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Aesthetic Union: Letterpress Swashbuckler

Written by in Features, Inspire, Letterpress

Aesthetic Union:
Where Tourists Rarely Travel

“Fast as [All That]”

“There’s more to letterpress printing than folksy stamps and filigree wedding invitations,” says former ship’s deckhand James Tucker of Aesthetic Union. If you’re in the vicinity of San Francisco’s Mission District, check out the treasures at Aesthetic Union. Parental discretion advised. (Above image by Katie Reihman.)

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(Reported by Rebecca Huval) — Put a pause on the El Farolito burritos. Walk past Philz’s creamy coffees. Skip the Tartine éclairs. Go for the treasure: Next time you find yourself near San Francisco’s Mission District, be on the look out for a small studio adjacent to high-end jewelry craftsperson and respected pottery maker Heath Ceramics. Behind a chirpy storefront peddling the usual designer wares, such as Field Notes notebooks and maste tape, lives a productively cluttered workshop where an Original Heidelberg 15″ x 20.5″ Cylinder letterpress printer sucks, clatters, and whirls.

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You’ve arrived at the printer’s pirate cave known as Aesthetic Union, a letterpress studio unlike any other. Scrawled on the side of the Heidelberg is a brand promise: “Fast as fuck.” The machine is fast, but fine art takes time. Captain of this ship is the tart-tongued James Tucker, a former deckhand who enjoys being alone as much as educating the public.

“I’m always down to push the boundaries of what people think craft is and what people think art is,” explains James Tucker, a letterpress printer, designer and the founder of the Aesthetic Union. He conjured his dream to open a brick-and-mortar letterpress printing shop while serving as a deckhand on a boat. Before then, he’d been designer and artist working as a letterpress printer for greeting card company Hello!Lucky. Then, he got laid off.


Tucker found work as a deckhand in Sausalito. Meanwhile, he accumulated heavy-duty printing materials and equipment, keeping them in a storage unit. One day, he got a life-changing call from Heath Ceramics. The company admired the work Tucker had published on Tumblr under his moniker, the Aesthetic Union. They invited him to set up his presses in a warehouse space created for craftspeople and manufacturers. “I was like—@#$% it, I’m going to put everything I have into this place,” he recalls. “It’s always a struggle, but we’re making money printing stuff in a city that’s really expensive.”

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Aesthetic Union takes on about a dozen commissions a month, Tucker says. Besides himself, there are a few part-time retail and production employees. Besides the usual services that pay the rent—such as business cards and stationery letterhead—art commissions are their forte. “We should focus on art prints because that’s what makes us unique,” Tucker says.

Unique they are. The Aesthetic Union’s collaborators run the gamut from painter Brendan Monroe to ceramicist Julie Cloutier to type designer Erik Marinovich. In one of its most popular events, the dancer Jacquelyn Marie Shannon choreographed an experimental ballet to the percussive sounds of Tucker’s printing, including the suctioning noise of the Heidelberg Windmill press. “It’s this giant woodwind instrument,” Tucker says. “We crammed 80 people in the audience. … It was crazy.” At the end, Tucker had recorded the ballet’s percussive musical notations on a four-color print.


For his own projects, Tucker makes art prints of California landscapes of historical and personal value. He goes into a field, takes photographs, makes gestural ink washes, then returns to the studio at night “when no one is around” to mix inks. On a 9” by 12” linoleum block, he prints using a split-fountain method so that colors run together to mimic the sky. Separately, he turns a map into line drawings and then produces it as a photopolymer plate. He debosses that map on top of the split-fountain sky. Abstract ink washes are printed on top as the final flourish. For paper, he uses an 80-pound smooth stock. “It prints really well because it’s smooth and lets the ink do what it wants on the page.”

His favorite of the landscape series is an interpretation of Bishop, California, where tourists rarely travel. With the smooth White Mountains on one side and the high, jagged Sierra Mountains on the other, the valley has beautiful sunsets and storms because of the dramatic landscape, he says.


Personal Work: Bishop, Calif.


Personal Work: Bolinas


“It’s so personal to me because a friend took me out there after a traumatic break up,” Tucker says. “I had felt vulnerable emotionally but also physically because of the landscape.” He used orange, purple, gold, and gray to convey his mix of emotions. Tucker painted a scene after a storm, when the rain had cleared the sky and washed away debris. The landscape reflected how he felt at the time. “An abstract print engages the viewer to think about what this is internally. You’re not looking at a photo—you’re looking at a feeling.”

“I think the DIY movement was great, but there’s more to letterpress printing than folksy stamps and filigree wedding invitations,” he says. “You can make it a legitimate art form.”

And alone at night, in the company of his sucking, clattering, whirling Heidelberg, Tucker does make legitimate art—beautifully.


In case you had any doubt.

  1. 07
    Matt Porter said:

    San Francisco is loaded with hidden treasure. Go raid this man’s trove. Then wander the colorful and vibrant streets of the Mission District.

  2. 07

    A wonderfully detailed & lively look behind the scenes in a letterpress print shop…would’ve liked to be present at the live performance!

  3. 07
    Alyson Kuhn said:

    Thanks for this excellent insider report on James’ “printer’s pirate cave.” After my visit a couple of months ago, I described Aesthetic Union to several people as a letterpress garage-salon-boutique-rabbit hole. Now, it seems like a bit of a mirage. I probably need to nip and tucker back over!