Growing up near Oklahoma City, a young Brady Vest shared his passion for drawing with his grandfather, sketching horses and other Midwestern scenes.
Years later, after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, Vest parlayed that passion into another artistic endeavor: In 1994, he founded Hammerpress, a letterpress printing and design firm.
Hammerpress offers a variety of products from handcrafted wedding invitations and business stationary to cards, desk supplies, home goods and personal accessories.
Hammerpress is on Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District and features a studio as well as a retail shop. Vest leads a staff of seven in designing and making products sold online and in shops around country and Canada.
“We do an older form of printing that went out of relevant use with the invention of offset and digital printing,” Vest said. “It was literally art. … In the last 20 years, there has been a slow re-introduction of letterpress printing with the whole maker movement. It’s gained a lot of popularity.”
‘A slow evolution’
Vest fell in love with printmaking while at KCAI and saw a niche in the marketplace.
“It is a very process-oriented art form … (and) it is meant to be out into the world,” he said.
The process involves using metal or wood type that is first inked, then pressed against paper.
Vest modeled his company after a business KCAI upperclassmen had created. Vest described himself as a bit naïve when first diving into the business world.
“I tried to find this equipment and, back then, it was more of an endeavor. We didn’t have eBay to find things,” Vest said. “I would go into old print shops and through trade magazines to find equipment.”
He opened a studio and was a solo operation for some time until business began to pick up.
“It was a long time trying to figure out what I was doing. … Then I started meeting other people,” Vest said. “It was a slow evolution of me figuring out what to do.”
Finding a niche
Hammerpress keeps a number of presses in rotation for production; there are 700 hundred drawers of lead type and “a pretty good collection of wood type” as part of the studio, Vest said.
In recent years, technology has helped to speed up what has been a laborious art form.
“I don’t do everything completely by hand now,” Vest said. “Over the years, we have evolved to where you can take a digital file and put it on a printing plate. It is still all letterpress-printed, but it’s faster now.”
Fifteen years ago, Hammerpress got into wholesale production, developing a large line of postcards and greeting cards, posters and notebooks. Vest also introduced a few other designers’ work. The company’s business is now an even split among retail, wholesale and custom work.
Today, Hammerpress has approximately 800 wholesale accounts throughout the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. Locally, clients have included Boulevard Brewing Co. and VisitKC.
Three and a half years ago, Hammerpress moved into its current location in the Crossroads, providing more space for its offices, production and order fulfillment.
Vest said there is more competition today in the marketplace than when Hammerpress started in 1994.
“You have to find your niche, and I think our niche has evolved into design and producing our own wholesale line (that) we still do the job printing,” Vest said.
“What sets us apart is our design approach, which tends to be pretty referential to our collection. It is kind of a modern tweak to traditional type and forms.”
Hammerpress has been recognized for its work in several graphic design annuals, printmaking, poster design and typography books. The company has won several AIGA and ADDY awards for its work.
Vest likes Kansas City’s Midwestern vibe, and it’s been good for his business.
“It’s an easy and approachable place to start a business,” he said. “People are always interested in what those businesses are doing.”
Looking ahead, Vest plans to have Hammerpress keep doing what it been successful with—hand-designed paper goods.
“This year, we will put a little more focus on being proactive on certain projects and build new relationships with folks in town and outside of the city as well as re-evaluating our storefront to orient it to our custom design work,” he said.