’re ok with our pace.” 

 

When it comes to new ideas and inspiration, they are far from few. Be it from books that she is reading from her own bookshelf to conversations with people, or simply a passion for the way letterforms look on various surfaces, Megan shares, “there’s enough inspiration that ows through; there’s certainly no shortage of conversations (laughs). It’s in our DNA.” 

Creating a standard of excellence is something that Salt & Cedar not only strives for, but reaches. Megan states “success is not having to compromise your standards” and Detroit has provided them with the positive energy that helps to support their work. The response has been positive all around and Salt & Cedar’s impact continues to grow, as they do as well.