For the Love of Letterpress and Local Makers: Mike Dacey of Repeat Press

June was a pull-out-all-the-stops fantastic month for the Creative Somerville Series. Our speaker Mike Dacey, founder of letterpress studio Repeat Press joined us as a shining star in Aeronaut’s week-long celebration of their first year of business. Dacey was part of Aeronaut’s “Neighbor Night,” which he fit in with perfectly, given his role as a founding member of Fringe, a Union Square-based shared work space, hosting over 15 local businesses, and given his growing involvement in the Union Square planning process in Somerville.

Learning Letterpress

Mike’s story starts with his suburban upbringing. He got interested in skateboarding, and from there, with its graphic culture. He realized that someone was making the graphics that would show up on his board and got interested in graphic design.

CSS 061715 Mike DaceyThe college he attended, Hampshire, in western Mass, was by chance, located at a major hub of an almost lost art, wood type printing, due to the region’s historic paper mill industry.  took advantage of Hampshire’s open-ended curricular opportunities and sought out an apprenticeship with a local printer. “I think I emailed every letterpress shop in the valley and said, ‘Can I come hang out?’” he says.

Dacey was fascinated by the craft and he was ahead of the curve on the current explosion of interest in letterpress. He described walking into shops and getting looks from the middle-aged printers. “What are you doing here?” This is where old men hang out.”

Dacey eventually found someone to apprentice with (this mostly entailed putting letters back into their boxes, he says) but who let him play around with his own creations as well. And after school it was a no-brainer to continue the work and try to build a letterpress business. He bought his first press (being ahead of the curve meant he could afford it) and set up in South Boston.

Repeat Press and Fringe

Dacey found a space to set up his studio and started printing as a side hustle. He printed for local bands and honed his craft–including eventually adding contemporary letterpress using custom plates to his skillset, instead of just existing wood type blocks.

After a short interlude in Philly, Dacey returned to Boston and eventually moved over to Somerville motivated by friends and cheap rent. Business was picking up, and among other things, his band friends started to get married and ask him i he printed invitations. At some point, the workload was high enough for Dacey to quit his job.

When Dacey speaks about Fringe, and why it worked he speaks with passion and purpose, “A big thing that sets Fringe apart from other co-working spaces is that Fringe was founded because people needed space to work. It was never about making money. People have more ownership over the space. The community aspect is something very different from other spaces around.”

Fringe generates what Dacey calls “internal foot traffic.” Members not only pool resources and advice, but they’ve built a small ‘ecosystem’ in which clients who are brought in to work with one member, often find themselves being introduced to and hiring other members.

Dacey relayed the story of Cuppow, a product brought to life by the Fringe ecosystem. A drinking lid for a mason jar, the idea was architected by one member, who went to another for engineering and manufacturing advice and help. Soon, many of the Fringe businesses pitched in, helping with branding, packaging and more, thinking, as Dacey recounts, “if we can sell 500 of these, everybody gets paid and it’ll be funny. They sold 500 units in the first few days.”

And while at the end of the summer, Dacey will be the only founding member of Fringe still in the building, none of the businesses based there have closed because they went out of business or grew out of the space, notes Dacey. rather, they moved out of the city or had other life plans that took them out of Fringe.

The Future of Fringe

When asked about what will happen with Fringe as development increases in Union Square, Dacey tells us that the future is not as certain as he’d like it to be. They’ll have a lease that is renegotiated every year, instead of a multi-year commercial lease, which means a lot of uncertainty for the businesses based there. Part of Somerville’s creativity, he muses, was that its cheapness made it easier to take risks. “Somerville used to be a place where you could start something without a lot of money,” he says.

Dacey says in plain terms that new construction is just not consistent with the rent levels that businesses like his need to survive and thrive. He’s joined in as an adviser to the planning committee for Union Square and the new green line stations to add in the perspective of the local maker-based business community.

Creative Juice

When asked about what he’s creatively interested in these days, Dacey is clear that its relationships, and not just craft that is driving him. As the excitement of letterpress and his own business have become more moderate over time, more of his passion comes from the Fringe community.

CSS 061715 crowdMore than a few local business owners see him as one of their core sources on business issues. During Q&A, Fringe member Erin Heath, co-owner of Forêt Design Studio complements him on his business advising, and Dacey tells another audience member to be confident charging fair compensation for her work. “You shouldn’t feel bad charging for your time when you like what you do. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that, you should feel lucky.” If there’s anything he’d tell his younger self about running a small business, he says to not be afraid to make investments in resources or help. “Don’t be afraid to pay people for stuff you don’t want to do, like taxes,” he says, and after a pause, adds, “do your taxes.”

