Screen-printing T-shirts is such a low-tech process that just about anyone can press out a batch of them on a jury-rigged contraption in a basement.
Richard Roth started that way. Now his T-shirt screen printing company, Cambridge-bases Mirror Image, pulls in $2.6 million a year.
"Everyone can print T-shirts, so if you're going to make any money at it you've got to have a niche, and our niche is the high quality of our printing," said Roth, leaning back on a creaking chair in his office.
Dressed in jeans, an elastic band holding his hair in a ponytail, Roth, 42, seems almost apologetic about his entrepreneurial success. Instead of the bottom line, Roth emphasizes the social causes, from Amnesty International to community projects, he and the company actively promote.
In the beginning, the distinguishing feature of Roth T-shirts was the wit of his designs.
An early success was the Ike & Tina Turner shirt. Alongside the familiar face of leggy rock-star Tina Turner was not that of her much-maligned former husband Ike Turner, but the round Republican visage of Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. The oxymoronic juxtaposition became his first hot seller.
Now, however, after almost a decade in business, Mirror Image's high-quality printing rather than clever designs has brought the company national and international acclaim.
After graduating from Colgate University in 1976 with a degree in philosophy, Roth came to Cambridge, enrolling at Harvard University's Divinity School. While there, he began working with former Boston mayoral candidate Mel King on projects designed to help inner-city youth. He liked the work so much, he dropped out of divinity school.
"I was actually doing what I wanted to be doing, so I didn't think I needed the school anymore," he said.
But with a family to support (he has four daughters ranging in age from 13 to 26) Roth kept his hand in T-shirt screen printing, using a handmade device set up in his basement. In 1987, Roth bought a manual press and established Mirror Image in an industrial area of Cambridge not far from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Today, Mirror Image is a union shop (an affiliate of the United Auto Workers) with close to 30 employees, many of whom are aspiring artists and musicians.
"I believe what we do here is truly a collaborative effort, so I try to create an atmosphere of mutual respect," said Roth.
Two days each year, workers decorate the printing room, live bands are brought in and the plant closes for a raucous party.
"We are still a business. People have to put in the time and do the work. But we try to make everyone understand they are an important part of the process," Roth said.
The laid-back atmosphere at Mirror Image disguises the intense attention to detail paid to each shirt. But what distinguishes Mirror Image from most screen printing companies, industry analysts say, is its ability to reproduce high-definition photographic images on cotton T-shirts (a very difficult medium) using a computer-separated 12-color palette. Most screen printers are limited to four colors.
"We take a longer-range look at things," said Michael McGlynn, manager of Mirror Image's art department. "It may take us 20 hours to separate colors [on a computer] for a print, while other companies may only take 20 minutes. And we don't charge for the extra time on any one print."
The high quality of the finished product, he said, has long-lasting benefits.
Foto Folio Inc., a New York City company that reproduces paintings and photographs by artists such as Richard Avedon, William Wegman and Frank Lloyd Wright on posters and note cards in conjunction with museum exhibitions, has become one of Mirror Image's best customers. Foto Folio hires Mirror Image to reproduce the artwork on T shirts and sells them along with its cards and posters at museum shows.
In the past, Roth said, artists would refuse to have their work reproduced on T-shirts because of the inferior quality of the reproduction. But Mirror Image's attention to detail has won converts.
"We still run into artists who are uncomfortable with something they consider fine art on such a populist item as a T-shirt, but by and large, we have turned their heads around by showing them what we can do," he said.
At last year's Screenprinting & Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) annual international convention, Mirror Image captured top honors in the "Golden Image Awards" and the "White Tiger T-shirt Contest," along with five other awards.
This performance has made Mirror Image a hot commodity among other screen printers who are eager to learn their tricks of the trade. Mirror Image employees regularly conduct workshops all around the country for screen printers, usually in conjunction with seminars arranged by equipment manufacturers.
"Mirror Image has developed some really unique techniques," said Michael McEvoy, marketing director for San Pablo, Calif.-based Workhorse Products Inc., a screen printing press manufacturer. "The quality of their work is amazing, and other screen printers want to learn how they do it."
As the company's chief and lone salesman, Roth will rarely turn down an order, no matter what the message is. But there's a line this social activist won't cross. "We have done a T-shirt for the ROTC, but I turned down an order from Rush Limbaugh for 30,000 T shirts. He wanted to print a Top 10 list of reasons not to vote for [President] Clinton. I couldn't do it."