“Welcome to old San Francisco,” says James Tucker, as he climbs down a rusty ladder into his houseboat fish boat. Up above, the noisy, touristy pier hides a dock below, where the ‘Famiglia Santa’, a Sausalito fishing boat built in 1927 and a 35’ Monterey Trawler built in Sausalito in 1926 – also now James’ home – sits in quiet waters. Amidst the booming tech industry, James considers himself “a steward of old things.” He spends his days as a letterpress printer in the Mission District of San Francisco, where he shares his storefront-cum-studio The Aesthetic Union with greeting card maker Risa Culbertson of PapaLlama.
Preserving old arts and old machinery comes naturally to James, who grew up on the Jersey Shore, near his grandparents’ Christmas tree farm. Studying graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he gravitated toward old letterpress machines and preferred to do things by hand while the rest of his classmates used the computer. James’ life very much encompasses all the tangible things he loves: he’s a member at the Dolphin Club, one of the oldest establishments in San Francisco, where he swims, rows and works on old boats; he’s also been a shipwright at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. After stints with Taurus Bookbindery and Hello! Lucky, he now teaches at the San Francisco Center for the Book while running The Aesthetic Union.
From the Dolphin Club and his houseboat fish boat, to Swan Oyster Depot and his studio in the Mission District, we traverse the city in all its terrains: first the ocean, then the hills, and finally, the colorful city streets.
This story is featured in our second book, Freunde von Freunden: Friends, order within Germany here, or find the book internationally at selected retailers.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.
Tell me about the Dolphin Club. You’re a member here?
James: Yes. I was coming here before I was a member, just to hang out. The Dolphin Club is a swimming and boating club, and people come here to row too. It’s one of the oldest establishments in San Francisco. A lot of my friends at the Maritime Museum were members, so it just made sense to join. They want younger people anyway, because it’s much more of an older crowd here. There are about 1,300 members. Every Tuesday, we host boat night here. Everybody comes and works on a boat, and then we all have a big dinner together.
What’s the story behind your boat?
James: This boat was made in 1926, and it was a lampara net fishing boat for sardines. But the last time it fished commercially was in 2006 for salmon as a trawler. Two years ago, I was going through a breakup and I thought, “Well, I can either find a place I can’t afford or buy a boat.” Because I had worked at the Maritime Museum I could take care of the boat and pay my slip fee, which is $120 a month, and then save money to get a shop. So that’s what I did. I bought the boat in Sausalito and then moved here to San Francisco. I don’t fish with the boat, but this is always a living adventure for me.
Have you always had an affinity for the ocean?
James: I grew up on the Jersey Shore. I worked in marinas all through high school and became a lifeguard after that. I worked with boats for a while, and then came out here and learned how to sail. I worked at the Maritime Museum as a boat builder and shipwright, but I also did education for children, building small boats with at-risk teens and running the Youth Conservation Corps.
Now I do the printmaking thing. I’m just a steward of all old things – I try to keep them together for the next person. I’m not going to improve this boat, it’s already so well designed. I might leave my mark on printmaking, it’s so old and so much bigger than I am, and I kind of like that. I’m not starting anything – I’m just taking a torch and passing it on and making the fire a little bigger.
Are there any objects or pieces here that have a special history or story?
James: Everything in here has a special story, but there are a couple of things that came with the boat that are really special, like the homemade fish hooks. Because the fish were really slippery, after they caught the fish on the line, they would jam the hook into the fish and bring them up onto the boat, where they would then throw them into the fish hold. The fishhooks are practically folk art – you would see them in a museum.
The funny thing is that everything is useful here. For example, the line for the deck and for tying up the piling, the belts for the engine, the air horn and the hand-engraved instrument panel. Everything can look great, but it also has to work well.
What got you into graphic design and printing?
James: I was a graphic design major as a freshman in college and I realized I didn’t want to sit behind a computer all day. I thought sculpture and printmaking were pretty cool as you get to stand and create things with your hands. It just evolved from there. Even in graphic design vocational school, which I started in 2001, our teacher was adamant about doing everything by hand. Doing cutouts and paste-ups, not just starting stuff on the computer, so I really learned from her. My vocational school teacher was my main inspiration, she was really cool.
What kinds of projects do you work on now?
James: I do a lot of brand identity for companies, but I also team up with a lot of companies on projects where we collaborate on both the design and printing. This is what I really like to do. I’ve turned jobs away that have just been, “Print this,” and they just didn’t want to hear about my approach. I don’t want that to be my business.
How did you and Risa meet? How did you get this space together?
James: I was Risa’s teacher at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
Risa: I was trying to figure out to use a press that I had just bought, so I started taking classes at the Center, and James was my advanced letterpress teacher.
James: Before this, I was working at Hello! Lucky, a wedding invitation company, but then they went under. While I was at Hello! Lucky, Risa got in contact with me and told me that her company PapaLlama was going to get bigger and that she wanted me to print her stuff. A few months down the road, I didn’t have a job anymore, so we decided to do this together – it just made sense. Risa was working out of her kitchen at the time.
Risa: I was trying to get some advice on production. I was at maximum capacity in my kitchen with my tabletop press. James was highly recommended. It was great, it just really worked out.
