By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
"Wouldn't it be sad," I say to Peter on the way home, "if the world ended just as things are going so well for us?" I tell him about Don DeLillo's White Noise, in which the protagonist and his Babette, for all their blended-family bliss and intellectual satisfaction, cannot stop wondering, through the Toxic Cloud Event and their child's haunted screams, which one of them will die first.
"Sure would be sad," he nods. "You in the mood for Thai food?"
WORKING L.A.: Sex and the Letterpress
BALD, WITH A GOATEE, AND JUST A TOUCH OVERweight, Brooks Ocon is probably the best letterpress operator in Los Angeles. But trendy designers only recently discovered him, and now his life is totally different. Instead of mostly Quinceñeracards and fliers for auto shops, he's now printing Jude Law's baby announcement, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' business cards and the personal stationery for the head of Universal. Still, Brooks doesn't care much about the celebrities or making money.
"I live pretty cheap," he says. "As long as I have a few bucks in my pocket, I'm cool."
What he does like, he says, are the pretty women who come into his shop near Macarthur Park. "Most of the designers, like 95 percent, are girls," he says, "and of those, 75 percent are cute. So it works out really well." He hates it when one of those women explains that she's coming in to get invitations to her own wedding. "You get these crushes on them and it's, 'See ya,' they're off getting married." Brooks says he knows why the women get their printing done with him. "There's something sexy about letterpress: the printing itself, the whole atmosphere. It's real."
That is true. It is thrilling to walk into Aardvark Letterpress. It's a small space, and it's crammed with century-old presses and worn wooden shelves filled with metal type and the smell of ink and grease. The coolest machine, the one sitting right in the window, is a flywheel press: Squat and made of black metal, it has two thin arms that rotate in a circle, grabbing paper out of a pile and holding it for a second while it gets printed and then reaching out and laying the paper down in another pile. It looks like a 19th-century robot. Even better is the Ludlow machine in back. Brooks asks you your name, and then his hands flitter quickly through a shelf of old metal type molds. He puts the molds into the Ludlow, which coats them in molten lead. After a few seconds, the lead hardens and falls into his hands. He hands you this metal bar; it's your name in very hot type. Then he'll put that bar in the flywheel press along with a thick piece of paper, and all of a sudden you have a gorgeous, deeply printed piece of stationery that is more beautiful and exciting than any stationery you've ever seen.
Letterpress printing is old school, and hardly anybody in the U.S. knows how to do it anymore. Virtually every printed thing you see -- magazines, posters, soda cans -- was printed on an offset press in which the ink & is laid on top of the surface. With letterpress, the ink is pushed into the paper -- like on a typewriter -- so there is an indentation. For most of the 20th century, people thought letterpress printing looked cheap; most folks liked those slick bump-free offset presses. But recently, many top designers have discovered a new love for letterpress. They like those indentations, which make the printing seem more three-dimensional. Today, letterpress looks expensive and handmade. And designers like the process of getting their stuff printed at Aardvark.
"When I use offset, I e-mail the guy a file and pick it up the next day," says Sophie Howard, who designs stationery for many Hollywood executives and stars and who often spends an entire day at Aardvark. She'll come there with a basic design in mind, but she can hunt through those shelves and find some cool type font. She and Brooks will lay out the stationery -- a meticulous process in which lines of type are put in metal galleys and held in place by various size wooden blocks -- and make adjustments until it looks just good. Instead of using the standard ink colors, Brooks will mix his own, adding a little blue or yellow until Sophie thinks it's just right.
Brooks never did anything to attract people like Sophie. He and his dad, Luis, were running a sleepy print shop serving their working-class Latino neighborhood. Luis learned letterpress as a 13-year-old in Mexico City setting the type for newspapers. All of their pressmen over the years have been Mexicans or Central Americans who were trained in Nicaragua or El Salvador, places where offset printing never acquired the firm hold it has in the U.S. and Europe. Brooks never planned to become a master letterpress operator. "Here's the thing," he says. "I didn't really do that well in school. I didn't have a specific goal." So, he just learned to do what his dad did. He and his father spent much of the 1980s wishing they could get out of the letterpress business but never had enough money to invest in offset or in computers.
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