Customer Profile: Karen Battles - B Designs

We are always so honored when designers select Green Paper Company as a supplier. This season we are especially honored B Designs, a long time leader in the letterpress community, is using our Monarch envelopes for a new line of note cards.

When I opened my retail store On Paper, more than thirteen years ago, B Designs was a must have, go to studio for impeccably printed, clean vintage designs. It still is. Their thank you notes are still a proverbial best seller. Started in 1995, B Designs is a husband and wife team- Karen Battles and James Shanley. Karen was kind enough to share some thoughts on business and printing in an interview. Thanks Karen for your patronage, and your artistry!

{B Designs is one of the original letterpress printers that helped revive the craft, bringing letterpress to the forefront of design. How have you seen the market change, and how is it similar?}

The market change in a nutshell:
More letterpress studios, less stationery stores and the advent of email changing peoples writing behavior.

The longer answer:
At the time my husband James and I started B Designs in 1995 there were about a half a dozen companies producing letterpress printed greeting cards. There were other letterpress studios at that time, but most were focused on publishing limited edition books. It was funny because for the first several years we attended the Stationery Show, we had to explain what letterpress was and even produce sales materials geared towards educating store owners and our sales reps about the process. Then Martha Stewart started featuring letterpress printed wedding announcements in her magazine and we didn’t have to explain anymore--she really put letterpress back on the map.

I’d say many of us in the first wave of letterpress stationery companies were graphic designers starting second careers. When colleges and art schools started teaching letterpress in their graphic design and printmaking programs, a whole new generation of printers were born. Young printers have pushed letterpress into being the most design-driven segment of the stationery industry. Being able to design on a computer and then print the images letterpress, as B Designs has done for about dozen years, has revolutionized letterpress. There seem to be hundreds of small presses spread out over the country. It’s an exciting time for letterpress.

It is not a hard business to start, but it is a difficult one to stay in. The modern letterpress stationery company is a hybrid between the old “job shop”, doing custom projects of all kinds as they come in, and a greeting card publisher, producing paper products for a huge national marketplace. It’s an exciting way to make a living, but the necessity for a constant stream of new designs, turning jobs around quickly, dealing with both wholesale and retail customers and securing good supplier terms make it a challenging business to run. James over the years has developed ways to overcome the inherent inefficiencies of letterpress printing by creating unique press room procedures for production.

History shows us that the market has always had design cycles, swinging between flamboyant design and the simple and pure--from Baroque to Arts & Crafts. At B Designs, we made a very conscious decision early on to stick to our knitting, that is, remain true to my very simple design aesthetic, use high quality materials, keep all of our production in-house and offer excellent customer service.

{What's your favorite part of your work?}

I'd have to say digging through old books and ephemera to find new imagery. I'm always on the lookout. There is something about the thrill of the chase at flea markets like Brimfield, or at a paper show that really makes me love what I do. I started antiquing in high school so I’ve always loved the idea of hunting for a treasure. I collect great imagery and then when the time is right, I edit it and put in into a context that is meaningful to our customers. I really try to anticipate the needs of our customers. How do we make a beautiful, useful and meaningful product that someone buys because it reflects their interests and values? Nowadays when someone actually hand writes a message, the act itself shows a level of caring (email is so easy) so we try to provide an image that sets the stage for a personal message.

Another thing I really like about designing for B Designs is working with Katey in the pressroom. Ours is a collaborative effort in trying to get the design and printing just right. We have based our business on the notion that written notes bring more than news or appreciation, they provide an experience.

{Can you tell us a bit about the eco practices in your studio?}

We have always printed on recycled paper with a minimum of 30% post consumer waste content and recently we have also started offering a beautiful paper made of bamboo for our custom customers. We also recycle all of our paper and cardboard. Over the years we have given numerous tours to local school kids to show the closed loop of recycling in practice. Letterpress is very eco-friendly compared to other printing practices; very little ink is used, our printing plates are washed out with and the solvents that we use are very low VOC.

{What made you select Green Paper Company as a supplier for your prestigious product?}

I was really impressed with the wide range of colors and sizes the Green Paper Company offers. I visited the booth at the National Stationery Show the year the company first showed there. I'm always looking to create products that are a little different. The long and thin monarch size offered the opportunity to create a large graphic along the side of the paper and pair it with a colorful and unusual envelope. The combination has proven very popular with our customers and I plan on expanding the line. Using Green Paper Company products gets back to that issue of making sure our customer has a product that delivers a message of caring and taste. Using high quality recycled paper is definitely something our customer cares about.

{What is inspiring you for 2011?}

I am inspired by combining quotations and imagery. Words of wisdom are a comfort in tough times. Pattern continues to be of interest—if it’s an interesting image, what happens if you group a number of them into patterns? Also, I’ve collected a bunch of beautiful old penmanship and lettering books that I’d like to incorporate into the line. Where we live, Newburyport Massachusetts, is always an inspiration. It’s full of beautiful Federal architecture, surrounded by marshes and woods and an incredible beach. Letterpress itself is an inspiration—“how will this look pressed into the paper”?

Visit B Designs website to see more of their classic letterpress line.

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