When asked about his dream project, he similarly says that for him it “is more of a relationship than a single project,” citing his relationship with local branding studio Oat. What he’s most excited about in his life now, are his friends, many of whom he works with on a daily basis. And why he loves Somerville? “You have all things about a city but it feels like a community, a neighborhood.”

Thank you Mike Dacey, happy first birthday to Aeronaut, and happy neighbor night to all.

photo credits: Somerville Beat


The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on July 22 with Mimi Graney and MaryCat Chaikin, founders of Relish Management.
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Event: NEA Women in Social Impact Design Webinar

Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to be on a panel on women in social impact design run by the NEA and hosted by Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners.

It’s going to be a great conversation–the panelists include Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu, urbanist and social innovator, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School and myself. We’re going to look at the larger issue of mission as a key component in the lives and practices of female design practitioners, but also how the social impact design field can do a better job at demonstrating and pushing for equity–especially gender equity–in practice.

“What women want and what the profession and society needs should not be in conflict.”

-Katie Swenson

Katie wrote a great blog post previewing the conversation here and I wrote a piece on the view from architecture’s two equity-based movements here.

RSVP for the webinar here.

Creative Somerville Series in BostInno

Rebecca Strong of BostInno wrote a nice piece today on the Creative Somerville Series, highlighting our speaker series unique ‘anti-power point’ approach.

“After the speakers give a brief talk, co-curators Mia Scharphie and Elyse Andrews (also the Somerville Beat founder) fire a few questions at them, and then the Q&A discussion is opened up to the audience. After that, there’s still plenty of time left for everyone to mingle over a few brews.”

So far all of our talks have been sold out, and the last tickets for our talk with Trevor Holmes of Wista next Wednesday got snapped up yesterday.

Trevor and Wista just posted the most amazing ‘preview’ of the fun times to come.

Love that eyebrow waggle thing at the end. Bring it.

photo credit: Ben Holmes of Aeronaut.

Event: Structures for Inclusion Conference

Coming up, a fantastic conference, the first social impact design conference I ever attended (way back in my Public Architecture days,) and one of the yearly events in this growing field of social impact design.

It looks like there’s going to be an amazing lineup of speakers–but even better than the formal presentations at SFI are the people you’ll meet. It’s also in Detroit which is such a relevant context. I wish I could make it this year. Highly encouraged. Register here.
Structures for Inclusion

Event: Katarzyna Balug at the Creative Somerville Series

Next Wednesday the Creative Somerville Series I launched with the Somerville Beat and Somerville Local First, is back, this time in a new (and fabulous) location at Aeronaut Brewing Co.

I first heard of our speaker Katarzyna Balug, by reputation, not by name. Someone mentioned a project she had done, putting on urban planning performance art pieces in which she dressed up as a time traveler and asked locals what they thought the future of their city was going to be like. When I finally met her, I blurted out, “Oh, so you’re the public space alien!” (The original story, telephone-style had morphed a bit by the time it got to me.) The practice Kate founded, the Department of Play, was just selected as an ArtPlace America (a grants program for art and culture as a keystone of community development) finalist. Their proposal suggests using “play as a strategy for placemaking to address the challenge of desegregating Boston’s public life.” Kate will join us next week to talk about her journey through art and urbanism.

Interested in joining us? RSVP here.

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About Kate: Katarzyna Balug is an artist and urbanist whose practice flows from performance, installation, and sculpture to teaching, civic design, and planning research. Inspired by science fiction worlds and informed by urban planning studies, Balug’s work addresses the urgent need for imagination in urbanism. Her practice, Department of Play runs temporary play zones (TPZs) that bring people together to imagine collectively and share their visions of the future. Their recent BLOCK PARTY in Union Square invited Somervillians to “consider key built elements for the first Martian dwellers.” Their forthcoming installation for the Fairmount Corridor will take place on the train, a space that is “passed-through but unmemorable” as a starting point for imagining other forms of co-existing in a crowd. Balug’s work has been shown at venues including the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, at the Boston Arts Festival, and at FARO Tláhuac in Mexico City.

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored  by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

Want to hear about future Creative Somerville events? Sign up for our list.

Creative Somerville Series: Aeronaut Kicks it off

Last night we kicked off the first Creative Somerville Series, the first of our talks designed to highlight local creatives and entrepreneurs through intimate ‘fireside chats.’

