Music Maker Relief Foundation: Tintype Meets Letterpress

Last year, Parklife Press was approached by Music Maker Relief Foundation to design, print and produce picture frames, customized to hold tintype images. You have questions! We know! Let's get into it.

First, a bit about Music Maker. The foundation, founded in 1994 by Tim and Denise Duffy and based in Hillsborough, NC, "was founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time." Music Maker not only helps support Southern roots artists who have fallen on hard times (an excellent goal in and of itself), but also helps provide resources to get them performing and recording again, providing invaluable cultural documentation of Southern musical traditions. Per their website, since their founding, "we have assisted and partnered with over 300 artists, issued over 150 CDs and reached over a million people with live performance in over 40 states and 17 countries around the globe." It's a great organization, so be sure to check out their website and read more about it.

So ... tintypes? Tim Duffy, it turns out, is not only a music historian and philanthropist, but he's also a photographer. And what does a photographer do, when spending time his musical heroes, recording these living legends? He records their images, as well. And what better way to preserve the unique history of these artists, than with an old form of photography that produces one-of-a-kind images that will last hundreds of years? He honored the past, and learned to make tintypes — a photographic process more than a century and a half old. Together with colleague Aaron Greenhood (Music Maker's Artist Services Coordinator and tintype chemist) he produces these portraits, which are given to artists, used as donor gifts, and sold on their website to foundation supporters and music fans. (To learn more about the project, visit Music Maker's tintype page.)

Music Maker wanted a nice way to present these art objects, which are, essentially, 4.5"x 6.5" pieces of sharp-edged metal. Parklife Press designed, printed and assembled the frames, which incorporate Music Maker's logo. The black museum board and black/bronze-y ink are reminiscent of sepia tones, and the hand-crafted nature of letterpress printing itself pairs perfectly with the old-fashioned tin type process. The frame folds out to standing position, and holds the metal sheet securely in place — protected and perfectly positioned.

Each tintype is labeled with a "Music Maker Tin Type" label — which lists the subject, print number, date, photographer and chemist — and is then finished with an official, bright red "Music Maker Tin Type - Hillsborough N.C." stamp. Parklife Press designed both the label and stamp.

Tim, Denise, Aaron and the folks at Music Maker were nice enough to have us out to Hillsborough during one of their tin type shooting days, so we could get a sense of the process and see first-hand what our frames were framing. Below are some photos from that beautiful fall day. Most people have never seen a large-format camera like Tim's — at least in person — and many photographers these days haven't seen darkroom equipment in ages, if ever. (Hence the nostalgic photos of darkroom timers and developer pans!) You guys were so generous; it was a blast. Thanks for letting us be a part of this project.

Photos by Sarah McCarty Arneson

Shades of Blush

David and Allyson's invitation set was based on Petal, which features an original illustration by Parklife Press. The text, set in all-caps Gill Sans, is set off by the lightly-flourished script of their names. The asymmetry of the single, flowering branch — printed in tungsten and blush inks — provides a fresh and cheerful balance to the clean and modern design.

The branch design from the invitation was carried through on the RSVP card.

Letterpress is typically created with solid areas of ink impressions using individual, premixed colors. But here, by using halftone screens (read our post about letterpress and the halftone process here), three shades of pink were achieved using only one ink. This branch of blooming buds would still be pretty with solid, 100%-strength blush ink, but the design would lack depth; it wouldn't be as delicate, or as interesting.

Pastoral Elegance

Alan and Keith were getting married on their farm in Virginia and wanted to balance the solemnity of the event with the rustic quality of the setting. The grooms-to-be had created an online video save-the-date for their guests, but for the invitations, they decided that letterpress would help underscore the formality of the occasion.

The invitation, according to Alan, had to convey several things at once to set the tone: a sense of formality (despite the fact that the reception was to be held in a barn, it was not going to be a casual event); the fact that the ceremony itself was going to be quite traditional; and the occasion's overall blend of elegance and rusticity. In his words, "we needed an invitation that tempered the formal and traditional with some sort of country element."

