This Baltimore designer can be a real card

To Kat Feuerstein, every sweet greeting needs a little dash of vinegar


Happy Birthday!

Including these two words on a greeting card is fairly standard stuff. Or, at least they were until Kat Feuerstein, a graphic designer in Hampden, recently gave them a typographical twist. Thus, the exclamatory birthday wish is printed in large cursive lettering, but captioned by a phrase set in a much smaller font that reads, "you look fantastic for your age."

If you're put off by the cheekiness of this rejoinder, Feuerstein isn't terribly concerned, nor does she particularly mourn the loss of you as a potential customer.

"Not everything is for everyone. I just want to put it out there," she said. "Actually, I'm probably not a very good salesperson."

The locale for this self-doubting admission was curious, to say the least. For, as Feuerstein spoke a few days ago, she stood in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, where Gilah Press, her graphic design company, was one of 1,400 exhibitors at the National Stationery Show. "I haven't done a business plan. I really don't have too much expectation," she acknowledged. "More than anything, I am just looking forward to seeing how they are received."

Feuerstein was at this trade show, America's largest annual paper goods exhibition, to launch three lines of greeting cards and other printed products, all done with the letterpress technique, an archaic style (as opposed to offset and laser printing, which dominate today) that's currently resurgent.

As she tells it, Feuerstein was pleasantly surprised by how briskly her somewhat ribald holiday cards sold when she gave them a "test run" at the Hon Fest in Hampden and the Fells Point Festival in 2004. Thinking she might be on to something, Feuerstein attended the 2005 stationery show to canvass competition, and decided to be an exhibitor this year.

"Happy Birthday" and the holiday cards are now part of the "Female Dog" collection, in which other large cursive phrases are undercut by tiny-type zingers. "A New Baby" floats over the words, "have fun changing diapers"; or "Thanks" is above "for nothing." There's also a line of fold-over cards called "Don't Shoot the Messenger," where a cliche on the cover is overturned by an interior punch line, and "Buzz Kill" coasters, which allow setting a beer down on unsettling phrases like "he won't buy the cow if he gets the milk for free."

The humor here - such as it is - tends toward a sweet-sour quality reminiscent of Larry David (of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame), a comedian to whom Feuerstein reluctantly allows she has some affinity. What saves these cards from being obnoxious and gives them unusual charm is the high quality of their production. Feuerstein uses excellent paper stocks, her choice of type fonts and ink color are splendid, and she's craftily juxtaposed 21st-century slang with a nearly medieval form of type-setting.

Letterpress, or printing from raised type, looks "hand-made" because it is. Each sheet of paper is fed by hand into a printing press as it opens and closes ("like a clam," Feuerstein explained). Rollers re-ink the type on each pass. The result is a deep de-boss - or the reverse of an emboss, where ink sits on top - as ink is literally pressed into paper.

The technique dates to Johannes Gutenberg, who invented it in Mainz, Germany in the mid-1400s, after which letterpress was the world's primary means of mass communication for well over five centuries. Gutenberg, of course, used letterpress to print the Bible, not a cocktail coaster that smirkingly inquires "you're wearing that?"

"To have a gutsy little phrase like this done in letterpress is very sneaky," said Steve Baker, who sells Feuerstein's cards at his shop, Wholly Terra, in Hampden. (They are also available locally at Simply Noted in Belvedere Square and In Watermelon Sugar in Hampden.) "But that is Kat's sense of humor. She has this quality of `I'm making a joke, and I'm not going to laugh, but I want to see if you will.' Nothing is thrown in your face. I think the cards are hilarious. Then again, my wife hates them."

`Learn to crack wise'

Feuerstein, born Kathleen Gallagher, grew up in West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Raised a Roman Catholic, she attended Bishop Shanahan Parochial School from first through 12th grades.

With her reddish-brown hair now cut into a bob, blue eyes sparkling mischievously behind studious eyewear, it's easy to imagine Feuerstein, 31, as a good little bad girl, dressed in a plaid school uniform, making sotto-voce comments behind the nuns' backs. It was the sort of environment, she acknowledged, where you either "drink the Kool-Aid, or learn to crack wise."

After attending the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in Lancaster for three years, she moved to Baltimore in 1996, to study graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "I became fascinated by the ability to communicate through art, and how powerful a printed message could be."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.