Alisa Dix deftly flips business cards in and out of a moving press. Hitting a bar that pauses the big machine, she checks that the lines are just right, the colors lively and appropriate, the impression tactile — so that you can actually feel the words through the card's back. "Everyone wants that now," she says. "Tactile art can't be reproduced by computer."
Nodding at her handiwork, Dix drops the card on the finished pile, throws the flywheel to get the machine going again. She designs, lays out, and prints everything in her print shop — a South Oakland two-car garage crammed with three presses, a paper cutter, and 300 cases of type and ligatures. Moving her hands as effortlessly as a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, she says, "I think of myself as a craftsman."
Dix, a Connecticut native who came to Pittsburgh to study at Carnegie Mellon and stayed, established her one-woman empire of inks and rollers 20-odd years ago. In what must be the impulse buy of all impulse buys, she bought a small hand press at a Cape Cod antique shop. "I had never seen one before," Dix recalls. Curious about the thing and enticed by its bargain-basement $150 price tag, she lugged it home.
It was kismet. "I was meant to do this all my life," a smiling Dix says.
After borrowing books on typesetting and printing from the library, Dix began printing in her apartment, the place reeking of ink and solvent. Her first piece: a "Peace on Earth" card sent to friends.
Seeking what she calls "the old dude network," Dix met retired printers, and scavenged wood and metal type from people's basements. "Pittsburgh's an old city," she says, "and all the old printers knew each other. There was a lot of type available."
Dix called her business Third Termite Letterpress. (The name, like a lot of her pieces, is freely adapted from an odd source: in this case the idea that a President could pursue a third term.) And she pursued colorful, funky, wholly unique design. The feeling of her invitations, business cards, film posters and whatnot is invariably antique yet wholly new, like re-woven vintage clothes.
As the in-house printer for her husband Greg Pierce and his Orgone Cinema, Dix has produced a cornucopia of posters, cards and ephemera such as matchbooks, butter paper, postcards, bookmarks, and stickers.
"People who came to our shows knew I had a print shop," Dix recalls. "They'd come up to me and say, 'I like what you do. Here's the information. Just do it.' So I'd design something. Then I'd say, 'I like this. Will anybody else? Odds are, yes.' I found that was the secret to making beautiful stuff."
A classic under-the-radar networker, Dix has never promoted herself, never advertised, never even created a website or taken out a phone-book listing. Continuing to rely strictly on referrals and word-of-mouth, she regularly gets work from as far away as New Orleans and New York, Philadelphia and Portland. "I'm pretty much underground," she says with a shrug. "People somehow find me. I'm totally fine with that."
She uses a little bit of everything. Here, she scavenges metal and wooden type, all with dents and dings and scars for that antique effect. There, she employs computer scans, manipulated and sent to an Arizona fabricator, who turns them into copper printing dies. It's a perfect, two-dimensional December-May printing marriage.
The result is a riot of design, color and style, somehow all askew, but somehow all fitting perfectly. Today's job, for example, uses the image of a slender, modernist lighting fixture — but skewed sideways as a design element in a business card.
Being underground has its value — and its cost. Dix takes on some jobs free, gifts for friends. Some jobs pay. Others are bartered. For a complete wedding set — invitations, place cards, response cards — she copped a week at the couple's North Carolina beach house.
Back to the press. The ink is mixed perfectly, the impression just right. Again, she shoves the flywheel. Flipping the cards in and out, Dix is in her element.
"I get to do what I want," Dix says. "I do fun things. It also makes me happy that they're practical and people need them."
The card dealing continues. "Someone could lock me in here for the rest of my life, and I'd never run out of things to make."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Alisa Dix as the creator of CD covers for the bands Savage Republic and Camper Van Beethoven.