The 1.2 million people who visit Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum each year have plenty to gawk at—Taylor Swift’s rhinestone guitar, Elvis’ gold-plated Cadillac Fleetwood limousine, 26 Grammy Awards, a wall of gold records and enough stage costumes to fill a department store. There’s so much to take in, in fact, that visitors can easily miss the glassed-in space on the first floor just off the Fifth Avenue entrance.
But that would be a shame, since this 5,800-square-foot enclosure is the Hatch Show Print shop. If your pulse just quickened at that mention, it means you might have majored in graphic design—or you really know your marketing history. Hatch’s posters haven’t just announced the concerts of some of the most famous music acts in history—Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin, and more recently, Pearl Jam and Mumford and Sons—the shop’s work has influenced the face of advertising itself. (Scroll down for a gallery of some of Hatch’s iconic posters.)
Hatch’s signature style has been so widely imitated that it’s probably familiar to millions who’ve never even heard the place’s name. But as manager Celene Aubry explains, the shop—whose 140th anniversary is just two years off—never set out to change the world of typography and graphic design. Its mission, yesterday and today, has simply been to get people’s attention.
“Our aesthetic combines the clients’ brands and telling a story with a riot of color,” Aubry said. “This shop is a continuation of late 19th and early 20th-century design. We just keep doing it.”
Founded by the Reverend William T. Hatch in 1879, the store inked its first poster four years later—a 6-by-9-inch “dodger” announcing a speech by abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Soon, the shop was doing a brisk business printing posters for traveling circuses, vaudeville shows and, of course, concerts—frequently those of country music acts.
In time, brands started contracting with Hatch, too, from Airstream trailers to Duck Head overalls. While the individual posters varied, the technique was always unmistakably Hatch: bold colors, big block letters and arresting motifs that instantly conveyed the essential information and, somehow, achieved a stylistic depth and sophistication that exceeded the sum of its parts.
Born in an age before electronic media, when handbills and fliers were the only means of advertising to rural America, Hatch created a look that remains distinctively southern. But it doesn’t create posters in a “retro” style—it simply never saw fit to change a style that worked. Hatch hasn’t changed its basic tools either. This is a classic letterpress shop. Employees carve blocks of wood or linoleum by hand, ink them, and then press them onto paper. (To watch the press working, check out the video below.) Many of Hatch’s woodblocks have been on the shelves for a century or more and are still used regularly. Improvisation carries the day, as well. Aubry has seen her designers ink a sneaker sole to print its tread and event cut up a pair of jeans to print with the pattern in the denim.
Nowadays, this kind of bespoke work commands a premium (a three-color treatment is $6.75 per poster; minimum order of 100.) Hatch will do some 600 commissions yearly, and there’s a 10-week wait for the goods. But it wasn’t always this way. On Hatch’s web site, printer Jim Sherraden recalls the day in 1984 when a teacher of his at Vanderbilt University told him, “You need to see this dying old show poster shop downtown before it goes out of business.” In the 1980s and ’90s, offset printing, desktop computer design, and cheapo photocopy shops that could run off fliers for a nickel apiece had all conspired to drive Hatch very close to oblivion.
So what saved it? The slickness of digitally produced products eventually became its sameness, and bored advertisers began searching for alternatives with more character and authenticity. Fortunately, Hatch had survived to serve it back to them. (In 1992, Gaylord Entertainment, Hatch’s last private owner, donated the shop to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which now benefits from its revenue stream.)
“I think what happens is the pendulum swings back,” said Aubry when asked why Hatch is again thriving. “So many things are digital and removed from us—on a screen, behind glass. Many things aren’t printed anymore. As humans with a sense of touch, we’re hardwired for tactile things.”