Inspiring Places

Bookblock visit Calverts

Calverts is a communications design, print and production house in east London. They’re an environmentally and politically conscious printing co-operative formed in the 1970s, and they really know their stuff. We paid them a visit in Bethnal Green and spoke to co-op member and Sales Director Arthur Stitt about the company’s history, ethos and (of course) their printing methods.

One wall in Calverts’ studio, featuring some of their work and their original sign from 1977

Can you explain a bit more about the co-operative aspect of Calverts?

Calverts started in 1977, it came out of an arts organisation that had an in-house print department. There were 4 or 5 printers who were made redundant and there was no redundancy money, so they asked to take the small printing machines that were there at the time. They pooled some money and formed a working co-operative with the machines. This was in October/November 1977.

It was called Calverts after Giles and Elizabeth Calvert who were printers from around the time of the English civil war, so they printed radical tracts at the time. Giles Calvert was executed and his wife Elizabeth carried on the business. Coincidentally, they worked out of a print shop in the City of London called the Black Eagle, and has a sign of a black eagle. This site was then taken over by Barclay’s, hence Barclay’s logo of a black eagle. I don’t know whether Barclay’s know that their logo harks back to that time of sedation and radicalism!

Anyway – there were 5 people who formed Calverts as a working co-op, which was essentially the best business model at the time. They were printing for community organisations, grassroots campaigning groups and early environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The working co-op business model also fitted their politics.

There are 2 parts to the business model, essentially it’s one member one vote, so if you’re a member of the co-op, you are an equal member, you have one share. And slightly more non-traditional is the pay structure, where everyone’s on the same pay and has an equal democratic involvement in the business. So over the years, (we’re 40 years old this year) we’ve got bigger, we’ve invested in more kit, we’ve taken on more people, we’ve moved several times, but we always have those two fundamental things; the one member one vote, and the equal pay.

There are now 12 of us and there’s a non-hierarchical management system. Any money that we make is reinvested back into the business and there are no outside shareholders. This way we can reinvest in the kit, and as the printing industry moves quite fast, we’re always looking to invest in new things.

And every member gets to use the printing machines?

Yes, if anyone’s got any particular project they want to do, they can come along to the meeting – we’re self managed through meetings, we have a weekly meeting for day to day stuff and at the end of the month we talk about financial stuff – anyone can come along and pitch a project. We also do ad hoc work, like programmes and design work for local charities. We are graphic designers as well; we do anything from high level branding right down to simple artworking.

Clearly the collaboration between yourselves and the client is important and you’ve worked with a lot of creative people and organisations. Do they always come to you, or do you have certain instances where you say, “we want to work with you”?

Both really, there are organisations that we want to work with that we approach directly or through social media, through networking. Or organisations will find us, where they’re looking for a supplier, graphic designer that’s part of a social enterprise. I think being one of the last full service design and print agencies with everything in-house in central London is quite useful when you’re talking print. When it’s sensory and terrestrial, you need to be here and see things and smell things. A lot of our customers will come in, both at the early stages of the project but also even to see work run down the press.

Because of the different types of printing we do – litho, offset printing on the larger side of things – you often can’t anticipate what you’re going to get, even though we do hard copy proofs, until you see it on the paper. So we have people come in and they can have a look on press and there’s still that degree of manipulation on colour and density that you can do on press, so customers find that quite useful.

Parent sheets for a programme for the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive, before being folded, cut and bound into the publication

Do you find that your customers generally have a good knowledge of print?

Some do, but some don’t, it really depends. I’ve run print workshops for a number of years, it started off mainly for graphic design students. They seem to be taught more in the digital side of things and less on the print side of things so there’s a knowledge gap there that we can fill. We’re always learning ourselves. When you’re talking about colours and paper there’s quite a lot out there, you need to sit down and just look at things. It’s really hard to describe a colour over the phone or by email, people use different language for the same things.

Calverts’ risograph printing machine, and a sample of this on trend printing method for Rapha Nocturne London Ride

Have there been any standout collaborations for you personally?

