Editor’s Note: Bridget Morris is a designer who creates custom books, letterpress pieces, and other paper goods in a former biscuit factory in South Philly with the help of some very well-worn equipment. Her company is called Bella Forte Books. With a worldwide client base, her beautiful hand-crafted products are in high demand. Hidden City contributor Theresa Stigale stopped by her studio on a Saturday afternoon to check out her workshop and explore the history of the studio and the machinery so vital to this ancient craft.
Theresa Stigale: This is a very cool space–a former biscuit factory!
Bridget Morris: Some friends of mine restored this building into 16 artists studios (The Studios @ 2202 Alter Street AKA Octo Studios) and my original space was smaller. When this first floor became available, I asked to relocate here as it opens up directly to the street, which is really important to us when we are unloading heavy materials.
It also has an adjacent solid brick room, which I use for my private office. This room was the bottom of the oven, where they piled all of the wood and burned it for the big oven upstairs to bake the biscuits. It’s really like a giant fireplace and has a granite apron that extends from the room so the hot wood wouldn’t start a fire. But you can still see the burn marks on the wood floor where the hot wood was dragged out and left too long on the way outside. This space is great because of the history and it’s open loft design. My artist friends always stop by to visit and sometimes do their own work from here because they love it so much! We also have workshops and classes and enjoy sharing what we know about this craft.
TS: Most of your equipment looks really old, like Ben Franklin-old!
BM: I source equipment for my business whenever I see something that I can use. It is usually at a good price, as there isn’t a lot of demand these days. Most people don’t know how to operate the machines or know what they can be used to make. The biggest obstacle for a seller is usually getting it it to me. This letterpress machine was stored in an old barn and was delivered to my studio chained to a backhoe, it is so heavy. We restored it and it works perfectly. I also bought some equipment from Allen Geiser & Sons in Port Richmond when they closed their business this year. They were a family-run business that operated for 30 years. When they sold some of their equipment to me, they were glad that it went into good hands and that I would keep it in use.
TS: What kind of paper goods do you manufacture here?
BM: We make presentation boxes, hand-crafted books, photo and wedding albums, and all types of letterpress products, like invitations, announcements and limited edition books. We still do some book restoration, but most of our time is spent on creating custom presentation boxes, which is a big trend now that started about four years ago.
TS: Other than the book board that is hand measured and cut, what can be done using the old machines?
BM: We have a board shearing machine that cuts very thick book board like butter, at a precise 90 degree angle. Another machine that we just bought can make up to five cuts at once, after the board is fed in from one side. We have a hot stamping machine that is used to emboss the covers of presentation boxes, with the client’s name, in any color.
We can create invitations, wedding albums and custom books using our vintage letterpress machine. It originally was powered by a foot pedal, like some vintage sewing machines, but was later motorized. The end result of using this letterpress machine for printed materials is that they have this raised relief lettering and a very tactile feel to them that you can’t get replicate get from modern printers. It’s very authentic and old and an experience that transforms the message. All of our work here brings a lot of satisfaction and my old machinery is essential to my studio. We could never do this contemporary work without this equipment.
TS: Your finished work is really exquisite and just observing the old-fashioned process is fascinating. How do you manage the various projects in your shop?
BM: I have help from two fabulous people, my partner Paul King and my right-hand person, Younie, who works full-time with me in the studio everyday. Younie (Juyoun Kim) is originally from South Korea and just graduated from the the University of the Arts this year. She started in the studio as an intern and luckily stayed in after graduation. She is also a printmaker, with her work on exhibit in the gallery at the Print Center here in Philly. We work really well together and are both very meticulous. If we see one spot of glue on a finished silk presentation box, we will pull that box out of the order. We always make one or two extra in case that happens so that we don’t have to start from scratch and re-measure.
For a lot of our projects, I like that our work is also in collaboration with other local small shops and artists right here in Philly, like Leah MacDonald, who does encaustic wax paintings. We hire a local seamstress to make carrying bags so the boxes can be transported to special events. We use Sire Printing for screen printing and Plate Crafters to handmake custom magnesium dyed plates for embossing.
TS: What types of clients contact you for custom work?
BM: We sell about 5 percent of our work locally and the rest of our business is literally worldwide, people who come to us either from our website or referral. Most of our clients for the boxes are photographers, architects, and marketing companies that need to can present their printed portfolio work to their clients.
For example, we had a 30 box order from the Vatican and there is a photo of the Pope holding one of our boxes on my website.
Another substantial order came from Peter Duke, a Hollywood photographer who packaged a widelux photography project using his old Los Angeles beach photos in the 1980s. He wanted a hot, bright orange oversized presentation box that was 44’ by 23”. Because of the size, those boxes cost in the $1500 range. That was a really fun project.
TS: You didn’t intend to be a bookbinder.
BM: I went to Philadelphia University (when it was known as The College of Textiles and Sciences) to study interior design. On my way to study abroad in Italy, I was looking at the brochure and thought that it was time to try something different and fun and that’s when I decided to take classes in bookbinding. I ended up living in Italy for two years as an apprentice. That was in the early 1990s and it was the best experience for learning this craft. I love the business and have been working in this industry for about 26 years now, starting with book restoration. We still do restoration, but the the business has involved to more visual presentation custom goods.
Juyoun Kim: I was always interested in creating long-lasting beautiful items with my hands. It is really important to me to create hand-made goods, it’s like something old and analog in this digital world.
TS: What exactly is a presentation box?
BM: The boxes are made of book board, hand measured and cut, and are then covered in silk or other fabric and lined with material or paper inside. There are different box designs to choose from, for example clamshell or cigar-type closures, and all are custom made even down to the material for opening the box, like ribbons or bone. Some have extra inserts or recessed areas that can accommodate other items with the printed material, like the box that we made for a dance company in New York. Those black boxes had white ribbons and the recessed area held mini-iPads and topped with signed photographs by the principal dancers, so the iPads were a surprise. They went to the donors at a large gala event and I am sure that they made a really big impression!
Prices start at about $200 and we price the boxes based on the dimensions (W x H x D), the complexity of the design and materials. All of the materials that we use are very specific to our industry, especially the book board for example. If we need more, we can’t just run out and buy cardboard at the art supply store.