David Bethlahmy

David Bethlahmy • Written March 2013

David Bethlahmy was born a lefty in Bethlehem, PA sometime after the discovery of the Mississippi River. After graduating from Taipei American School, he attended Bard College and the University of Washington, where he majored in Chinese language and Oriental philosophy.

He is married to Marcia Dillon, has two daughters, Rachel and Caitlin, and survived his post-formative years growing up in a girls’ dorm.

About 1972, he named and co-founded Atomic Press with a partner, Nelson Lee, who soon absconded with the money and fled to a beef ranch in South America. Subsequently, he and Marcia grew Atomic into a small boutique printer, garnering more Franklin’s per employee per GATF’s count than any other printer in the country.

After selling Atomic Press in the late 80’s, Marcia and David started a construction company, db LTD / The Periodic Table, where he still is gainfully employed whacking nails and making sawdust most days of the week.

Bethlahmy, who is successfully retired from the printing industry and proud of it, admits to having a small collection of antique printing equipment and paraphernalia but will not acknowledge whether he misses the trade, citing laws and prohibitions against self incrimination.

His passions include red meat, reading, collecting butterflies and art and racing purpose-built racecars. He claims the latter two passions are what distinguish humans from the other species, especially those evolutionary, divergent dead-enders who follow football and golf.

Bethlahmy, known for his strong opinions and keen analytical thinking unfettered by small extraneous facts or popular opinions, is singularly proud of his graduate status from the Hagar the Horrible school of pruning and tree trimming.

When queried about the differences between his two career paths—printing and construction— Bethlahmy claims they are actually quite similar; “At the end of the day, your hands are dirty and you have the gratification of having made something tangible”. When asked to name his greatest accomplishment, David, still a lefty, beams and suggests his two daughters; neither of whom is on death row and who fortunately only slightly resemble him. “They both can distinguish the differences between a cigar, a football and a racecar and know that racecar is a palindrome,” David said.

Asking me to pose amidst luminaries the ilk of Darland and Mogelgaard, book-marked by other stellar citizens, is criminal. One’s love of books, the printed word and images does not necessarily translate into good literary skills, so I humbly beg the forbearance of those reading this. To customize the words of someone before me, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I have nothing to say. The good news is I’m only going to say it once.

My working life in Seattle began at the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, where I worked as a mail-room clerk and gopher. At the time, Metro was combining the new transit function with the existing sewage operations. As a cost-saving experiment, my boss, purchasing agent Winston Chick, bought a Rex-rotaprint table-top duplicator and put me in charge of the on-off button.

It was love at first sight. Immediately I began experimenting at night, attempting to print on various substrates; cardboard, Mylar, foil, cloth, tissue, wood veneer. This was a powerful tool and I had fallen deeply under its spell. Of course, this little King of Presses was hardly more sophisticated than a garlic press and soon, during the 20 or 30 official monthly trips delivering copy and art boards to local printers, I was befriended by Eric Busby at Evergreen Press, who threw me a half used can of “special” black ink for foil and Mylar, guaranteed to dry on anything. Eric was an English transplant who had gone the traditional trade school route and, like a true craftsman, was more than happy to share his knowledge, even without my feeble six-pack bribes of Guinness. His constant retort to me in that rusty Thames-tainted voice was “get a real printing press”.

Throughout my life I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants. I’ve surrounded myself and populated my spheres with individuals much smarter and quicker than myself. Realizing that the Metro gopher job would not allow enough earnings to support my sports-car habit, I decided to strike out on my own and earn the big bucks by starting my own quick-print shop. Simultaneously, I again fell in love at first sight with the woman who is still my best friend and wife, Marcia Dillon. To my knowledge, Marcia was the first female in Seattle to rack up a million dollars of print sales in one year.

Fast forward a little bit and I’m saddled with a whopping $424 a month press payment on a brand new 25” single-color Harris. A real printing press, or so I thought. Actually, I’d still like to have that press in my basement to play with now. If anyone is still reading this, can you remember David Lance Goines? He created elegant show-stopping posters on a 25” Harris. Most addicts will not admit to their disease, but printing is a lifelong illness that only occasionally goes into remission. Fine printing was once elegantly referred to by a friend and ex-employee of mine, Chuck Matson, as seductive: “The more you know about it, the more mysterious it becomes.” It is perhaps the second oldest profession. Or as Jack Grann, my plant superintendant was fond of pointing out, “You can find printers between liquor and whores in the yellow pages” (or the dictionary). And this is not far from the truth, due their repeated dealings with designers and agencies.

