Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about where you grew up and what your childhood was like.
MING: I was born in Yorkshire, and then we moved to Rochdale because my gran had bought a chip shop and she didn’t speak English. So I grew up and went to school [there]. And then me and Steven both met in Newcastle. We’ve now been together for 26 years.
STEVEN: We were both studying at Newcastle Polytechnic, and we both went on a course trip to Barcelona. We actually met in Barcelona and then once we were married we had our honeymoon there 15 years later!
“I thought about greeting cards because it’s such an achievable thing you don’t need a lot of equipment and you can make it like a small print. Really high quality and interesting ideas.”
MING: When we finished uni we went travelling and worked in Hong Kong, went over to China, Tibet and down to India and Nepal. He (Steven) wanted to stay in India, so he stayed there for another year and I went home to London. That was about 3 years after we met, so that was early in the relationship. And then he came back to London, and it was great living in London 20 years ago because it was the time of all the digital start-ups and it wasn’t as ridiculous as it is now, like living and rent and everything. We could have a good night out for a fiver! We could see a film for £2 and have a meal for £3.
MING: That’s why we started our enterprise scheme and started doing the cards.
STEVEN: Yeah we both started designing and drawing and trying to get ideas going that we might be able to make into ranges. Initially I thought about greeting cards because it’s such an achievable thing you don’t need a lot of equipment and you can make it like a small print. Really high quality and interesting ideas. Screen print was something we experimented with to increase production because we had been doing things with lino cuts, mono prints and slow hand processes. You couldn’t turn too much round, there was a limit to what we could do. When we started print processes it allowed us to do things a bit more in volume.
What is it like working together?
STEVEN: Well we are used to each other – that probably helps. But it can be stressful, because we think differently.
MING: We have different temperaments, we are completely polar opposites, because I’m quite highly strung, a perfectionist who has to do things a certain way. We were always brought up that you had to achieve a 10, you know, you had to achieve perfection.
STEVEN: “Why did you get an A when you could get an A*?”
MING: I was brought up to be a perfectionist.
STEVEN: And I was brought up to be my own person and make my own mistakes
MING: His (upbringing) was really laid back in that he could just do whatever he wanted, his mum did a lot of travelling overseas and he was left to his own devices – so he was quite a hippy! In fact when my parents first met him they said “what are you doing with that hippy?”
Tell me about your path to what you’re doing now, how you came to start Pop Press and how you met Dorris?
MING: We wanted to reproduce our work in an ‘acceptable’ way. We never went down the print plunge because it costs money and you don’t know how it will look – we don’t like waste. It’s about being frugal so that we get the end product that we want, using the materials we want, getting the colour we want as well as the right paper stock and packaging. That’s why we got into letterpress.
STEVEN: We bought Dorris 3 years ago, and since then we’ve bought Alan. It’s been fantastic for the shop and for workshops because we’ve found that we can really get enough impression to give people that super debossed effect they like.
How did you come to open Pop Press?
STEVEN: Pop Press already existed in terms of us making the things that we make. We traded as Pop Press while doing craft fairs and then the opportunity to buy the building came up a year ago and we pulled together with family members, and ploughed everything into it!
“It’s about being frugal so that we get the end product that we want, using the materials we want, getting the colour we want as well as the right paper stock and packaging. That’s why we got into letterpress.”
STEVEN: We had a letterpress that we bought in 95, purely for the purposes of folding our greeting cards we made, when we lived in our 1 bedroom flat in London, as a way of Ming producing her work and getting it out there. We had some success with it. We then discovered the technology of plate making was quite accessible, and without too much equipment we could make our own printing plates and convert illustrations into plates we could print. We started printing our ideas with Letterpress and it was great, gave us nice results and textures, it wasn’t perfect because the size was limiting and we wanted to be able to do everything in one go – do a greeting card back and front all in one go and increase the area.
MING: We’ve picked things up along the way and we now know what works. We’re now used to the treadle press.
If you’ve got an emotional connection to a piece of work then that’s a winner because somebody will connect to it emotionally and somebody will want it and somebody will buy it and that’s the point of it.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken so far?
MING: Buying this building. It’s a huge risk. When this came up, we had studio space and retail space.
STEVEN: We felt there was enough potential to do something with it, even if retail didn’t work out… But we hope that retail will work out.
Could you explain your process? How do you come up with ideas, who does what, how do you split the labour? How does it go from an idea to a finished product?
STEVEN: The Invasion is an interesting example. I did a series of cityscape drawings and one of them had a little UFO in as a twist – we felt that was the most interesting aspect of it. And then we thought ok, we can make this into a campaign.
MING: In all our cityscapes, there’s little stories. There’s always something happening. We try not to do anything that’s too trend driven or ‘in fashion’ at the moment.
So with the Invasion range, it started off with the cityscapes, which you then added the B-movie twist. How does that concept get from the sketchbook to the letterpress?
MING: You always have to think about the end product otherwise you have to do the whole thing again. You’re always thinking how is it going to work with the letterpress?
STEVEN: You have to take your illustration and split it into your component colours. Then you need to make that into a negative and print that negative on a printer. You then take the negative with a photopolymer plate onto an exposure unit and expose it and wash out the unexposed plate, leaving the relief surface that you then print with on a printing press.
In your shop you sell a variety of printed works, from letterpress coasters and greeting cards to plastic plates to framed screenprints from a variety of artists and makers, not just yourselves. How do you select the artists whose work you sell?
STEVEN: We approach people mostly, but some do come to us.
MING: We find that we meet a lot of designers at fairs, especially around London. Fairs have given us good ideas on what sells. We work in collaboration with the artists as well, so they will promote us and we promote them. So it’s like showcasing the artist really. I think for an artist, designer or illustrator to sell their stuff, it takes a lot of work from their end, build up social media, showing it at fairs, website, giving people an idea of what they’re about. So when people stock it, people will buy it. There are a lot of new designers we would like to have in the shop but it’s a lot of work to get it sold unless you can build up [that following].
“You always have to think about the end product otherwise you have to do the whole thing again. You’re always thinking how is it going to work with the letterpress?”
In addition to selling beautifully printed products, you also run letterpress workshops, can you tell me more about those?
STEVEN: They’re tailor-made to the people that we do it with, covering the basics of letterpress. People can play around with the equipment, it ticks a few boxes for people, it’s creative, it’s something they haven’t done before, it’s fun. Then there are people who have a reason why they need to do it – for example: students doing a dissertation. We also get digital people who work with pixels – they want something physical and want to be able to trace back to where it all started.
How does living in Nottingham influence your work?
MING: I think it influences us in a way because we’re trying to make work that people in Nottingham want to buy – so it might be more landmark heavy. We have got some bespoke Nottingham letterpress prints from Hooksmith coming along – so that will be nice.
Do you have a favourite place in Nottingham?
MING: When we first moved here we went to Sherwood Forest and Rufford Park.
STEVEN: We also like Nottingham Contemporary!
What advice would you give to a young person starting out?
MING: Don’t be scared about making contact with people and learning. Don’t be pushy but make the moves. Be enthusiastic and be confident.
STEVEN: If you show that you’re enthusiastic about something, then you will get a good response from people who are more established and they might be able to give you an opportunity in some shape or form.