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  • Writer's pictureIllya Sobtchak

The Printers Devil with Stephen Kenny

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

For Stephen Kenny each wooden block tells it’s on own story, often playful and seeded with double meaning, his prints are instantly recognisable and endearing.

I have been a fan of his work for a couple of years now and it was great to finally meet the man behind the prints.

Read below how 2020 has impacted Stephen at the Press and how he managed to navigate his way through these unknown times.

Stephen Kenny in his workshop.

Before you get to the interview proper I would like to invite you to watch a video I was I lucky enough to be involved with whilst visiting Stephen at his workshop in Hackney Wick, London where he showed us his craft and sat down with us to answers some questions.


So why did you get started working with a Letterpress?


It was a natural progression for me to work with a letterpress because I've always been fascinated by typography and street signage as well as printing itself. 

The old wood and metal blocks collect scratches and marks over time which make them unique in a similar way to how denim ages and improves over time.

Each block is slightly different and that's very appealing as they have their own characters and unique personalities.

"letterpress is just words, and everybody needs words, right?!"


Can you tell us about your Press and if there's any interesting history that surrounds it?


Well, this press is from the 1940s. It is a printing press and was used primarily to proof type, it would have been used to check spelling and layouts and so on, basically, it would be used in the same way as I'm using it today but of course, I'm printing editions and broadsides with it. 

"negative space around the design is as important, as the design itself."


And was it hard to source?


Yes, these machines can be hard to find, they are in high demand now. 

The last few years they've been very popular, everyone is on the lookout for a proof press as they are probably the easiest ones to use, as you don't need lots of room.

There's no way I could use a cylinder press, for example, because they are super heavy and big. And it would be hard to get it upstairs into my workshop, without taking out half of a wall to get it in! So, the proofing press is ideal for hand inking.

"moving woodblocks around at the beginning before printing is always quite an unknown thing"


Where do you seek inspiration for your designs?


Well, now it feels like I'm finally being able to be relevant and have something to say about what's going on in lockdown and collaborating with people feels important, interesting and fun thing to do as well. Whereas in the past it tended to be about nostalgia and looking back.

But now it feels more important somehow to be printing and occasionally doing paste-ups outside

"I absolutely feel like it's important to try and respond to things that are going on."


And what does collaboration mean for you?


Collaboration is very nice opportunity to work with friends both who are in London and those who aren’t, it's a nice way for people to express themselves with me and for us to connect with each other.

I have collaborated with people from Tokyo, L.A., Moscow as well as people here in London, and it's just been really nice, it feels global in a way because there have been paste-ups in these places.


Are there any designs that you are particularly proud of currently?


Yeah, I love all the collaborations; that's been super fun to do...the dot prints “Stay Safe" work really well. The ‘New Normal', that's caught people's eyes, they've been really popular. And I think it's a friendly and clear message to be seen on the street almost like a public safety message, clearer than the governments!


Do you get commissions for custom orders and how does that process work?


Yes, I do get commissioned by brands like Full Count, we just finished doing a little collaboration, which they're going to do a T-shirt run with me.

But you never know what's going to happen for example with Andrew from BOLT, we did a collaboration that was designed as a t-shirt and then it becomes a cap which then becomes an embroidered jacket. 

Even if the collaborator tells you one thing, something else can happen along the way.

"brands really appreciate the eccentric font types that I have" photo courtesy of Bolt London

I think these individuals from the brands like say Miki-San or Andrew seem to really appreciate it, the eccentric font types that I have. It's nice to see what people do with the artwork that we do together.


And you did a collaboration with the Papa Nui alongside some stores?


Yeah, I did, He (John) explained the story behind his brand, and I was hooked straight away. I was really intrigued as to what he wanted to do, he sent over some have some caps and I sent him some posters. And so, I ended up doing some posters to compliment his caps, and I think they look great...they've spread out around the world a lot of people have those now. 

The stores General Quarters and Godspeed got in touch around lockdown as they saw what I was doing with Covid and “Stay Safe” prints and it caught their eye. And their prints came out great.

photos courtesy of @problempress

So, lockdowns kind of worked right for me at the Press, it's been great to connect to new people and I just see the press in a different way now, it just feels a bit more important, a bit more relevant. 


Do you see yourself touching upon more current issues now that the Covid prints have resonated so well with your audience?


Now that I started to feel more relevant when anything comes up that catches my eye, or my attention I absolutely feel like it's important to try and respond somehow to things that are going on. 

I made a poster in response to what's going on in Hong Kong, ‘Liberate Hong Kong’, the revolution of our times. And that was fun to do because I had to do the Chinese characters for it, which was an interesting exercise.

As well as using old block, Stephen gets custom ones made.

And there are so many things happening in the world right now, it feels like it's never going to end with this crazy behaviour that's going on everywhere. I mean, it's almost daily, isn't it? 

