“We’re very porous here. We keep our front door open and that is profoundly valuable.”
I pull into Detroit’s Eastern Market after a long drive from New York. The hot summer sun bounces through the cobblestone streets that distinguish the neighborhood. The low brick structures of former food services companies and meat packing plants are covered with bright murals and urban art, but most buildings lay dormant, awaiting reclamation. Eastern Market is a historic commercial center and the largest public market in the United States. The area is experiencing a renaissance, as the emerging creative class in Detroit is agitating to re-build this city on their own terms. Megan O’Connell, the owner of a letterpress facility called Salt & Cedar is my first stop in Detroit. She will draw the map that guides me through an underground landscape.
A few blocks off the main square is a 3000-square foot warehouse that is now home to Salt & Cedar. The long exterior wall of the building faces south. There’s a clear view of Gratiot Avenue, which leads from this central location and travels northeast through blighted and abandoned areas. A large mural completely covers the facade of the building and announces a mantra, “True Meridian”, to the surrounding city. I think about where I am and where I’m going. I think about how I will orient myself to this city and the people that I meet.
Megan greets me at the front door. Her sandy blonde hair is pulled back and wrapped in a casual knot on the back of her head. She wears an indigo shirt that is open at the collar with a white scarf tied tightly around her neck. Her piercing blue eyes flash a welcoming smile as she invites me into what is her home, business, and workshop. Her hands are rough, a contrast to her deftly modern air. They remind me of the industrial-age roots of her artistic practice.
Megan welcomes me into the cavernous interior. The fine details of her graphic craft are beautiful, but lost in shadow. The cold steel of the giant Vandercook press positioned in the middle of the room seems to sap the light and heat escaping the bare bulbs that dangle in the corners.
There is a strange mix of materials at play here. Industrial machinery and abundant shelves overflow with steel-type sets. They obscure the delicate works-on-paper stacked in corners and fixed on the walls like festive banners. Megan’s work blends the inventive angularity of Dutch design with the simplified boldness of American mid-century advertising graphics. She is a communicator, and her designs serve to deliver the message with which they were charged. Her generous feeling for space on the page confronts the viewer with a chance for contemplation, and provides an insertion point for their own imagination. At a time when design can be frivolous and disposable, Megan imbues her work with a tactile authority. Her choice of stock is subtle and meticulous. Around her shop, there’s a scattered range of samples, from thin, smooth scrolls that are gently kissed with ink to coarse textured parchments with deep graphic impressions.
Megan is an adept designer and press operator, but she views Salt & Cedar as, fundamentally, a method of exchange within a broader community of artists. “There’s always been commerce in this market,” she says. “It’s where people exchange things. There’s a very simple equation at play here. We’re on the ground level and our front door is always open.” Through an active schedule of workshops, curated exhibitions and lectures by visiting artists, Megan has established her practice as a resource for a wide range of creative and cultural projects in Detroit. By honoring the legacy of mechanical printing and maintaining the substantial infrastructure it requires, she stands for a place and a position within a burgeoning community.
Megan has lived in Detroit for 7 years and has become well-connected within the community. I’m anxious to find out how she ended up here and what she views as vital in the area, but first she’s got something she wants to show me. As we sit down to talk, she drags a large archival box off a high shelf above a typesetting bench and starts to open it up.
RA: What’s that?
MO: This is American Wood Type: 1828-1900, a suite of hand composed specimen pages printed in 1964 on a cast iron hand press by graphic designer, educator and collector Rob Roy Kelly. He was an avid researcher and enthusiast for this decorative vernacular style of type, which was introduced during the early days of American advertising. Before he came along to rediscover it, this style of American typography was considered an embarrassment to the graphic design community. He almost single-handedly revived it by going around the Midwest beginning in the mid-1950’s and collecting old sets of type for his students at Minneapolis School of Art [later Minneapolis College of Art & Design / MCAD] to use. People were ready to just throw this stuff away. He published this boxed edition and made a whole new taxonomy available to his students. He prompted a major typographic revival in the 1970’s with his collection and this book. There were only 45 of this edition printed. I’m the only private individual to own one, the rest are in museums and libraries across the country.
RA: Why do you love this?
MO: Because I’m reverent of the standards of my predecessors, who designed books, who designed posters, who designed type itself, because their systems were so thoughtful. I mean, even each point size of each typeface was drawn by hand so that there could be corrections to ensure legibility. That degree of care and intelligence is very attractive to me.
RA: What drew you to letterpress as opposed to other forms of graphic design?
MO: The physicality of letterpress has always compelled me. The care and the intentionality with which you compose using physical wood and metal type versus whatever is coming off your fingertips as pixels, are two very different propositions. When I design now for the computer, I try to apply what I know about the tangible properties of type and my own standards from what I know about type and make sure that I don’t accept the default settings. There is something natural about designing type in actual space. There’s a fluidity between the eye, hand, the body, the mind, and our reading distance that lets us understand intuitively how to design when using a manual press.
RA: What’s the importance of the physical space of your studio?
MO: The workflow of Salt & Cedar is, on the one hand, just quotidian good design, but then also opening up spaces to have collaborations with artists. We’re looking to have an outcome that’s unexpected and can keep branching out from us in new ways. We’re very porous here. We keep our front door open and that is profoundly valuable. This is historically a market, after all, and commerce is in our DNA. This is a place where goods are exchanged. Time has proven that being based in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Detroit has created situations and opportunities for us to have conversations that I would not have imagined were possible when I opened 4 years ago.
RA: How did you end up in Detroit?
MO: I arrived in 2010 and permanently moved here in 2011. I was the founding director of a letterpress here called Signal-Return. I really poured my heart and soul into opening that studio and then… well, let’s say that I’ve moved on to start my own thing. After that experience, I was lost and sad. When I opened Salt & Cedar, it was really healing for me to be able to create my own space. I looked around and realized that I could do whatever I wanted and that I don’t have to be accountable to anyone, aside from my clients and collaborators, in this workshop. It still does have this open, very broad sense of possibility for me.
RA: What’s next for Salt & Cedar?
MO: I do have aspirations for this place. I acquired a Heidelberg press so I can do runs more efficiently. I want to focus on producing beautifully printed matter that is affordable and appealing to the “masses”. For example, a set of six cards with a belly band that would be in cafes for people to grab when they need to write a postcard or make notes. I’d also love to become more of a publication studio working with authors who I believe in. Those are the areas of growth for me. That’s the potential that Salt & Cedar has. I want to scale it up, but not become so big that it becomes a purely commercial endeavor. If I can do that while continuing to work with independent artists, share the knowledge that I’ve gleaned and provide a focal point of creativity for the neighborhood, I think that will be success for me.