Best Lost Art Found: Aardvark Letterpress
Luis Ocon is 71 by now. He mostly just comes in and spins the machines, and tinkers around sometimes. But back in the ’60s in Mexico City, he was setting slugs with the best of ‘em. Then, the California-dreaming linotype operator made his way to the USA and pressed on to Hollywood, where he got a job at the Aardvark Letterpress.
“With a little bit of patience, and a whole lot of imagination, anything is possible,” is the motto he coined — one that the vintage printer on Seventh Street across from MacArthur Park still embraces today.
Luis worked his way up the ladder at Aardvark and bought the business in 1978. In 1980, he bought a 100-year-old Chandler & Price hand-operated printing press, and Aardvark Letterpress moved on from typography to become one of the best-known letterpress printers by 1982.
The Aardvark Press is a remnant from a bygone era: the letterpress-printing era. It’s still operating at a level of mastery that you rarely see in a world of soulless computer-generated business cards and e-vites. There’s a weight and density to what Aardvark produces. It’s tactile ... texturous. You can feel the quality of the work. It makes an impression on the paper, and the paper makes an impression on every hand that touches it.
The old Chandler & Price hand-operated press is still in operation, as well as two Heidelberg windmill presses and a Miehle V-50 vertical press. The clientele is diverse, ranging from top designers to studios, museums, artists and, of course, movie stars.
The future didn’t always look so bright for these craftsmen. Luis’ son Brooks remembers a dark hour in the ’80s, after computer design’s abrupt intrusion into the printing world. “Business and the age-old process of setting hard type was being pushed out by cheap, instant computer typesetting,” he says. But the family business operated by Brooks and his mother and father persevered. Brooks’ brother Cary came back into the fold around that time.
“My brother was actually a lawyer,” Brooks confides as if he’s disclosing a dirty secret. “He was one of those frustrated lawyers. He hated it. He was having nightmares. He came back to help his ol’ brother.” Together they’ve transformed the traditional industrial print shop into a custom studio.
“Debra Messing ... a lot of people who aren’t famous, like Steve Tish, those billionaire types,” Brooks struggles to name their celebrity clients. “I can never think of them when you ask ... um ... Bruce Willis. My brother just took a bunch of movie-star pictures off the wall the other day.”
Aardvark is a sanctuary; walking through the doors is time travel from another dimension where, like the machinery here, life is considerably less complicated and the end product is quality and value.
The shop prints for a lot of artists. Brooks and company have assembled an impressive group of L.A.’s best to launch their fine-art department’s first project: “Los Angeles Loteria,”featuring 18 L.A. artists. You can see some of the work now at the Tobey C. Moss Gallery (7321 Beverly Blvd., www.tobeycmossgallery.com).
Of course, like everything else they do at Aardvark... it’s worth looking at.
2500 W. Seventh St., L.A., (213) 388-2271 or www.aardvarkletterpress.com.
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