And especially when the prints aren't just on people's walls at home, you see them pasted-up in the street, it feels like you have a voice outside of the workshop. 

"it feels like you have a voice outside of the workshop" Photo Courtesy of @problempress


Yes, I think 2020 is going to be a very inspiring year for artists.


Absolutely, in the future, people will talk about their shared experiences of 2020 and I think it could be the beginning of a lot of things.

People have found a little voice inside themselves or somewhat more power to be more vocal, there's more of a DIY aesthetics coming out maybe with lower production values, but a quicker response time, for a lot of people, the 'New Normal' is better.

Hopefully, COVID stops in 2020 and doesn't overlap too much into 2021 that would be a good beginning for the new year.

"2020...People have found a little voice inside themselves"


In a world of rapidly changing imagery on places like social media. Where does your work fit in?


I think it comes down to relevance, I have mixed feelings about 'Social Media', it's important; I use it to promote my business but it's just a vehicle to express yourself or raise awareness.

If it's used in a positive sense to curate something or start a conversation, then it can only be a good thing. 

But it needs to be used it responsibly, and not to antagonize or cause trouble or wind people up...if you start conversations, it's a more healthy experience for everyone.

"Social Media; If used in a positive way or to start a conversation, can only be a good thing."


How do you see The Printers Devil evolving over the next few years?


Hopefully, I can build on this new freedom, because before lockdown, I relied on my stockists and the collaborations. I worked hard and then they all stopped immediately in March. All the plans I had for this year were completely cancelled...But then out of that, I kind of realized there was another power; I have this workshop, I have my imagination I was in control.

Everything changed, I didn't have to proof for anybody if I liked a design it was good enough. 

I didn't have to negotiate my prices because I sell directly now. I set the prices, I set design, and it's much quicker and it feels like I don't have to fit my prices in with anybody else right now because this is a different situation. you don't have to try to fit in. You've just got to keep working and try to survive.

I hope this continues as a new normal for myself, I have more control and power over my own business. Whereas before I felt like a bit of a compromise, more of a tool in a way. 

Before I was selling maybe a third of the number of prints that were more expensive.  

Right now, I'm busier, the print rack is full every week, selling more prints and that's how I like to be. I like to be busy. And I like people to be buying Prints who wouldn't have bought them otherwise.

The decision to cut my prices was a very quick one, I priced everything at £19, as a reference to Covid-19, but also so that people like me that, even if they were broke, they would still buy one of these prints. Kind of like a souvenir of the times, it's cheap enough so you don't think about it too much. 


Do you think the letterpress is a dying art or is there hope for it in the future? 


A letterpress is just a tool, I think it completely depends on how you use it, It's different in everyone's hands. If you look at all the private presses, they're all over the place. Everyone has their own kind of voice and their own way to express themselves, it's just a vehicle to express yourself. If you're concerned with nostalgia and so on, then so be it. 

"letterpress is always going to be relevant"

A letterpress is just words, and everybody needs words, right?! 

There's never going to be a time in the future where you don't need to read. So, letterpress is always going to be relevant, it might be old stuff. But you can still be contemporary with it because they are just, letters, words, woodblocks. But at the end of the day, you still need to read.

"Each block is slightly different and that's very appealing as they have their own characters and unique personalities"


What type of advice would you give to your younger self getting into Printing?


To be honest, I wish had started a lot earlier, if I'd had an extra 10 years, it would be amazing!

I would say do it if you feel like you want to and if you love printing and you enjoy the old machines, old presses, typefaces and all the gear that comes with it.  Start, but look around, to see what other people are doing and get involved.


Please describe your workflow?


There are two ways of working. The classic way, which would be like stacked and centred, nice and clear, which I like, for example, the 'Clutch Cafe' poster is easy to read.

But then there are other posters that are slightly more complicated, more of a puzzle. So, there is a more experimental design like the 'new normal', with the negative space around the design being important.

Having woodblocks and moving them around at the beginning before printing or proofing something is always quite an unknown thing. it's quite playful and physical.

Locking up the blocks in place before a print.


What personal touches come across in your prints?


I think a clear and friendly message is very important to me, something that's thoughtful and interesting to reflect my best foot forward, it’s how I would like to see myself, clear, friendly and interesting. 

I think that's important, without being just straightforward, empty, or positive. I like wisdom, and for things to have meaning.

I like visual puzzles, the first time you read something, you shouldn't necessarily understand it straight away. Maybe you need a second or third time to look at it to fully decipher the message almost like watching a Christopher Nolan film and in a small way, like this 'New Normal' poster, you have to turn it upside down a few times to understand the puzzle. So, I think a little bit of work from the audience is good.

"you have to turn it upside down a few times to understand the puzzle"

If you would like to find out more about Stephen, please head over to his website and Instagram below.

A special thanks to Temidayo Ogunyankin of WildAxis Studios for the film.

All photography is by Illya Sobtchak unless stated.

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