James: Risa and I always wanted to work together but we wanted to find a space naturally. Heath Ceramics contacted us last summer and offered us a space in their San Francisco factory with a pretty good discount on the rent. They just wanted us in here. When we first looked at the space it was under construction. It was originally a professional laundry facility. Today there are six other small creative companies working in this building, like Voices of Industry, Small Trade Company, and Liz Oppenheim, Olli and Juila Turner.
You both work on huge machines! These machines must have interesting histories. Can you tell me about them?
Risa: I work on this Chandler & Price press. It is completely manual and was built in 1910. I found it through a guy who works at the San Jose Printer’s Guild. He had rescued it, but it was just sitting in his backyard, rusty and missing a few parts, so I bought it from him and restored it. Using the machine is pretty good exercise. After I carve the linoleum blocks, which I really love for their roughness, you put the block, ink, and paper in the machine, and then you turn the machine slowly to distribute the ink.
James: I work on this Heidelberg windmill press. This was designed in the 30s, but this particular press rolled off the line in 1984, the last year they made these machines. Heidelberg, which is named after the city in Germany, is still around and makes giant presses. This is an electro auto-vent press. I use polymer plates to make my own work. I’ll take files directly off the computer and make film with them, which I then use to make these plates. Each plate is a different color. Since the press can only print one color at a time, each color needs to be a different plate, which means I need to clean the press after each color and reset the registration system. I take the plate and stick it into the press, and then put ink on the rollers. It works like a clamshell press, but this is called a windmill because of the action it makes while printing.
The front of your studio space is a storefront. What kinds of things do you sell?
James: Our stationery and retail shop is a collaboration between Risa and myself. It’s our thing that we do together. We sell PapaLlama cards, Risa’s greeting card line, which she hand-carves on linoleum blocks and prints on a large 1910 press. We also sell fine art prints, notebooks – like the Field Notes – and pencils and pens we like.
Everything has a story; everything has a little something we like – that’s why we sell it. I hate going to pen stores or art stores and seeing a hundred pens because I’m so indecisive. We sell the best ones, like these Blackwing pencils, which have been used forever by authors and writers and draftsmen. Sometimes we get our hands on vintage envelopes and sell those. We’re always changing up what we have though.
Like your boat, this space is so multifunctional. What plans do you have for it?
James: We’re talking about doing some workshops with those little table top presses. We’re trying to get a poster press in here, which would be great. It would maximize our sheet size. We want to get more people in here. This neighborhood is going to change in the next year and become a cool, creative hub with a lot of people. This neighborhood is changing but retaining its manufacturing and art driven commerce. They’re re-doing this whole sidewalk, putting a small park around the building, adding a restaurant on the corner, so hopefully we will expand and grow out of this space in the next three years. I’m going to start producing more products and Risa is going to expand her line. We are going to get production nailed down.
Right now we also use this as a gallery space and get different artists in here to show their work. Our rules are that the work has to be printmaking, and that we have to like the work. One of our recent shows was Pussy Prints by our friend Annemarie Munn. We had a big party with a jazz singer themed for Valentines Day.
What are you most inspired by?
James: I am most inspired by history, and I’m inspired by the mistakes I make. Computers are too perfect. When we try to make everything so perfect, we miss out on a very human quality that you can see when you’re hand-drawing an image and carving it into linoleum and wood and printing it. You could try using a computer to replicate that through filters but you’re not going to get the real subtleties.
Risa: I really love the way people talk. I like to eavesdrop on conversations. I get ideas from things I’ve overheard people say or new words that kids are using these days. I’m just inspired by people. I love people and actually having conversations and interacting. My greeting cards use a lot of emotion-based humor. Things are so serious now. Things are so perfect and beautiful and this and that, but we also have to laugh. We also have to appreciate the imperfections. I also think I have the mind of a thirteen-year old boy.
Tell me about the artifacts on the wall of your studio, like the framed letters and prints.
James: We have some examples of some great hand-written letters on the wall because we want to inspire people. Our theory on letterpress is that it’s a good gateway for people to get into the ritual or artform of handing over a piece of yourself, or a piece of art to someone else. Because we send so many emails, we don’t receive many hand-written letters in the mail anymore, but it’s also really special to receive one because we send so many emails. It’s the same thing when you’re handing someone one of my custom business cards, it’s handcrafted and handmade.
Our inspiration wall has some things we printed, and some we didn’t. I worked down at Hatch Show Print in Nashville for a summer, so their posters are on our wall. They’re one of the oldest working letterpress print shops in America, so they printed the first Johnny Cash and the Elvis posters. They’ve been really great at getting their own look with these big block letters with old wood type and halftone images.
And how about the furniture?
James: The furniture is mostly made from reclaimed material. Our work desks are made from tugboat decks. The shelves are from the old barrels of ships, which is why they have the slight curvature. Everything’s very organic. We’ve only recently opened our doors, but we still have history around us because we’re still using pieces that have been around for a long time. The stuff that we have is the actual thing, not a replica.
Top spots in San Francisco?
James and Risa, thanks for showing us the things you love at home and at work. Admire James’ letterpress work on the Aesthetic Union website here. To browse and buy Risa’s greeting cards, visit her Etsy shop here.
Photography: Mark Wickens
Interview & Text: Natalie So