Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Susie Gelbron '95 (left) and her Carrot & Stick Press business partner, Julie Walker.

November 5, 2003:

Resurrecting old ways

Susie Gelbron '95 makes custom invitations and announcements using traditional art of letterpress printing

When Susie Gelbron '95 and her friend and classmate at California College of Arts and Crafts Julie Walker decided to go into the letterpress business together in 2000; the only printing press they could afford to use was the one in the barn behind their thesis adviser's house. "It was freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer," Gelbron recalls. "There were raccoons in the walls. There were jars of nails in the barn. When the raccoons started to come out of the woodwork, we threw handfuls of nails at them."

They have come a long way from throwing nails at raccoons. Their company, Carrot & Stick Press, and their products — note cards, place cards, custom invitations, and announcements — have been featured in high-profile magazines such as InStyle, Lucky, Martha Stewart Weddings, Bon Appétit and were named "Best of the Bay" in San Francisco magazine.

The traditional art of letterpress printing, which is often considered the oldest form of printing, dates back to Johannes Gutenberg's moveable type printing press. Though Gelbron and Walker begin their designs on the computer, they switch back to old-fashioned methods when it comes to the actual printing, cranking out their antique letterpress by hand. Letters and designs are raised and inked, and are then pressed into the paper, giving it its characteristic, impressed quality.

The name Carrot & Stick refers to the working relationship between Walker and Gelbron. "You tempt the horse with a carrot and hit it with a stick," explains Gelbron. "Julie's style is, 'We're going to meet at 6 a.m. and work until the project is finished.' I try to make it fun, so I'll say, 'Well, let's go out to breakfast first.' I'm the carrot." Moving the horse (their company) along, that collaborative relationship and ethic has taken them from a small enterprise of printing Christmas and birth announcements out of a drafty barn to saving up enough to buy four antique presses for their studio, based in Oakland, California.

Gelbron, who majored in art history and photography at Princeton, received her M.F.A. in 1998 from California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco. She says that taking on the role of entrepreneur, in addition to being an artist, has been a challenge. "That is something that I've learned on the fly. We did this the old fashioned way. We never borrowed money," she says. "Now that I'm getting savvy I realize that operating without debt isn't great for a business in terms of taxes. That's the kind of stuff we didn't know, that debt is a write-off. Taking someone out to lunch is a write-off."

And as her business grows, Gelbron says another challenge is to continue to provide the personal attention to detail that motivated Carrot & Stick in the first place. Gelbron and Walker do all of the designing themselves. When they meet with clients to go over personalized orders, such as invitations and announcements, the partners might offer clients a glass of champagne to toast the occasion. "People are working with us on important events, be it wedding or birth — a happy, emotionally charged time," Gelbron says, "and they like the one-on-one."

Letterpress printing is not inexpensive. Basic invitations with one color start at $10 for an invitation, reply card, envelope, and outer envelope. But some clients can get very elaborate, Gelbron says. Her company worked with a client who spent $17,000 on the paper alone for 150 invitations.

According to Gelbron, more and more stationers are finding the simple beauty in letterpress printing. What sets Carrot & Stick apart, she says, is their custom attention. "Most paper or stationery stores have binders with a lot of different offerings," Gelbron explains. "We don't have a binder. Clients come in and tell us about their wedding and what they are envisioning, and we create something for them." Everything is made to order, and Gelbron gets the most satisfaction, she says, knowing that she's helped create a major part of an occasion, be it a wedding, birth, birthday party, or even the place cards for a dinner party. When she sends out an order, "I want the stamps to be straight on the envelopes, and the bows on the packages to be perfect so that when the invitations arrive, it's an incredible experience. I really want it to be a great experience from start to finish."

Kathryn Beaumont '96 is an associate editor at M.I.T. Technology Review.