SweetWater Letterpress & The Great Nation of LA

The smell of ink fills my nose as I lean against the counter, shooting Wilcz carve a linoleum cut for his most recent “for the heck of it” creation. “I decided that with all the deadlines, the customized orders, I needed to get creative again and make our custom annual print.” A Dia De Los Muertos poster.

I had the pleasure of spending two very inspiring (and very warm) days at SweetWater Letterpress in Downtown Culver City. A small shop that cranks out some of the most intricately crafted letterpress items I’ve ever seen.

Though the whole SweetWater family is not captured in the moments below, it is a "three peeps and a dog" operation as Wilcz puts it -- and head up: they are looking for an intern in the near future! 

Below are conversations with the shop owner (Wilcz) and his right hand printer (Julie). Wilcz has lived and worked in the creative filed everywhere from Buffalo to Boston, Warsaw to Colorado. His enthusiasm for his projects is infectious – he pours knowledge into his customers and they always leave with a sense of creativity and awe at his work. 

My laptop is the newest piece of machinery in the print shop by about 60 years, propped up on a stool in front of the large windows, which drink in all the sun the day has to offer. The temperature conducive to exactly what the materials need – HOT. I hear the humidifier cranking in the stock room.

On press with the Day of the Dead prints

On press with the Day of the Dead prints

B = Me

W = Wilcz

J = Julie

Linoleum cut Wilcz finishes carving as we chat. 

Linoleum cut Wilcz finishes carving as we chat. 

B: So, where are you from?

W: Born in Buffalo NY, and I lived pretty much everywhere *laughs. Playing hockey brought me all over the country and all over Canada, but after all of that was done I decided to go to college at the University of Buffalo. I worked at an ad agency in Buffalo, and then moved to Boston to a design studio where we did mostly annual reports (which are gone now…*chuckles).

I came out to LA and worked for an ad agency then went to work for the LA Kings. I started as a designer and then moved to creative director...then to a company that was LA-based but had an office in Poland as well. I moved to Colorado and then back to LA for a house job in art direction, but realistically I was planning this (SweetWater).

I wanted to get back to the roots of design, working with your hands, not with sitting in a cubicle and dealing with ego and politics -- being able to be creative and do really good things. That’s my background. I’ve been everywhere.

Glow in the dark Halloween letterpress cards -- how cool is that!? 

Glow in the dark Halloween letterpress cards -- how cool is that!? 

B: You talked about work taking you to LA… is that how you landed here?

W: Los Angeles? No absolutely not.

The 1980s: Everyone was into BMX freestyle and skateboarding, so you had your GTs and Haros... I got into that when I was a kid. I had a GT and it was from Huntington Beach, California, and I looked at all those guys (doing freestyle) and said “that’s where I belong.”

Growing up in Buffalo, everybody would say, “You don’t fit in here at all. You’re way too relaxed and loosey goosey.” I always felt like I belonged in California. One day I said, “I have nothing keeping me here and I’ve always wanted to be there (California),” so I literally grabbed a map (I had never been here before) and said “Pacific Beach sounds wonderful!”

I packed my car up with everything I owned. I took out all $2000 I had in my bank and threw it in the glove compartment (there were no banks on the east and west coasts that communicated at the time), got in the car, and drove.

I went into the Recycler and found two girls living in La Jolla on the beach and they needed a roommate. So I’m like life is good, I’m in California and living on the beach. And I was only there for a couple months till I landed a job up here (in LA).

But the vibe of LA is amazing the weather is great. Buffalo is snowy a lot. Being here is what I like, that’s what brought me to LA.

*He dusts away the pieces of linoleum he carved out and pauses to examine his piece.

B: What is your craft?

W: That’s tough to say -- it is design. I love printmaking. I love starting with just this idea in your head of, “this is cool I like this.” And coming out with solutions and realistic designs that communicate well and look nice. Then taking that concept and drawing it, and taking it to the computer, which is really a tool – it’s not supposed to be used for creativity.

This job is super unique because: there was a sketch, and that turned into an illustrator file, that turned into a template, and I carved it out at the kitchen table.

 

B: I like that process…

W: That’s what I love most about artists, but the problem I see is a lot of creative work is money driven and a lot of people make things very vanilla, so it appeals to a mass audience.

There’s no loving or loathing it, it’s just there. People will watch it because we made it. People will buy it because it’s there.

When you are able to take the risks and try things and create things, you have a chance of failure but if you succeed, it’s so far beyond “we made something,” because we made something great. Every single thing that comes out of this shop has to be great. We treat this like it’s gold *points to his current project, we treat stationary with one person’s name like its gold.

Anything you see that’s been done needs to be a stand-alone piece. Then people say, “that’s fantastic, who did that?” We’re not perfectionists, each piece is different and unique, but we absolutely alter, change, shift things the way we want them to be and treat every piece like it’s the most important.

