Based in Tribeca: Purgatory Pie Press

Company name: Purgatory Pie Press.

Founded: 1977: Dikko Faust pied (spilled) an overfilled case of 8-point Century Oldstyle. He could have walked away, but he stayed and sorted that type days and nights in a purgatory experience like those fairy-tale characters who sort grains of rice from barley and wheat—but with 26 characters + caps + punctuation + alternates. Faust printed his first two books, made paper for the third, and then moved to New York City to take an NEA grant to be the resident letterpress printer at Center for Book Arts. Purgatory Pie Press stayed at Center for Book Arts until 1987, when it moved its Vandercook 4 1930’s printing press and an 1880’s cast-iron Peerless Gem guillotine to its first independent studio. Purgatory Pie Press has been in Tribeca since 1991.

Who’s answering these questions? Esther K Smith. Her project The EK Smith Museum (including an apron collection) joined Purgatory Pie Press when she moved to New York City and married Faust in 1980. Their wedding invitation was their first print collaboration. Pre-Purgatory Smith designed for theater and dance and made costumes for Faust’s performance art.

Mission: Faust and Smith relief-print limited editions and hand-stitch artist books—often collaborating with other artists and writers. They have had solo exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and are included in rare books collections in MoMA, the Whitney, and many major museums, libraries, and private collections worldwide. They have won multiple AIGA design certificates. Early on, Smith chose to publish people who were not well-known but were as good as people who were famous. Some of those people have since become known—and the press continues to work with some of them, e.g., poet Bob Holman (a former Tribeca neighbor) and British artist Bob & Roberta Smith.

Faust has been making a series of wall-pieces and postcards based on patterns that he finds. One pattern came from the glass sidewalk vaults of Tribeca and Soho. He began this project when he found a photo of the earliest wall painting, a three-color tessellating pattern, doing research for the non-Western art history class he taught at CUNY.

In the beginning Smith could not find a datebook that she liked that she could afford—so she sketched some ideas for Faust to print. Concerned about running out of J’s (a letter that is rare in English language, but shows up in January, June, and July), she had Faust set combinations of different typefaces making what they named TYPOGLYPHS. They made these limited-edition datebooks to give as gifts to family members—but that edition also became a surprise best seller. Since then, they have made an artist book/datebook every year. Last year NPR mentioned them on “Weekend Edition” and the datebooks sold out in a few minutes. This year they’re taking pre-orders and are almost ready to print. Email to pre-order, or send a check for $113 to Purgatory Pie Press, 19 Hudson, #403, New York City, NY 10013.

To support its artwork, Purgatory Pie Press does jobs and commissions which can become collaborations with clients. Making these projects can be as interesting as making art. They print wedding invitations, birth announcements, party invitations—and guest books, thank-you cards, business cards, letterheads, and even printed and bound books for writers. One neighbor/artist worked with Purgatory Pie Press for more than a decade to make holiday cards—some printed from her tape drawings—which culminated in her wedding invitation. Purgatory Pie Press made paper toys and pop-ups and magic fans for a celebrity neighbor’s mother’s 85th birthday invitations, menus, and favors. Commissions always begin with a consultation—the charge for this appointment is a (non-refundable) deposit for the project.

Dikko Faust teaches letterpress printing at School of Visual Arts. Esther Smith teaches Artist Books at Cooper Union. They also teach private lessons and small group classes at the Purgatory Pie Press studio. Their best students can apply for internships. Some former interns stay active in the press, coming back to stitch datebooks and help with projects.

Number of staff members: Two, plus helpers and freelancers. Dikko Faust is the printer and typographer, Esther K Smith is the designer and editor. Purgatory daughters Georgia and Polly and interns and volunteers help out. Purgatory Pie Press has an in-house calligrapher and several book binders. Having published more than 100 artists, the Press has people to make illustrations, maps, etc., for commissions.

What’s your office like? Purgatory! Boys like it, but think before you bring the mother of the bride; it could be the antidote to Vera Wang (where many Purgatory brides get their gowns). Besides antique machines and cabinets of 19th-century wood type and up to mid-20th century metal type, you’ll find kids’ art, from when the Purgatory Pie Press daughters were little—even some P.S. 234 projects—and a relic from the 2000 election: Katherine Harris (remember her?) collaged in a witch’s hat.

Any favorite places around here for lunch? Or to unwind after work? Started brunching at Jerry’s just before the hurricane (went there that Sunday)—love their Bloody Marys…. Lunch sometimes at Super Linda (but miss their pumpkin and wish they’d grill their fish tacos) and Petite Abeille (like their onion soup and they have delicious decaf, so their regular must be good). La Colombe is the fav cafe, though the Noho store has the seltzer maker. Walk up to the Randolph on Broome for cocktails. Kitchenette for breakfast—though miss the decor of the old location. New Amsterdam Market in the now-devastated Seaport is a Sunday-morning destination—the artisanal cheeses, breads, and ice creams are the edible equivalent of Purgatory Pie Press’s hand-hewn product. And then there’s Chinatown…. Favorite soup dumplings: Shanghai Asian Manor (Mosco and Mott) but also like the five-for-a-dollar dumplings at the little hole-in-the-wall place (Shandong?) on Mosco. Love Columbus Park and its dueling Chinese operas (really want to learn to read and write and sing Chinese). And often take visitors to Nom Wah to see the oldest dim sum place in Chinatown. Wilson is so welcoming, and his pea-leaf-and-shrimp dumplings are very good. A Chinese friend recommended Ping’s Seafood on Mott for dim sum, and that’s a new favorite. Chinatown is also the best place to buy orange tins of New Orleans coffee—great for cold press coffee. Just had a great Mexican chocolate ice cream in a pretzel cone at Blue Marble in All Good Things. Found it on Tribeca’s Fashion’s Night Out this year—got great manicure and Polly won a bag at By Joy Gryson.

Anything else we should know? Esther K Smith is the author and co-designer of How to Make Books, Magic Books & Paper Toys, and The Paper Bride (also available in a Purgatory Pie Press–printed plain-brown wrapper as The Book Arts Book in Bride’s Clothing). Dikko Faust hand-set the wood and metal type for the covers and display pages of these books. How to Make Books is available as an e-book—which looks great on an iPad. Since it was designed on a computer (with scans of the real type Dikko proofed), the e-book is sort of the real thing, though it lacks the wood type-stamped raw board cover of the actual book.

Letterpress has had a revival, but an odd one: Copper plates were always used for illustrations, but now most people design on the computer, output to plastic plates, and press them very deep into the paper for what is called a “bite” impression. This fast, cheap approach to letterpress printing is like cake mix—it makes a dependable product, but it lacks the subtle frisson of the real thing. Real type can’t survive this pressure, but unlike those plastic plates (which become landfill), metal and wood type, printed with care, can be reused for centuries. Some Purgatory Pie Press type is the same vintage as the cast-iron buildings and glass-vault sidewalks that make Tribeca beautiful.

Purgatory Pie Press has will have special deals for Small Business Saturday tomorrow (Nov. 24), from noon to 4 p.m. at 19 Hudson, #403 (212-274-8228) or at And this just in: From Thursday, Nov. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 1, Purgatory Pie Press will be featured live with letterpress demos at Etsy’s Holiday Shop at 131 Greene.

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  1. Wow, great photographs! PPP doesn’t look like purgatory at all – if this is your thing – a visit here is heaven.

  2. Exactly! I’ll take this purgatory anyday!!
    How wonderful.