The enthralling and consuming magic of its spell frequently manifests itself with the symptomatic love of “big iron”.

So the disease progresses and Atomic Press works its way through a series of larger Italian-built Harris presses. Originally, an American-built product, Harris made the decision to retool and build in Italy, where the factory literally used ox drawn carts to transport assemblies in the factory. Fortunately, there was a cure for this stage of the disease and it came in the shape and form of German-built Heidelbergs. They brought train loads of ore into their facility from which they smelted their own iron. Think quality control, not world domination. I’d like to point out that magic and love will only carry one so far down a career path. Passion and perseverance will dominate.

Even today the Stephen Hawking’s and Richard Feynman’s cannot completely explain the physics of offset lithography. It should not work. Technology is a double-edged sword. There is still an inexplicable and non-duplicable beauty and magic of well-executed letterpress printing. However, kerning, the cold-type setters’ secret, is an art lost to the modern computer keyboard; a victim of newer, faster, better technology. The lesson here is respect. Standing on the shoulders of giants one can see both directions.

Printing allows an immediate gratification and nothing in the pressroom gives more pleasure and reward than an exceptionally designed and executed poster or a true limited-edition print in which the artist has drawn directly on the plates. Please be cognizant of the difference between a true limited edition and a reproduction.

Color, shape, texture, smell—all play a part in the dance. Size is immaterial, sometimes. A postage (stamp) size etching can be as impactful as a 72,” eight-color poster and potentially worth more than a black-only engraving of everyone’s favorite non president, Benjamin Franklin, on Crane’s. Although the limited-edition fine art and poster portion of our business represented less than 5% of our dollar volume, it generated the most satisfaction among our crews and employees and garnered the most street buzz. Instant gratification.

Back to the shoulders of giants. It’s appropriate here to mention Gene Gowan of Quality Trade Services. He mentored hundreds of printers, strippers and designers. A fine screened duo-tone or tri-tone with two varnishes will easily hold its own when compared with a multi-color print. Another giant, Don Courtion of Agency Northwest, was one of the two best quality printers in Seattle. He had a passion for the dot, a finely developed aesthetic and a humbleness that belied his genius. Gene Zoul, our head estimator, shared these traits. Both of these individuals had zeal and drive for perfection and an unfettered willingness to share their knowledge. Both were also second-generation lithographers.

Printing is a team sport. Too often the specialty players within the team go unheralded. The Chuck Estes’ (Golden Pacific) and Craig Robinson’s (Graphic Impressions), the Glenn Diers’ (Diers Bindery) and of course the Bayless generations must be included in any accounting of the Seattle print scene. Each and every one a giant, willing to silently shoulder the burden when called upon and frequently willing to impart a pearl of knowledge or wisdom, even when not specifically requested. Characters all, but unflinching in their desire to pursue and create a printed product as close to perfection as possible.

Stripping away the romance, printing is simply a production enterprise exercised in factories populating the globe. At its best, it is the coaxing, melding and manipulating of disparate molecules to a greater cause, blending shape, line, texture, color, scent and typography to elicit an intellectual or emotional electro-chemical response in the viewer’s brain. Frequently, it is required to do this at the lowest possible per-unit price in an impossible time frame. This requires efficiency, capital, vision, suicidal tendencies and an inane passion. Sometimes it works. In a formulaic and philosophical sense it is not too unlike sex.

So now we have this grand tribute to human ingenuity. What am I talking about – the printing press itself, the printed piece resultant of this monolithic technology or the psychological manipulation of the intended recipient, orchestrated by the collaboration of the copy writer, the photographer, the graphic artist with two sharp pencils and a plastic tray of Sharpies, the coffee-delivery person and the desk-dancing account exec?

What I’m trying to say that printing is a genetic disorder that insidiously affects everyone it comes into contact with. Even rude potato-stamp imagery on a piece of third-world cardboard has a value and magic that can make a human dance—the printer gladiator goaded on by the blood craving masses (of designers and purchasing agents). Standing on the shoulders of giants has taught me this.

Like the bee keeper, the ink maker, the flower breeder, the farmer, and the truck driver, the printer experiences occasional successes. There can be as much enjoyment in printing two color Metro timetables as eight-color Boeing or Nordstrom annual reports. Like all human enterprise, it simply requires passion and the good luck and sense to populate one’s spheres with giants.

Is it a terminal disease? Ask me again in 35 years.