Innovation in Detroit: A Look at Salt & Cedar Letterpress Studio

By Ashley Maier

Detroit was once a booming city, but when the recession hit a couple years ago, the Motor City and its once thriving auto industry came to a halt. Though the auto industry has recovered, there are still many Michiganders looking for jobs and new opportunities. The good news is that many innovative new businesses are helping diversify the area and bring a new energy to the city.

One of those businesses taking advantage of Detroit’s revitalization is Salt and Cedar,, located on Riopelle Street in the city’s Eastern Market area. Home to several pieces of antique printing equipment, the letterpress studio opened in the spring of 2011 and has since hosted several shows and dinner events. While the Detroit area is more familiar with assembly lines than the letterpress, the store is sure to become a popular attraction. It appeals to art lovers, designers, history buffs and anyone else who can appreciate an old world machine that is timeless in its grace and efficiency.

The letterpress is a method of relief printing that dates back to the 15th century. It was invented by Johannes Gutenberg and was a popular method for printing books, posters, business cards, and other paper items until the later part of the 20th century. While technology has made most people more accustomed to digital printing, the letterpress is not obsolete. It gives the final product a more personal touch since the process is very hands on. Salt and Cedar has taken this practice and made it accessible to the Detroit area.

The business’s name is derived from its goal of bringing people together around the table to enjoy food and appreciate art. The owner, Megan O’Connell, became interested in typography in college and designed her own degree in History of Book Making. She has taught at the Maine College of Art and the Skidmore College. She also helped found Signal-Return, another Detroit-based letterpress business. She eventually decided it was time to open up her own press and, the rest, as they say is history.

Besides being a print shop, Salt and Cedar is also home to Market Studio Kitchen (MSK), a school founded by Leon Johnson. The school is designed as a laboratory for Detroit youth to engage in urban farming, foraging, and cooking, which allows them to participate in each step of the creative process. The first group came from NOVA (North Oakland Vocational Association)—individuals suffering from different types of mental disability. The exercise of preparing a meal in the MSK was a sort of therapeutic experience. Eventually the MSK would like to reach out to students at the high school level and younger.

In addition to letterpress service, Salt and Cedar and MSK hold workshops led by renowned instructors, such as traditional and experimental printing, ‘zine making, book structures, and papermaking. They recently held an an exhibition called “Anecdoted City” where they asked Detroiters to bring objects that they felt were a part of the unique experience of living in this area. A log book recorded the objects and even a little bit of their history. According to O’Connell, some items were antiques, others were everyday objects.

“People were proud to bring their own items, and drawn by curiosity to admire what others had brought,” said O’Connell. “An old bicycle, an ironing board, a newsboy cap and other miscellaneous possessions found their way into this gallery of sorts. Each item had a story just waiting to be told. All together they represented the patchwork of lives that have been built in Detroit.”

This year promises to hold even more opportunities at Salt and Cedar. The business is part of a close-knit community of shops owned by hard working, determined Detroiters. Together they are reshaping the social environment of the city.

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