This article appeared in Baccarat’s March 2016 issue as part of ‘Back to the Future’, a photo profile on five young individuals and duos who are reinventing traditional arts for a modern audience.
DITTO DITTO: DONNA & NICOLE CHAN
Watching an original Heidelberg in action makes for quite the hypnotising, if not weirdly soothing, experience. That is, if I don’t get a finger chopped off – as Nicole Chan warns as my hand gets a little too close to the vintage printing machine. Nobody would know better than Chan, one half of the duo that makes up ditto ditto. After all, she spent every waking moment of 2011 with the machine in her workshop-cum-shop. “That was Nicole’s life for a year,” jokes her elder sister Donna Chan, the other half of the duo.
Both born in the 1980s, Nicole studied fine art at the University of California, Los Angeles, while Donna studied psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. After returning home to Hong Kong, the sisters worked separate jobs until their interests converged five years ago. “We loved visiting fine stationery shops when we were in the States so imagine our surprise to find that there were next to none back home!” Donna says.
In 2011, ditto ditto was set up to provide both letterpress printing and custom design services, the latter courtesy of Nicole’s academic background. Whilst new to letterpress printing, the sisters are familiar with the ins and outs of working with paper – their family has a paper box packaging business and their father still runs Aquatic Paper Products in a bigger space next door. Two secondhand Heidelberg machines – nicknamed ‘the windmill’ for the way that paper is picked up via an air suction mechanism – were acquired from shops in Chai Wan and Kowloon. “They weren’t too expensive as nobody wanted them anymore,” Donna says. “They were a couple thousand [dollars] each.”
After visiting The International Printing Museum in California and consulting several Hong Kong printing masters – “one was amazed that a young, petite girl like Nicole would want to operate such a machine,” Donna recounts fondly – Nicole decided to run her own. “There is no magic formula,” she notes. “Everything comes with experience.”
Depending on quality and quantity, a single card order can take anywhere from one to three days to print – “sometimes we only print two colours a day,” Nicole says. While 100 per cent cotton paper is ideal for letterpress printing, some clients have asked for their invitations, name cards and the like to be printed on fancy paper and even potato-skin paper. While the latter is the most environmentally friendly, it’s also the most expensive.
Now five years in the making, ditto ditto has expanded from its two-woman team to a full-time staff of six. Demand might still be small, but the Chan sisters are quickly carving out a niche for themselves. “There are other companies that do letterpress printing in Hong Kong, but they print mostly game tickets and whatnot. Few specialise in fine printing,” Donna explains. ditto ditto retails at 12 locations in Hong Kong, including Page One and Kelly & Walsh, and seven in the States. The girls also snagged a booth at last year’s National Stationery Show in New York, which provided opportunities aplenty for them to visit their favourite stationery shops. “Sugar Paper, Hello! Lucky, Blackbird Letterpress,” the sisters gush as they rattle off their favourite American brands.
As for their dream machine? “The Heidelberg is pretty top when it comes to…” Donna says before her sister interjects excitedly, “I’d love a Vandercook! It’s a machine with a roller, allowing you to print poster-size material.”