Emeritus Professor Peter Marcus founded the Washington University Collaborative Printmaking Workshop in 1978 with the goal of creating a unique learning environment that emphasized creative freedom. He worked to fully integrate students into all stages of the printmaking process, including both the creative and technical phases of a project. Marcus designed and built the large-format "Island Press" in the early 1990s, which allowed artists to explore significantly larger prints and a range of new technologies. The Press was renamed Island Press in 1997 to commemorate the organization's 20-year anniversary and to honor Peter Marcus.
Island Press' earliest prints reflect primarily traditional printmaking techniques such as etching and lithography. Later works embraced the use of more avant-garde techniques, such as collography and collage; the combination of multiple processes, such as lithography and silkscreen; and the use of applied elements, such as chine collé and hand stitched beadwork. Joan Hall (Kenneth E. Hudson Professor of Art and Island Press director from 1999-2010) joined the Press faculty in the late 1980s and introduced the fabrication of handmade paper as a signature Island Press activity.
A number of outstanding master printers have shared the vision of Island Press over the years, starting with Dan Gualdoni, Howard Jones, Kevin Garber, and Maryanne Simmons. Tom Reed has been the master printer since 2001, and Lisa Bulawsky, who has been part of the printmaking faculty at Washington University since 1996, is the current director.