Correspondence Force

Kati Hanimagi uses a centuries-old process to create Oddball Press’ unconventional line of greeting cards for a new generation.

Down in Kati Hanimagi’s basement, next to the washing machine and above the cat box, sits a 100-year-old letterpress, ink rollers at the ready. She sets a 5-by-8 inch magnesium plate — or “chase” — full of backward type into the clamps, rolls on some black ink and pulls a lever down hard.

“It really is a blast from the past,” Hanimagi says. “It’s archaic, but it’s contemporary as well. There’s a lot of charm. You can tell there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in [these] cards.”

Hanimagi, 33, is the founder of Oddball Press in Cleveland Heights. The classically trained printmaker now plies her skills to fashion greeting cards and stationery. In the process, she hopes to help bring back the lost art of letters.

While she uses a century-old press and a printing technique called letterpress that’s even older (think Johann Gutenberg and his Bibles), Hanimagi speeds up that process with some 21st century help: She draws her images on a Mac computer. Those are then transferred onto polymer plates that can be used in her press; they’re more durable than the traditional soft metal but much easier to store and a lot less poisonous than lead type. (“Don’t lick your fingers,” Hanimagi jokes. Well, Ithinkshe’s joking.)

Her cards aren’t as sentimental as Hallmark’s — no poetry, no pastel fields of lilacs. Hanimagi draws her inspirations from pop-culture staples such asThe Shining,A Christmas Story and The Sopranos.

“Hallmark? It’s a good place. Hell, my mom shops there all the time,” Hanimagi says. “[But] I think people in their 20s, their 30s, are looking for something different.”

And her cards are certainly different. A fortune-teller similar to the one in the Tom Hanks movieBig sends his best wishes from the cover of one Oddball Press birthday card. Another card created to mark a celebration shows a bullfighter brandishing his cape over a bull with two spears in its belly and Xs for eyes. “I guess I like darker things,” Hanimagi says.

A New Jersey native, Hanimagi studied printmaking at Atlanta College of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she focused on prints as fine art. But making the transition to the working world was tough.

“I got into the real world. I didn’t have a press. I also needed some money and a job,” Hanimagi says. So she worked at a stationery store in Chicago for six years, surrounded by fine papers and other materials. The store sold greeting cards, and she would watch people pore over the selection, thinking about each one.

“I thought [cards] were the perfect package: something that I could be creative [with] and sell. I could reach a bigger audience. There was more hope in succeeding there,” she says.

After moving to Cleveland with her husband, Joel Alpern (a Columbus native who now works as director of exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), Hanimagi founded Oddball Press.

Sales have doubled since 2007, and now — thanks to a self-built mailing list, friends across the country and a booth at the National Stationery Show in New York City this spring — Oddball Press has distribution in 22 states at 65 retailers. Locally, you can find Hanimagi’s cards at Shoparooni and Sobella in Cleveland and Paper Trails in Rocky River.

Oddball Press now has about 60 cards in its catalog. Each retails for about $5. Hanimagi says she plans on branching out soon into more stationery, posters, calendars and coloring books.

But what she hopes to accomplish even more than vaguely ominous birthday cards is to help bring back the art of physical correspondence, which seems anachronistic in our e-mail age.

“I think it’s making a comeback. I’ve always been a big believer in handwritten letters,” Hanimagi says. Getting a card in the mail, she says, is “like you’ve won the lottery. It’s like you’ve won a prize. It’s a thought-rich experience. Nothing beats getting a card in the mail."
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