Dexterity Works To Find The Balance

In marrying craftsmanship and financial savvy, a New Haven printshop has become a case study in keeping a creative business afloat.

That shop is Dexterity Press, a letterpress-fueled operation that lives among the artist studios, community theaters, and fledgling businesses in Erector Square. Run by Jeff Mueller with help from his wife Kerri Sancomb, the press specializes in traditional letterpress printing.

Unlike intaglio techniques like etching and engraving that use negative (removed) space to create an image, letterpress is like woodcut printing: It uses the inked, raised portion of a plate to make the image. Like almost all printmaking techniques, it is done in reverse

Mueller, a Louisville, Kentucky, native, didn’t start out with printmaking ambitions. It was music that originally caught and held his interest. As he started playing out—first in Louisville, and then in his new home of Chicago—he saw that promotional materials were expensive and began to wonder whether he could make them himself. In the early 1990s, he joined John Upchurch and Matt McClintock at FireProof Press, a Chicago operation that specialized in working with independent record labels.

“It was my gateway to letterpress,” he recalled while bouncing from one end of his 600-square-foot studio to the other. 

But Mueller didn’t open his own shop right away. In 1998, he and Sancomb moved to Philadelphia so she could attend the University of the Arts for an MFA degree in printmaking and book arts. They were there through 2000, when Sancomb landed a job at the University of Chicago. With that move, Mueller said it felt like the right time to start something that was his own.

In that year, Mueller and Sancomb gave birth to the first iteration of Dexterity Press, which they co-ran for its first six years. As their first baby picked up commissions from presses and individuals inside and beyond Chicago, they had two more children: Leo, and then Juniper.

Navigating the ropes of owning and running a business, Mueller picked up “a number of odd jobs,” working part-time as a house painter. As he hustled to make ends meet, he learned a lesson about the art world: it was a semi-elite club, with a lot of members who could afford to practice within it. He wasn’t one of them. 

“There are people who are endowed in some capacity, who don’t have to worry if they have a slow month,” he said. “That’s never been the case for me.”

But Dexterity held its own. Mueller picked up commissions from presses and individuals both in and outside of Chicago. For the first “four to six years” of the press, Sancomb served as his artistic and business partner. In her job at the University of Chicago, she pioneered a student exhibition program, and felt that she was reaching a sort of glass ceiling. Then in 2010, she found a job as an exhibition coordinator with Yale’s large library system, a position that was close to her parents in Hamden. The two decided to head to the East Coast.

Windy City To Elm City

As Mueller and Sancomb packed up their life in Chicago, they discovered that moving Dexterity 900 miles east was no small endeavor: only their Vandercook Press, weighing almost 1,000 pounds, could come with them. A moving team got it onto the back of a flatbed truck, only to realize that it wouldn’t clear interstate bridges. From a truck, it made its way to a moving van. Mueller drove slowly over a 13-hour quilt of states leading to southern Connecticut.

When the two arrived in Connecticut, more obstacles emerged. Sancomb’s parents were an immediate boon to the family, and her job at Yale carried solid family benefits — all of which meant she and Mueller had some dependability in their lives. But the first studio they rented out — also in Erector Square — had a leak and broken heating system. Damp conditions weren’t great for their printing presses, and they were far worse for the printing and inking supplies and paper in the room.

They moved down the hall, but didn’t have a lot of light in a too-small second studio. And then three years ago, they moved down the hall again, to their current digs on the second floor of building six. (Erector Square, LLC’s website notes that rents there range from “$9.00 a square foot to $12.00 a square foot.”

As Dexterity found its East Coast footing, commissions kept coming in — mostly from outside of Connecticut, Mueller said. There was one for seven prints from Michigan-based Flyover Press, dedicated to “fly-over” states in the Midwest. Another came from a record label in North Carolina requesting six or seven colors (that’s six or seven different inks) for a sleeve with heavy print content. 

There were — and continue to be — several charitable projects that Mueller signed onto, asking only that the cost of products be covered. Following the 2011 tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan, Mueller partnered with the Brooklyn-based Hill-Side Project — run by New Haven-born brothers Emil and Sandy Corsillo — to print scarves with the Japanese character for wa (和), or unity. For the past five years, Mueller and George Corsillo of Design Monsters have alternated printing the book plates for the Institute Library’s fundraiser each year.

For each project, Mueller has a process that straddles old and new, marrying a love for old-school printmaking and craftsmanship with an embrace of the digital age. For some commissions, he’ll still set type manually for a project, an 18th-century technique that involves placing letters side by side to get the words and sentences clients want. But he’ll also use his computer for projects, digitally rendering a design on a program called Illustrator CC before sending the design to a platemaker in Owosso, Mich. The platemaker sends back the plate, and Mueller inks and prints it. 

Generally, requests come in for specialized projects — business cards, wedding invitations, record sleeves, prints and posters. He’s learned what commissions might not be worth taking — like multi-color invitations for a 450-person wedding, requested just 14 days before the bride wanted to mail them. Mueller worked around the clock to finish the invites, only to learn that the bride wasn’t thrilled with the final product. Usually, he requests a minimum of two months for a request like that. 

In fielding queries and commissions, Mueller said he’s found that running the press has been about striking a balance — or at least trying to. The number-crunching and data he leaves largely to Sancomb; “Kerri’s very good at it,” he said. He does “whatever I have to” on the business side to get there. Lately, it has meant less time for his own practice, and less time in the studio as demands on home life grow.

“Right now in our lives, we’re spending as much as we ever will have to,” he said, noting that he and Sancomb just bought a house. “I budget based on what I know I have to make.”

This year, that eye toward budgeting has also meant opening the press up to more New Haveners. When income came back at a record low this year — a trend in discretionary spending other New Haven businesses also noticed following the election — Mueller said he knew he had to add something new to the mix that wasn’t specifically a commission.

In July he held his first-ever Dexterity Press workshop, a four-hour intensive for novices hoping to learn about the world of letterpress and printing. Then in August, he’ll be teaching a longer class on printmaking, with two full days of workshops spread out over two weekends. Because he’s just testing the waters, he set the price at $125 for the first, and $200 for the second. 

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but we kind of have to anticipate that [instability],” he said. “We have to not let that stuff get the best of you.”

To find out more about new workshops offered at Dexterity Press or to contact the press, check out its website.

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