We, of course, had a nice fireplace up on youtube roaring away—but aside from our fake fire’s hipster cred–it was really a symbol of how this series is different: The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, to learn about how they think and create, and to share creative energy and ideas in an intimate setting.

Making Aeronaut Happen
Pulling off a dream means patching together resources, promises, hopes, commitment. There’s always the ‘What I didn’t know before I started,’ such as, ‘Oh wait, we need to have staff to serve customers’ or ‘Cash registers….right. Gotta have those and know how to use them.’

I’m always interested in the moment when things get hard and it seems like it’s not going to work out. From a psychological perspective, what makes someone move past that point? Ben and Ronn spoke about the struggle to get the funding they needed–potential investors they approached were used to funding more dematerialized ]tech startups which needed less tangible assets and therefore can bring in higher return on their investment. At one point, the company had $5K in the bank (“depending on how you look at it” it was $5K or in the negative… Ben charitably pointed out) but they were spending at least $25K a month. They were still raising money while they were setting up for the launch and it was a complicated dance.

One of the keys was going all in–including quitting their jobs for some. “It was clear we were serious about what we were doing because we had no other options,” said Ben. Their fundraising success rate dramatically improved over the course of four months–and by the end investors were approaching them asking to invest. They now own only 75% of their company’s equity, but retain the creative control.

Designers’ Tip: Be Santa Claus
We were lucky to have Aeronaut’s designer, Ryan Habbyshaw of Loyal Supply Co., a designer and builder who worked with Aernoaut (he built the bar!) It was fantastic to get insight on the launch from someone who wasn’t in the founding team but was key to the launch process.

Ryan spoke about the process of designing the space at Aeronaut, building the bar and generally trying to give a huge space an identity on a small budget. Who knew chairs could be so expensive? (I learned this hard lesson too, sourcing the chairs for Black Trumpet. I lost many good hours of my life to scouring the internet for cheap but nice-looking chairs.)

Ryan told us about his tip for getting clients to sign off on your design. He’d just stay up at night (this was his side gig on top of a day job at IDEO so that’s when he was free anyway) and build. Then Ben, Ronn and Dan would walk in the next day and see an entirely new space and fall in love with it.

In an endearing exchange, Ryan, Ben and Ronn revealed their different perspectives when it came to their opening event–where they launched a lawn chair lifted by helium balloons. Ryan cut off an engineering discussion about how many balloons you really needed to lift a chair (you only need a few if they’re rated for higher weights) and insisted on many for visual impact. As Ben and Ronn spoke about their journey, its clear that they each have their strengths which they’ve employed in building Aeronaut, but they’ve also become fluid in onboarding the strengths of others.

Creative Community
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I was struck by something I heard from both Ronn and Ben–brewing beer is something that allows them to work the way they want to. It’s not that they’re not passionate about their beer–they’re passionate about every aspect of beer and the process of making it and they could have talked about it for hours–but they have found a way to build something that’s more than a brewery. It’s a place for science and real-life experimentation, it’s an incubator, it’s an event space in which community members are creating experiences the team would have never dreamed up themselves (last night Aeronaut was hosting square dancing as we spoke.)

The team intends to keep growing and building and changing every year–last night Ben spoke about their vision for Aeronaut becoming a lab space that can partner with universities and other efforts afoot.

Ben said that what ultimately drives their work is “the quest to see adventures come to fruition. That’s why their space has become one of my favorite spots. That excitement to make something awesome is what drives me. It attracts other folks with ideas and creative energy. That’s what makes me feel excited about living and working here, and that’s what’s behind the Creative Somerville Series.

Event: Aeronaut Brewing Co. at Creative Somerville Series

Get it on your calendars! The first event of the Creative Somerville Series I’m organizing for my coworking space Creative Union.

We’ll be welcoming Ben Holmes, Dan Rassi and Ronn Friedlander, founders of Aeronaut Brewing Co. who will speak about starting their business and building a hub around beer, food and science in Somerville.

Wednesday Dec. 10 at 7pm at Creative Union (66-70 Union Square – Suite 103 Somerville, MA 02143.) Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat. RSVP here.

Design & Population Health: Event

Tomorrow Brown/RISD is hosting an event bringing together people who work in environmental and public health with designers to think about how design can act as a tool for population health. Hopefully this is the first of many events pushing this conversation forward at RISD, and in general…..

Tomorrow Brown/RISD is hosting an event bringing together people who work in environmental and public health with designers to think about how design can act as a tool for population health. Hopefully this is the first of many events pushing this conversation forward at RISD, and in general.

Place Matters poster