Right now, this is *nods at his work. When Julie is on press with the backs of our business cards, which is just our signature, she’ll spend an hour setting it up so it’s perfect. And when I say perfect, it’s perfect to the way that we want it, not perfect to perfection. If you chase perfection you’re in big trouble.

 B: Why did you decide to open up shop in LA what did that look like?

W: Opportunity. I see some amazing letterpress shops throughout the country, but they don’t get the type of jobs we get because Sony is not across the street, the Getty is not down the street, you know? *Laughs We can collaborate with musicians, executive producers…If you’re in Denver, you’d probably make a great living and do a lot of great stuff but you have to work to get the big jobs, whereas here, they’re in our backyard.

I also try to purchase all our stuff in LA by family owned businesses in LA. We do a lot of business in LA not only with our customers but by supporting other small businesses. We pay a bit more because it’s local and owned by a family business, but I’d rather support the economy in our local city than get it from wherever else cheaper.  

And weather doesn’t play as much of a factor in LA—we can do business all the time. In places like Buffalo you can’t work Tuesday/Wednesday because there’s a blizzard. And when you’re off, you can play really, really hard here. In December…when you can go surfing…pretty spectacular.

 *A bell goes off and Wilcz looks over his shoulder to see who came through the door, Julie’s conversation with an existing customer hums on in the front room. “Excuse me for a sec…hello!...”

 

Why did you pick this spot?

Accidentally.

We looked where other letterpress and stationery shops were -- we don’t want to be a direct competition, but we don’t feel as if we are – we don’t consider anyone competition really. There are12 million people here in our city, and there are very few letterpress shops.

We were originally looking for a place in Redondo and El Segundo with a little more space and an old fashioned feel. Then we got off the wrong exit on the freeway and saw this place. I stopped and looked in and said, “that’s the smallest shop I’ve ever seen in my life…I don’t know if we could do it!”

Then I turned around and looked at Sony and thought, “the 405’s right there, from north, east, south, west I can get here, and this is a wonderful neighborhood.” I literally got out of my car and started walking around and seeing that it really is a neighborhood. The thing we didn’t want to be was another shop on the main street.

We wanted to be part of the community – we wanted to be part of a neighborhood. We have people who jog their routes, we say hi to them on a first name basis. We’ve never done business with them but they’re part of the community, and so are we.

So we looked at this place and my wife goes “there’s no chance you can do this in this place.” So I took out the tape measure, measured the doors and thought, “I can get the presses in here!”

Originally we really wanted to have the presses in front of a window so people can see us working, wherever we were.

Married to an apartment complex, Sweetwater rests in the bottom right corner of the building. 

Married to an apartment complex, Sweetwater rests in the bottom right corner of the building. 

B: That’s how I found you! One night, I was walking through the neighborhood and saw you guys on the presses…

W: We thought that was more artisan --- we have so many people that stop here and just watch. They may turn and go “alright we’re going in,” and they buy cards because that girl right there made them and they get to watch it happen. Those cards will be on sale tomorrow in the shop and that’s really cool.

So that was the goal, get in front of the windows and get into a neighborhood where we can be a part of the community and that’s how Culver City happened.

B: I like that, that’s a cool business model and idea.

W: It’s different.

*Dusts bits of linoleum off his cut.

Every machine is numbered and this tells the printer when and where the machine was made. Two of the machines in SweetWater were made in the same place around the same time and by happenstance convened in the same room later in life. 

Every machine is numbered and this tells the printer when and where the machine was made. Two of the machines in SweetWater were made in the same place around the same time and by happenstance convened in the same room later in life. 

B: I know you don’t really have this, but what’s your 9-5 look like?

W: What does that mean?

B: A day in the life of you!

W: *Laughs There’s no such thing as a 9-5, but I live in LA for a reason, right? I live in Hermosa. My day is: get up in the morning and go for a run on the beach. Go for a swim, a boogie board, or a surf. After that, that’s my meditation – relax, enjoy, start your day out with some sunshine and some salt water.

Then I start working at home from 8-11AM usually doing admin stuff. Then I come in and we’re here from 11:30 usually until about 9 o’clock. Then we clean up and I’m usually home by 10. That’s an average day, but when we get to November-February that day turns into 11PM-12AM…or 1AM-2AM, so it becomes a 13 or more hour day. Just because those are the busy times and it takes time to do this.

On top of that we clean this place constantly. Every little speck of dirt is an issue – it can alter our prints. It’s never clean enough. These presses get cleaned twice a day. Everything gets cleaned and oiled – they don’t make parts for these presses, the manuals are vague and half the stuff they ask for they don’t make anymore – we’re maintaining, oiling, making sure they work…cause if they break, that’s it. We have to find the part or make it somehow. Were always looking for new presses. When I say new, I mean old presses. Those are hard to come by.

