For about 10 years, it has been something of an underground or at least under-the-radar phenomenon. But it achieved main-street status last September, when Big Table Studio opened at Lawson Commons’ Wabasha Street retail space side in downtown St. Paul.
Now office workers and other downtown denizens can walk through a glass door and into the realm known mostly to music fans and (mostly) younger culturati. Big Table is an art studio, a gallery, and a retail store. There you can buy greeting cards and other items made by local designers. But what Big Table spotlights are posters, particularly those that local artists have created for bands and concert venues, and which cover the pale walls of the well-lit space. The “big table” that gives the place its name is in back, surrounded by art supplies and screenprinting apparatus. Also prominently displayed—and regularly used—is a 1927 letterpress owned by one of the six members of the studio, Bill Moran.
The City of St. Paul, which owns the ramp and retail space, originally asked Big Table founder Peet Fetsch to open a poster gallery. But “we realized that a gallery wouldn’t be a good business model by itself,” Fetsch notes. Inspired by the example of Lunalux, a Minneapolis letterpress studio, Big Table added a retail component to its new studio space.
The poster market isn’t huge: Local poster artists, who all seem to know (and help) each other, often do other design work to keep bread on their tables. But what started out for many of them as a hobby or creative side project has bloomed into a moneymaking enterprise.
The poster business interweaves a cultural confluence of music, art, local history, beer, bicycles, and a desire by its (mostly) younger practitioners, most of whom were trained as graphic designers, to get away from their computer screens and make
something. By hand. Poster making has a craft element, but the predigital techniques that have drawn in these designers also have a manufacturing aspect. You’re making more than one print of an “edition”; in some cases, you’re making hundreds.
How big is this business? No one seems to have measured it yet. One thing’s certain: The number of local poster designers has boomed in the past decade. And many of these designers have been able to parlay their reputations into national and international sales, as well as new opportunities to turn artistic expression into commercial reward.
Why has poster art flourished in the Twin Cities? John DuFresne, chairman of the graphic design department at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul and who has taught many of its practitioners, notes that the Twin Cities has a history of “highly illustrative graphic design.” A number of local designers, such as Joe Duffy, were designing T-shirts and posters for bands early in their careers, 30 and 40 years ago. But starting in the 1990s, DuFresne notes, graphic design schools “starting steering students to the computer.”
From a professional standpoint, that adds up. Designing graphics on a computer is the equivalent of taking photographs with a digital camera rather than using film—zeroes and ones are the coin of the media realm. But for the growing number of local designers who’ve taken to screenprinting and letterpress work, it didn’t quite satisfy. “A lot of people got into graphic design because when they were young, they spent their time drawing and making things,” says DuFresne, who himself teaches his students hands-on techniques including iconography and inking. Designing and making posters by hand, he says, allows young artists to “reach back to their roots.”