Quite a few. Some of the work we’ve done with Liberty was quite interesting. We’ve worked with Liberty on a couple of campaigns, particularly on freedom of information, what they call ‘The Snoopers’ Charter’ (the government checking people’s electronic communications), so we did campaigns around that. We did one interesting campaign where we constructed a massive soup can. Back at the Olympics in 2012, Westminster council were trying to clear rough sleepers off the streets – clean the streets up for the Olympics basically – so Liberty wanted to do a bit of guerilla marketing and wanted a massive soup can to be made to put outside Westminster Council office. That made page 3 of the Evening Standard. We managed to make that from one of our big ink tins downstairs and printed it off our inkjet printers so it was quite a quick turnaround, and headline news in the Standard which was quite good. Working with campaigning organisations, but particularly when it’s effective, that’s quite rewarding.

Fundraiser and Human Rights Act guide for Liberty produced by Calverts

Reference material and samples of past work filed by client name

Can you explain more about being an eco-friendly printer and what efforts you make to ensure you are?

Well even from the very start, there would’ve been chemicals used in the press room from the 1970s well into the early 90s that were used in printing which were harmful, made of substances that have been banned as they’re carcinogenic. If you worked for a traditional printing company you had to use what was supplied, what was bought by the owners of the business. Our printers did the research and said they didn’t want to use these chemicals so from the very start we were using less harmful chemicals. The politics at the time meant we also wanted to use recycled papers, which back then was a bit hippie and left of centre. As is often the way with these things, it becomes mainstream over time, but back then we were probably considered oddities for what we were trying to do. But at its most basic, around 95% of the papers we use now are recycled or FSC certified paper. Our inks are biodegradable so they are vegetable oil based on the big press, and they’re food safe on the digital presses. If and when your beautiful publication goes back into the recycling stream, any inks that are left behind in that recycling process will also biodegrade.

We also have a renewable energy tariff with Ecotricity who, after some research, we feel are one of the most heavily invested in renewables in the UK. So, we haven’t exactly got wind turbines on the roof but we work with a company that’s investing heavily in that kind of technology. The wrapper around all that is ISO1401, so we’re externally audited for all these environmental initiatives that we do. It’s not just us saying ‘we do this’, someone else has to come in and prove that we actually do do it. So that’s an ongoing project for us.

Calverts’ biodegradable inks which they mix by hand to create custom colours

Do you find that many other printers are thinking in the same way, or are you fairly unique in this aspect?

I think a lot of printers do the same kind of things, in a way, and they’re invested in those kind of initiatives, maybe through their own beliefs but also their clients want that service. Companies want to be able to say, if they are printing, it’s produced in the most environmentally responsible way. So I suppose for a traditional company it’s an answer to a client’s needs.

How long have you worked at Calverts? 

I’ve been here since 1995, I came in as a printer on the presses, I came into the office in 2000.

So as you say, the print industry is quite fast changing, what sort of changes have you noticed?

I started with an apprenticeship in letterpress back in the mid 70s. Letterpress was just moving away from being the standard form of printing to litho, which became the new norm. In the last 15-20 years it’s digital printing that’s taken over again. So the technology’s changed, there’s also stuff coming through from nano printing. At the moment all the investment seems to be in digital printing. Whenever we talk about digital a lot of people think it’s stuff on screen but digital printing is the high end version of what you might have at home or in your office, it’s roughly the same technology.

Calverts’ Heidelberg press

In terms of changes in attitudes – it seems like people are more politically aware – do you find you’re approached more by clients wanting to make political work?

Yes, I mean we’ve always worked with those types of clients, but I think it’s much more democratic because of social media. In the past there was more loosely state controlled media so there was less dispersion of that kind of thing, and people were more isolated and a bit more in their own silos. We’re quite active in social media and I suppose over the years we’ve been known as a strange worker co-op over in the East end of London that did this kind of work.

Do you think that impression of Calverts has changed?

I think you’d have to ask our customers really! Some work with us because we’re good printers, some work with us because we’re great designers, others will work with us because we do campaigning and that type of work. It really depends on the customer.

Last of all, are there any other co-operatives that you admire and want to tell us about?

The Mondragon in Spain are a network of lots of different co-ops coming together to run hospitals, train services, and so on. They’re a massive collective of co-ops that do really well, that are very successful and run businesses very successfully. The co-op movement in the UK is growing but it’s not quite at that level. Hopefully, there seems to be a sea change in politics at the moment and I think people are always interested in trying new things in different ways, so I think that the co-operation time is going to come very soon.