Clamping the paper just right is key before running the print. 

Clamping the paper just right is key before running the print. 

 

B: I can’t imagine what the industry looks like when it comes to machinery.

W: Yes that’s a big issue. We’re working on things and all of a sudden instead of  “whoop whoop whoosh” you hear “woop woop BINK.” And you’re like, what the heck was that? Or, why did it just work perfectly the first 150 times and all of a sudden something doesn’t work? And we have to figure it out.

The counter ticks away as each piece is pressed. 

The counter ticks away as each piece is pressed. 

B: So is that the part of your job you could live without?

W: No, I love that actually. I love that you can come in and it may not work right. I love that we get to touch machinery that’s from the 50s and 60s and 20s. And the stories that they have behind them...

*It’s rush hour, and the light just outside turns green, cars whoosh by.

I say good morning to the presses, because they are their own pieces and they may not work how you want them, but when you sit on a press for six hours straight running one piece at a time, they become part of your life. And you get to know these presses so well that the littlest sound that changes you think “oh no I don’t want you to go down” because it becomes your baby and your best friend.

I love that about this job. The fact that you come in and today’s not going to be like tomorrow, and it’s not like yesterday.

B: I know we talked a bit about this, but I didn’t have my recording on: What are you working on right now?

W: This is Dia De Los Muertos – “Day of the Dead” -- linoleum cut, based off a wood cut.

This is a little faster and easier and you get a similar result. Especially when you’re only running 60 with 5 proof prints (each hand numbered 1-60). With wood cuts, you can get cleaner and a little more precise, but the design of this we don’t want perfect, so all these little nooks and crannies in this text – most of them are done on purpose. There are some obviously “ah, we couldn’t hold it quite straight!” pieces but that’s part of this process.

This looked super scary at first—a little more Haitian voodoo, which was what was in my mind. I think this really started from coming in one Saturday to do some work and deciding that it had been too busy and commercial for too long.

So I decided to not do any work and instead, I took out some wood type and just started playing with it. The door was closed, no one was coming in – it was a day where I just got to play around. I want to make things where there isn’t a customer or client or someone directing it – making it because its cool and I would want it in my house. Instead of mass-producing them, we like to do small runs and make them a little more special. And that’s how this started.

B: Well I always love hearing about your process and what you’re doing and working on. I just walk over and stop in and see wants going on…

W: You’d be shocked, we have quite a few people that do that. People in creative office jobs around here just stop by and smell the ink and see that we’re working with our hands… they hear the machines. And it inspires you. It inspires them. And it would have inspired me…it did. You know when I was at that place in life I would have done the same thing. I would have gone down to a place like this and got creative. I understand.

B: I know it’s a bit warm in here, but as I recall there’s no AC right?

W: We have AC…we can’t use it. AC in general will dry out our shop. And therefore dry out our stock.

So we want optimally 60-65% humidity in here. Days were its really hot and super dry, and we turn that AC on you will see humidity drop 10% in a matter of 10 minutes. We’re a lot cooler, but we can’t print. Oftentimes we just suffer. *Laughs If we had a deadline and we had to do it, we’d be closing the doors and turning up the humidifier. You’d see people in here just dripping sweat. But we need our stock to be that way. We have the humidors we keep our stock in so we can control it. But you know to us every little thing matters. Oftentimes we spray it and wet them all down, just to get the optimal amount of ink on the print.

B: Switching gears a bit: in your opinion, what is LA’s best feature?

W: Oh boy, that’s really tough – I think the best feature to me is what I talked about earlier. Opportunity is everywhere. LA is full of super interesting people with similar stories to what I have. They picked up, they drove here, because they wanted to be here. And that’s LA. When we lived in Venice you could walk down Abbott Kinney and you could hear 5 different languages in 100 yards being spoken.

You know, you can be anything you want in LA. You can be a cowboy and the next day you’re a designer, and a surfer, and then hitting the sand dunes. The thing I love the most about LA is the diversity. The people here are hard working and hard playing. Typically creative -- even if you’re talking about lawyers -- they’re still creative. And when you’re, you know, stand up paddling with them on a Saturday, you don’t even know what they do and it doesn’t matter.

When I talk to people you’ll never hear me ask what they do, because it doesn’t matter what you do for work. I had a lot of jobs and I have friends who have been pool cleaners and were living on someone’s couch, and that didn’t make them any of a different person today now that they landed the big deal in 3D rendering in movies and live in a very large house.

This is a place where things are invented and created, they’re not all made here anymore, I wish they would, but there’s that feeling that anything can happen and that’s what I really like. Saturday morning you can wake up with an intention to go surfing and you end up that evening on Catalina… And that’s LA. You don’t often see that in other places. At least not that I’ve noticed. Diversity and entrepreneurship.