They felt the Californian design was almost  there, but wanted to use a different oak tree image. The oak was their chosen motif, partly for symbolic reasons — the mighty, strong, sheltering, beautiful oak is an apt metaphor for a lifelong commitment — but it held literal meaning, as well. The couple planted a pair of young oaks on their farm, and are planning to watch them grow old together. As Alan said, "we hope we can look back on them one day and say, 'those were planted the year we got married.' "

Photos by Sarah McCarty Arneson

Formal, with Flourishes

Alexandra and Michael were planning a black-tie, traditional Catholic wedding, and wanted their invitation to reflect that style. Alex was drawn to the Fountain design — seeing how the layout's simplicity put the elaborate font on display, she was, as she put it, "hooked."

Deceptively simple in design, the typeface features intricate and playful ligatures and flourishes. The extra thick invitation cards were edged in gold, and that subtle sparkle was echoed by the envelopes' antique gold liners.

Alex found Parklife Press on the Martha Stewart Weddings website. As with any wedding, there were many decisions to be made — but when it came to the invitations, whether to use letterpress was never really a question. "My Mom is a calligrapher and has instilled a reverence to paper products in me that I was sure to embrace in our wedding planning process." The effect was everything she and Michael were looking for: formal and traditional, with impact.

Photos by Sarah McCarty Arneson

Drawing Inspiration: Art, Cultural Traditions, Local Pride

From a creative professional's perspective, Sneha and Dylan were dream clients. The did research, they "shopped local," and they visited the studio — both to talk with Travis, and to see (and feel) letterpress samples in person. Most importantly, they had a solid design vision and provided concrete inspiration and references.

Parklife Press did custom designs for both the save the date card and the invitation set. For the former, Sneha and Dylan said they wanted "whimsical ... like the opening scenes of a Wes Anderson film." (For a graphic designer and film buff to hear this? He knows it's the start of a fun job.)

The list of inspirations for the invitation set was longer, but no less interesting to fit together. To start with, it was to be "a bit more formal" than the save the date cards.

For the couple, it was tiny details that made this set distinctive and personal. They wanted to incorporate "flower garlands from traditional Indian weddings." To do this, Travis used a blind deboss impression — thereby lending texture to the background and creating a subtle, striped effect which was in keeping with the design's formal tone. Sneha and Dylan chose the green and gold colors they "often see in the beautiful forests here," colors which they used in the wedding and reception. (The heavy-weight cards were edged in gold, setting off the deep green of the text.) And finally, they wanted to "give a nod to our new home in Durham by featuring a romanticized bull." That bull, extending a single rose, appears on both the save the date card and on the invitation's envelope flap return address.

Commissioning custom designs, especially when the turnaround time is short, can be nerve-wracking for clients. But it was a positive experience for Sneha, who said, "Travis was so easy to work with and incredibly quick to respond to our edits." And the resulting product really set the tone for their big day: "We have received more compliments on the invites than we could have ever imagined," she said. "He helped two very time-constrained and design-naive individuals make absolutely beautiful invitations we will treasure forever."

Photos by Sarah McCarty Arneson

Old World Charm in New York City

The beauty of a classic, calligraphic invitation puts the emphasis on the writing. Here, in a invitation based on Quill, with custom calligraphy by Monica Rachel Lima, the swirls and flourishes of the text sets the tone for an elegant and festive occasion. The black ink on thick, pearl white paper stock is set off by a metallic silver envelope liner.

The simplicity of the dingbat rule pairs well with dramatic flair of the calligraphic flourishes, and all the rounded corners of all the pieces ties the set together.

Accompanying reception and RSVP cards are done in a understated serif font with a vintage feel. The two styles coordinate to set the tone for a formal wedding in New York City.

Photos by Sarah McCarty Arneson