Five years ago, Candice Jezek of independent publishers Dream Press in Cape Town had become bored with the landscape of digitally mass-produced books. A sculptor by training, Ježek longed to make something unique, tactile, collectable. Risograph printing, with its grainy old-school aesthetic, its resemblance to silk screening and its affordability, seemed to offer an unlikely but appealing escape. “You can’t control it,” she says of the lustre produced by the vintage Japanese printer’s inconsistencies and constraints. Today, a scroll through Dream Press’s shop reveals shelves of colourful graphic novels, ’zines, cards and prints all created using a Risograph – usually in runs of 100 or fewer. Each is prized as an artwork – but ones that are “more accessible, less intimidating” than works you might find at an art fair, she says. 

A print by Jake Terrell, £25, from diyartshop.com
A print by Jake Terrell, £25, from diyartshop.com © DIYartshop
Riso prints by Duplikat Press, from £6.50
Riso prints by Duplikat Press, from £6.50 © Richard South

Ježek’s sentiment is increasingly shared by a niche worldwide collection of artists, printers and designers who are using Risograph printers to create distinctive products. There’s even an Atlas of Modern Risography to connect publishers, printers and designers.

Developed in Tokyo in the 1950s by Noboru Hayama and manufactured by the Riso Kagaku Corporation, the Risograph printer first appeared outside Japan in the 1980s, offering a hybrid of high-volume screen printing and photocopying. The machines are built from upcycled plastic in Japan and China using soy-based riso ink (meaning “ideal” in Japanese) that was devised by Hayama to solve the problem of importing expensive emulsion ink from abroad. Their heyday in offices was relatively short-lived, however, thanks to the rise of the easier-to-use photocopier. 

The Risograph printer at Hato Press
The Risograph printer at Hato Press © Hato
Joel, 2019, by John Booth, Riso-printed by Hato Press
Joel, 2019, by John Booth, Riso-printed by Hato Press © Hato

Although it may look cruder than a modern copier, it’s rather nimble, spitting out beautiful prints in a dazzling array of saturated colours that cannot be matched by digital printing, which works with just four inks (Riso can layer many colours, with 20 available off the shelf). 

The appeal lies in the blend of digital and analogue printing methods. As with the resurgent popularity of vinyl, Riso-printed works are sought out by retro enthusiasts who appreciate its production methods, its textured complexity and the lo-fi autonomy it affords, which enables creatives to select every last detail from the ink drum to the paper, the stitching thread to the font. 

A Riso art print by Inès Gradot, £20, from diyartshop.com
A Riso art print by Inès Gradot, £20, from diyartshop.com © DIYartshop/Inès Gradot
Convenience Store by Francis Broek and Julia Schimautz, published by Dream Press
Convenience Store by Francis Broek and Julia Schimautz, published by Dream Press

For Ken Kirton, co-founder of Hato Press in east London, it’s the Risograph’s balance between “the automatic and inkiness, the warmth of the colours” that is so compelling. “You can play around with it. It’s less like a printer, more like a hammer or brush,” he says, citing influences such as William Morris’s utopianism as a model for his practice. Alongside a range that covers prints (from £55) to postcards (£12), Kirton produces exquisite handmade stationery including notebooks from artists’ offcuts, and the eco Oru line made with neither glue nor staples (£8-£12). He collaborates with cult artists such as John Booth and New York-based artist/baker Lexie Smith; Kirton’s Cooking with Scorsese series (£15), featuring screenshots of cookery in films by directors including Martin Scorsese and Juzo Itami, has been an international hit.

Cedars sweatshirt by Studio Fidèle, €45
Cedars sweatshirt by Studio Fidèle, €45
Mini calendars by Risotto Studio, £9
Mini calendars by Risotto Studio, £9

The printing is labour-intensive: ink drums require loading and changing by hand, and only two colours can be printed simultaneously, so works need to be run through the printer several times. (Imagine the frustrations with the office printer – multiplied.) But that’s all part of the charm. Gabriella Marcella, of Glasgow’s Risotto Studio, enthuses about the “means of production”, and with such a dreamy range of ink colours – fluorescent pink and forest green, metallic gold, teal and seafoam – it’s hard not to be bewitched. Striking pieces from Risotto include tropical-print swimsuits (£70) and T-shirts (£25), while a monthly subscription, RisoClub (from £60 a year), sees four Riso artists from around the world contribute prints. 

Riso printing at Cierne Diery
Riso printing at Cierne Diery © Nora a Jakub
TANAP Museum, 2021, by Oto Hudec, from Cierne Diery
TANAP Museum, 2021, by Oto Hudec, from Cierne Diery

Even if the Risograph is technically limited, the conversations it sparks between other modes of printing generate fertile and rich forms, says Vincent Longhi of Studio Fidèle in Paris, a small Riso printing studio. 

The machine might once have been considered marginal and overlooked, agrees Martin Lipták of studio Cierne Diery in Slovakia, but like the forgotten, derelict buildings that figure in his own prints (€25-€100), there’s a distinctive beauty to be found in those grey lumpen forms. 

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