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Technology  October 1, 1996

Love of craft, work merge for ex-IBMer

NIWOT — In Niwot, if you follow the white picket fence alongside Rev. Taylor’s, there’s a print shop tucked away that makes one think of Benjamin Franklin. The proprietor of this noble business is a corporate renegade of sorts, a former IBMer who took the best of his detailed high-tech computer knowledge, combined his left brain, his right brain and his heart and opened a letterpress printing business last winter.

Brian Allen now lives the life others still trapped in the corporate maze find themselves fantasizing about while madly racing to their next appointment or meeting.

Allen doesn’t race anymore; he ambles from the high-tech side of his print shop with its Macintosh computer, through his display area filled with cards and examples of his work, to the old-world side of his shop with its two letterpresses. He is a man immersed in what he does, who keeps workaholic hours, but for whom work is now his passion.

“It’s more than a business,” Allen says of his venture. “It’s something I do for love and want it to be my business.”

When work and love of one’s craft merge, there are no definitive boundaries anymore between working and living as they fuse into one.

“I spend a huge amount of time here, but whether it’s work is an alien question. It isn’t work, there’s no separation between work and personal. I’m doing the thing I was meant to do so it’s not work.”

The decision to break away from IBM was not made lightly — or quickly. In fact, it was a bit laborious. Every time Allen would seriously consider leaving, he reminded himself of the financial security his job provided and all the material goodies his high income enabled him to purchase. Money won out year after year, until in Allen’s seventh year at IBM, he heeded a different muse. In February, he departed with nothing but good feelings intact for Big Blue, and opened Brian Allen Printer Inc.

“I didn’t do this until now, partly because of a fear of failure,” he admits “The kinds of messages we get sent by our family and society in general are not to realize your dream. There’s such peer pressure not to do what you dream, maybe because they never lived theirs and don’t want their spouse or friend to do so either. The whole culture wants you to consume and all the messages we get require you to spend money and to chase after money to get more. In their heart of hearts, a lot of that stuff they really don’t want. People want more emotional, more spiritual connections with one another but are too willing to go with the tide.

“If I had been a more together person 20 years ago, I would have done this then,” Allen says. “I turned away because I felt I wanted financial security more. I wish I’d had the maturity to say that I would pursue my dream anyway, but I didn’t. I wish I had been able to do it differently, but as with most people, I needed all the kinds of experiences that life gives you in order to finally

realize what you need to be doing.”

Ironically, Allen found that “it was more terrifying worrying about whether I could make this business work when I still had the high income than it is now that I don’t have the high income.”

Not that Allen, who financed his business solely from his savings, is making fistfuls of dollars. He has yet to turn a profit, but he has the entrepreneur’s unyielding faith that he will make his business prosper. And, in order to familiarize himself more with the business side of business, he has enrolled in several classes geared for entrepreneurs to teach them the business basics.

“I have a sense that there’s a pent-up demand for what I do and if I market it properly, people will take advantage of it. I have an intuitive sense of people feeling overwhelmed by technology and that people want to touch one another and I do that.”

Allen takes his interactions with customers seriously. When they visit his print shop, he considers it a chance to “intersect their life with what I love to do. I want to provide a good experience, and I want to make the most of that small opportunity I have to communicate and educate.”

In that capacity, Allen talks with passion about the rich history of letterpress and lovingly displays books and printed pieces so that others can learn more about letterpress.

“The world is so filtered through the flatness of technology that we can no longer touch our work. In letterpress, every sheet is a little different. There’s a warmth to it that offset printed work, where everything is so lined up, doesn’t provide. On an unconscious level, offset distances people from the message while letterpress gives it accessibility and connection.

“I’m using the old obsolete technology that the new slick technology can’t do, and it brings a humanity to the process. Because letterpress is so different, it’s immediately noticeable and it works because it’s working against the prevailing ways in which people try to convey their business message,” says Allen.

With letterpress, Allen explains, there’s a “magic of biting into the paper. It’s a relief, you’re creating a dent in the paper. In offset and laser printing, the image sits on top. Letterpress changes the whole dynamics of how you read and gives that sense of community in such a throwaway world.”

As a man who initially started out to immerse himself in academia, the intellectual precision of type and the rich history and romance that surrounds letterpress makes it an ideal pursuit for the perfectionist Allen.

He enjoys the craft from its historical underpinnings and practically wishes for the return of the day’s when one started as a printer’s devil, spending a year sweeping the floors in a letterpress shop, learning by observing before being allowed to pursue more formal training from the printers.

“The letters were called sorts,” explains Allen, as he opens a drawer (called a job case) with all the letters precisely arranged just as printers did at the turn of the century, with the more commonly used letters grouped together. “When a printer was setting a printing job and ran out of a letter, he was out of sorts’ and mad. It’s a field with a lot of romance in that way.”

When reminiscing about what it must have been like to create the metal type and decorative pieces, Allen describes “the kind of sensuality that can be achieved in these forms that were carved with files and engraving tools by these curmudgeonly old men. You evoke a mood with your type — it’s so incredibly subtle yet you can have such a dramatically different look with these subtleties.”

Allen does not abandon high technology, however. He still utilizes his computer knowledge from his IBM days when he created Latin and non-Latin Type 1 fonts for desktop publishing and printing systems. With his Macintosh computer he designs the pages and then creates a photo polymer engraving to produce relief printing plates from the computer-generated films.

Then he prepares the press using either his plates or hand-set metal type, and hand feeds his presses and hand-inks them. Each printed piece is unique. One of his presses is a Chandler and Price platen press built in 1908 and the other a Vandercook Proof Press. They were designed to be durable.

Describing his platen press, Allen says, “this is from the age of unapologetic engineering. It was meant to last 100 years and may last another if taken care of. It was meant to be used — it’s massively engineered.”

The results are pieces that people feel compelled to frame — the wedding invitations and baby announcements, business cards and stationery. There are also greeting and holiday cards, small posters, poetry broadsides and literary chapbooks.

“As I print, I hold up the paper and have a sense of pride and ownership that I made this,” says Allen. “You just can’t beat that.”

NIWOT — In Niwot, if you follow the white picket fence alongside Rev. Taylor’s, there’s a print shop tucked away that makes one think of Benjamin Franklin. The proprietor of this noble business is a corporate renegade of sorts, a former IBMer who took the best of his detailed high-tech computer knowledge, combined his left brain, his right brain and his heart and opened a letterpress printing business last winter.

Brian Allen now lives the life others still trapped in the corporate maze find themselves fantasizing about while madly racing to their next appointment or meeting.

Allen doesn’t race anymore; he ambles…

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