Inside the Workshop: Melanie Ouellette Karlins, letterpress

Age: 34

Where do you live?: Washington

What is the one piece of equipment you use that you can’t live without?:I couldn’t do without a tool called the AlignMate, which helps me make sure the text on all my cards is straight.

“When I’m not making stuff,
I’m . . . ”:
I’m not making Grey Moggie stuff I’m probably still making stuff because I love to bake and do craft projects with mydaughter. We are big fans of the Oxon Hill Farm, the zoo, and lots of local coffee shops.

Hours spent studying at coffee shops helped Melanie Ouellette Karlins get her law degree — and then start her own letterpress business.

That coffee-fueled time became the inspiration behind snarky, humorous and sweet messages on her first letterpress bookmarks and greeting cards, with messages such as “You’re getting this card because writing letters is more fun than studying.”

Karlins, a Northeast Washington resident and Maine native, fell in love with letterpress printing after taking classes at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring. The classes served as her creative outlet during the stressful semesters in school, she said, and the love of setting type lasted after her graduation from George Mason University in 2009.

Karlins passed the bar exam, she said, but decided not to practice — instead taking a job as a clerk. Weekends and evenings were spent printing at Pyramid Atlantic, where she taught introductory courses and had her own studio space for two years.

“I never really did anything formal or anything that required training before this,” Karlins said of letterpress. “I’ve always played with paper, crafting when I was younger. I had an aunt who tried to teach me to crochet. I hadn’t taken a formal art class before printing.”

Karlins said learning to letterpress without a background in graphic design made her a bit of an outlier.

“If you come at it as a designer, you have a style you already work with and an idea of what you want to see printed,” Karlins said. “I learned by setting type by hand, with the little pieces of metal. That’s why a lot of my work is text-based. I didn’t have a design aesthetic. I have homed in on what I like.”

Karlins started out experimenting with small batches, trying 10 cards with pink paper, then 10 with blue. Early on, she sold cards with subtle designs, which sold well at craft fairs. Now, her cards are often white with bright colors and simple text, which are easier to read online and stand out more at stores and markets.

As for the inspiration behind each card’s messages — Karlins has designed congratulations cards that simply say “Mind Blow,” and an everyday card that reads “Smile. Ryan Gosling Exists” — Karlins says everyday moments and feedback from customers help her create the fun, often humorous messages.

“People relate to them. People get it,” she said. “I find little snippets of life. Some people love it, though I do get ‘I have no idea what you're talking about.’ It’s fun when they completely flop.”

Her greeting card company, Grey Moggie Press, slowly became her full-time gig with the birth of her daughter three years ago. Karlins quit her job and found a studio near her home on Capitol Hill. Karlins’s cards are printed on a 90-year-old, 1,600-pound Chandler & Price hand-fed press, an eBay purchase. Karlins now sets up a booth at Eastern Market twice a month, and her cards can be found at local retailers (Politics & Prose, Salt & Sundry and more) as well as at shops across the United States.

Learning to set type and using a printing press, Karlins said, has given her an expanded appreciation for things that are well made, and she often urges people to get in touch with their creative side and do something hands-on as a hobby or craft.

“My press was built in 1923,” she said. “I’m sure it has another 200 years of life in it. My Macbook Pro is four years old, and I’m not convinced it will last another week.”

Although she no longer teaches at Pyramid Atlantic, Karlins said she might go back when her daughter is in school. She also has plans to design a wedding line and take on more custom wedding invitation orders.

“It’s scary to leave a 9-to-5 with benefits, and it’s also scary moving away from being a full-time stay-at-home mom,” Karlins said of cultivating her business. “It can be scary to leave that comfort. It’s unpredictable. It’s different to be doing something as a hobby as opposed to doing it as a business.”

Related:

Read past Inside the Workshop stories here.

Read more Home & Garden stories here

Margaret Ely is a producer and reporter for Local Living and Weekend. Previously, she was an intern for the Post’s Metro section.
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