Sideshow Press and Stitch Design Co. have gotten a little too big for their britches. The letterpress and graphic design outfits are expanding their cozy Cannon Street studio to a refurbished building out back, and they're adding two more antique presses to their collection. Since Amy Pastre, Courtney Rowson, and Virginia Gregg bought their first press in 2004, Sideshow Press has gained fans in Charleston and across the nation — their stationery was most recently featured on NBC's Today morning show. Not bad for something that started out as a pet project.
"We originally bought it as more of a hobby, just something fun to do together and experiment with," Pastre says. "That's how it all started. In a way, it helped us to get away from the computer and get our hands dirty."
Gregg adds with a laugh, "And our shirts and all of our clothes."
They started by making cards and wedding invitations for friends, but it didn't take long for the word to get out, and the trio decided to make it a full-time venture.
While all three of the founders can work the presses, Gregg is the main "press lady," handling all aspects of the production for Sideshow.
"I really like the production end of things," Gregg says. "I'm more geared toward those kinds of things. I like problem solving and figuring out how to make it better."
The main press they use today was built in 1933, and they operate it in much the same way as it was used before modern technology simplified printing processes, with the addition of modern photopolymer plates. Each piece is hand-fed through the machine, resulting in a uniquely textured product.
"It's definitely very antiquated, and something every print shop's moving away from, but I think whenever we show people letterpress and they feel it, you just can't emulate that any other way," Pastre says. "People comment on it every single time."
The trio has mostly taught themselves how to master the presses, with a little help from some friends. "There's a lot of old press men that think it's fun to help the silly girls who are trying to figure out the old way of doing things," Gregg says.
But the old way is exactly what makes Sideshow so special. "I think there's a certain attraction as things get more and more digital," Pastre says. "We're drawn to that contrast, being able to do both, to be current and to be traditional."
In addition, the antique presses give the company a flexibility not found with modern machines. "This press gives us the opportunity to work with materials we don't normally work with, and we push the limits on that," Gregg says. "We run paper bags through it, fabric, muslin bags, wood, which you can't do with a modern offset press because everything is so automated, it's limited."
Modern presses have more flexibility in terms of color and speed of production, while the older machines allow for more creativity and experimentation.
"It's really fun as a designer to take those limits away and see what happens," Pastre says.
Sideshow Press produces social stationery, journals, and cards with a simple, stylish, and often cheeky flair. Some cards include only a small picture or a phrase in lowercase type: "you melt my butter," or "i'm glad you were born." Their stationery sets now come in three themes: Road Map, Telephone, and Thread. The envelopes are lined with bright maps, yellow pages, and sewing patterns, respectively, and the note pages feature a small embossed image at the top. They also design and print products for events like weddings, from the invitations to the table numbers to the menus.
"What we do is really influential in the wedding," Rowson says. "They take the inspiration and infuse it to the full event. ... We don't limit ourselves just to what the press can do. The press is just the start of how we expand the idea." At a recent wedding, they painted bocce balls to mark table numbers.
"It's probably quite the opposite of how it normally works," Gregg adds, "where the wedding invite is just part of the larger idea."
As the line's designers, Pastre and Rowson list fine art, vintage packaging, fashion, and interior design among their inspirations. In addition to Sideshow, the duo also launched Stitch, a full-service design company, in 2009. Similar to Sideshow's sensibility, Stitch is all about the little details, with a focus on paper, texture, and type. They work with clients to create logos, advertising, and websites, among other things. They've designed materials for local fashion designer Marysia, FIG, and Tara Guérard Soirée.
Sideshow Press products are for sale at Lesesne (539 King St.) and etsy.com/shop/sideshowpress.