How James Lewis Tucker made the Aesthetic League work in the Bay Area
It’s not just beautifully crafted items using tried-and-true traditions, at The Aesthetic Union, James Lewis Tucker and his small but mighty team pride themselves on providing spaces that clients can trust.
James Lewis Tucker was born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1984. As a child, he divided his time between collecting shells from the shore and exploring the creek at his grandparents’ Christmas tree farm. James opened his letterpress store and design studio, The Aesthetic Union, in 2013 and has worked closely with companies large and small with his small team to create traditional prints using modern technology.
His artistic practice is integrated into the frame and production schedule of the store’s printing press. The limited edition prints he produces examine traditional landscape prints inspired by the California coast as well as minimalist, experimental monochrome prints. His works have been exhibited in major galleries and are in permanent collections. James’ passion for keeping the letterpress tradition alive while also leveraging modern craftsmanship helps Aesthetic Alliance remain at the center of art, craft and design in San Francisco’s shrinking creative community.
We had time to ask Tucker a few questions about how his practice, art, and business collide with it all.
Please tell our readers about it if they may not already know who you are.
Hi, I’m James, owner and founder of The Aesthetic Union. I opened this letterpress printing and design studio in 2013. We have a small team working closely with companies large and small to create traditional prints using modern technology. I incorporate my art practice into the frame and production schedule of the store press, we produce limited edition prints as well as minimalist experimental monochrome prints. At The Aesthetic Union, we are passionate about utilizing modern craftsmanship while maintaining the tradition of letterpress printing. This helps our studio continue to be a hub for arts, crafts and design in San Francisco’s shrinking creative community.
Tell us about the process of creating a creative space and any learning points you’ve recognized over the years?
Most importantly, you must have a strong vision. You have to do this for everyone, not just yourself. If you put it on yourself, it’s more ego, and we don’t need more ego in this world, especially now. You have to be open to those who influence this vision and not be afraid to let it evolve over time and circumstances. Doing so encourages an open, collaborative atmosphere that nurtures rather than stifles creativity.
Tell us a little bit about the space you’re in right now – how are you using it in every aspect of your business?
As it stands, the space is about 1,700 square feet of clutter. Due to the virus, our storefront was closed and stuff was absolutely scattered all over the place. Before COVID-19, the back of the store was a design and print studio, where we made and fulfilled custom orders, art prints, and held workshops. At the front of the store is a partnership with Case for Making, offering handmade watercolor and paper items, which are also produced in-house. Honestly, operating in a space built for in-person visits is difficult. So, we had to adjust the space and usage. Currently, we are using the entire 1700 sq. ft. space for printing, which has led to creative confusion.
When do you feel most empowered as an artist and as a businessman?
I feel most powerful when I can pay my employees what they deserve and do the same for myself.
In your practice, what challenges do you know, love or despise?
Accuracy is the number one challenge. You can do a lot of projects halfway, but you can’t do letterpress printing halfway. Few careers are so complex. You can notice flaws in almost anything, but on letterpress they really stand out, which is why you have to make it perfect. There are haute couture dresses and bespoke suits. The precision you have to have is tiresome. This is why we exist. I built this business to be a factory against mediocrity. I’ve pushed the crafting level to the point where it starts to look easy when it’s actually the furthest thing out there. Fortunately, I have a very good team and they have a good eye for it. It’s not right if I don’t go home tired at the end of the day.
One challenge I love is to focus on making art and new projects that have never been tried before, and having facilities where I can take and solve those challenges. I despise the politics of dealing with people. I’m a very outspoken person and if I see a problem I speak up, sometimes people don’t like to hear it.
Outer Mission’s storefront studio.
Portrait of James Lewis Tucker.
One of Tucker’s letterpresses.
Limited edition print by James Lewis Stark.
What artists in the San Francisco Bay Area can look for inspiration or repurpose your juices?
I would say David Lance Goines, Tom Killion and Mayumi Oda are my inspirations.
What would you say to an aspiring commercial artist who wants to enter the field from a Bay Area perspective?
Are you sure? ! I’m joking. You have to really want it, be aware of the challenges it presents, and be armed to meet them. Art as a business is extremely challenging in the United States, especially in San Francisco, a city with technology and restaurants at its core. But actually, I don’t think Aesthetic Union is an art enterprise. We are manufacturing, employing highly skilled artisans. While letterpress is considered an art, it’s more of a craft – meaning it’s better for business than painting, and a focus like sign painting or ceramics is better for business.
Also, consider the practical aspects you can offer and the different ways you can generate income. Don’t focus on just one product. We do more than custom work: we do art prints, we do workshops on top of custom work…if any one of these revenue streams dries up, the other can take its place.
Finally, be smart and don’t just trust anyone. It’s a competitive field, and while there are a lot of very supportive people out there, there are just as many people out there who want to take advantage of you in the first place. I wish someone had told me when I started.
That said, there are organizations that help artists become businessmen, and SFMade is great. Explore and learn about your support options.
Would you say letterpress printing is an art not a science and vice versa?
I actually have a whole lecture on this! Letterpress is a balance between craftsmanship, art and design, so the answer is, it’s a balance.
You can be the best artist in the world and you can still make bad prints because you don’t understand the technical aspects of making. Likewise, you may be the best scientist or technologist in the universe, but you can’t make a good piece of art because you don’t have the proper art or design skills.
So, you have to strike a balance between the three. That’s why it’s art at its best. Letterpress printing is the best.
Tell us about a memorable client and why they were so memorable?
We collaborated with Wendy Mcnaughton (watercolourist), Alice Waters’ organization “Edible Schoolyards” and Samine Nosrat to create a food chart for the seasonal foods that launched with her book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”. This project really expanded my letterpress skills as it was so difficult and so rewarding. Because it coincides with Samine’s book launch, it’s going to be huge.
It’s really great because I know it’s a great book, beautifully illustrated, and time and production come together, and it’s really cool to have the opportunity to be a part of the launch.
It’s also a great lesson in collaborating and helping build community…which goes back to another thing about art businesses! Instead of being their own silo, they should actively help everyone around them.I think this project
is a great practice to achieve these goals.
As of now, where can people go (online) to support and buy your work if they want to?
They can visit The Aesthetic Union website. Check out our online store or contact us for custom work. We are always on the lookout for fun and challenging new projects. Plus, we’ll have something new coming soon! Also check out our Instagram where we post most of what we’re working on, @theaestheticunion.
The last word on working in the Bay Area, the arts as a whole, business ownership?
Running a handicraft business in a tech-centric city has been a constant challenge for the past 7 years. But our perseverance, commitment to quality and work ethic — not forgetting small business and community — really hold us back. It’s hard to sound absolutely positive during the current crisis, but we continue to see amazing support and outreach from communities and businesses for which we are deeply grateful. As the rest of the country follows suit in their shelter-in-place mandate, we want to continue our support because community is one of our highest values and something we strive to continue and maintain every day.
// Images courtesy of Aesthetic Union; theaestheticunion.com.