 

B: How do you describe LA to people who don’t live here?

W: “It’s awful stay away…it’s the worst place don’t come here!” *Laughing No, I have a lot of friends who have never been here and their perception of LA is totally different. A lot of people think Downtown is on the water and it’s not. LA gets a bad rap from movies. It’s so geographically diverse: you could be in the mountains skiing and technically same day you could be on an island. I try to explain that it’s more than just Hollywood…its more than a cement playground, there’s beaches and parks and a lot of great things.

California is huge. It’s so big and diverse that, you know, it’s hard to tell people one thing about it. So that would be the thing I’d say: it’s vast. You can’t do it in a day.

 

*Julie finished up her work in the office and steps into the workspace. We chat for a moment about her “condition” as they call it: she has perfect pitch. She taps the space bar on the typewriters in the shop until it bings… “G sharp!” she announces.

B: Did you grow up in LA?

J: I am from Iowa originally. I grew up a product of corn and heartland. I have a lot of relatives who are farmers.

I went to music school I studied film scoring in Boston, and moved to LA after college. I lived here for a year, kind of tried to get into music editing, which is a bit more technical, but it was the exact wrong time. It was 2002, so it was right after 9/11 and the entertainment industry tanked.

They cut post production budgets so I decided to do something else and moved to Chicago and lived there for 10 years, working for a non-profit -- a small arts organization. I was also teaching and running a small business there that was based around music teaching and coaching workshops, as well as career development for musicians.

 

B: So that’s how you kept music in your life?

J: Yes and I sang in various professional choirs in Chicago. I came back to LA because my husband, who I met in Chicago, is a lawyer and he went in-house with a video game company out here…so it was his dream job – he loves games and this particular game. They make one game right now, but it’s the most popular game in the world so that’s what they do. So we moved here for that and he does intellectual property law for them.

I never thought I’d live in LA again after I lived here the first time! *Laughs But I love it now and I’m so glad we came out here.

B: Why were you okay with moving back? Did you think “okay LA has this…or LA is this..”

J: I didn’t know it at the time, but we love the weather. We were over winter! Even though neither of us are from here – he grew up in New Jersey and New York so we’re used to the cold. But we love the weather and spending time outdoors getting to go hiking year-round. It’s awesome, and we both have friends out here, so we’ve had fun reconnecting with people here. There are a lot of great opportunities so we just said, “well lets go see what this is like!” We were both ready for a change.

B: What neighborhood do you live in?

J: We just moved a couple months ago to mid city –Fairfax and Pico.

When I lived here the first time, I lived on Faris in the Palms, so just down the street from you! Back before there was any of this *points around city out the window.

Like, you would come past Sony and there were no restaurants, people out and about, none of that.

They had just opened the movie theater before I left, and that Greek place, and that was it. Starbucks was down here in the middle of nowhere. It’s so trippy to be back. In this area in particular.

B: So you’ve been back for 10 years?

J: Yes, and a lot happens in 10 years. We couldn’t go out to eat right here… it was just like, well I went to a movie with my student ID! That’s it for the week!

B: What brought you to Sweetwater?

J: Serendipity. A friend of a friend shared Wilcz’s posting on Facebook saying they were looking for an intern and I was like, this is nuts, and makes no sense but I have to apply. And here I am.

*Wilcz looks up from his carving

W: “I don’t know how to print, and I don’t have a design background!”

B: …and I’m sure you said “perfect!”

W: I’m not a paper person, so I don’t look at the resume and say well she has this this and this. She seemed like a smart person…she has some great experience in a lot of different things, which carried over. You know, music background has tons of creativity to it, she’s worked for non-profits, she’s ran businesses, so here’s a person that may not have the exact experiences but she can translate. On top of that all, she has a passion for letterpress. Now she’s one of the best printers I know. It was a very lucky thing…we are lucky to have her with us.

J: I had no idea what I was doing but I was always interested in crafts and making things since I was tiny. Through working with one of my non-profit partners in Chicago, they did a lot of letterpress work with one of the printers there. I said “this is so awesome I love this so much I have to know how to do this!” but I had no time in my previous job…I had stupid hours and never learned.

And then after I lived here I looked for places that did classes, or invitations. After Wilcz posted and was like “must love music and dogs, no prior experience needed,” I was like oh my gosh! I have to apply!

 

Sony Studios just across the street. 

Sony Studios just across the street. 

 

Walking into SweetWater Letterpress is an experience that will make you feel more creative, no matter your profession. The two-man operation is so infected by a love for their craft that you can’t help but pick up on while you’re there. I guarantee you’ll leave inspired.

If you’re nearby, go talk to them and get infected by the joy they find in doing what they love passionately, everyday. Click HERE or on any photo above for a link to their site. The Day of the Dead prints are currently on sale while supplies last, and mine is proudly displayed in my apartment.