The letterpress is the beefcake of the printing world. They are sturdy, heavy beings planted in one place to do its job. They are both angular and round and move in a back-and-forth motion much like a slowed down headbanger. These creatures are typically made of smooth, dense metals and–like trees–prefer not be moved from where you place them. They were born from a utilitarian desire to make and keep notations in massive quantities and their craft has evolved into a precious practice only a few participate in.
Rosanna and Joel Kvernmo are letterpressers. The couple are recent Los Angeles transplants who have been living in Highland Park with their massive cast iron letterpress since February of 2012. They rely on this tool in order to make work and it relies on them for employment. This union and making is Iron Curtain Press, a small printing shop that is two people and their press.
This union all began in 2007 after Rosanna had finished school and decided to start a letterpressing business in Seattle. “Working in letterpress printing actually works out really well for me–it suits my OCD tendencies,” she says of her craft. She and Joel take a seat at a wooden table and begin to sip freshly brewed coffee they made from a Chemex Coffeemaker. “Before I started printing, I never really considered myself an artist. Even now, a lot of what I do is listening to someone else’s idea or vision and making that a reality. I work with a lot of small businesses and weddings. People often have a very clear idea of what they want but they don’t know how to describe it in the right language or don’t have the tools to make what they want. My design process is very collaborative with the goal to create an end product that each person really loves. If you look at my work, there is definitely a distinct style which I guess attracts similarly minded people. It’s always a bonus to design stuff that I love and they love.”
Rosanna didn’t learn how to print until after she had graduated from college. She grew up in a Seattle suburb and has a very creative, art supporting family. “My Dad is a graphic designer and my Mom is very passionate about making artistic endeavors a priority. Looking back, I feel really fortunate. My sisters are also doing creative things for a living–one is a film maker and the other works in fashion: I think that is really neat that it worked out for us to all be making things. As kids, instead of just having a puppet show, we’d make the stage for the puppets and the puppets themselves. It was ridiculous. I’m very thankful for our upbringing.”
Rosanna attended the University of Washington and pursued a degree in English Literature. She spent a lot of time traveling while in college which she considers a big factor in taking the risk with her craft. “I basically feel like I learned how to communicate professionally from my English degree. Traveling really opened my mind to realize that I could do whatever I wanted instead of waiting for this perfect opportunity that someone else has created for me: if I want to do something, I should just do it. Without having traveled as much as I did, I don’t think I personally would have had the gumption to start my own business. I was twenty three when I started! Looking back, that’s ridiculous. Now I don’t think I would be brave enough to start something. It was a youthful bravado.”
“If I could make this business work starting in 2007 when people ran out of money, I’m excited to see what the next few years hold because they are going to be even better. There is no where to go from here but up.”
“I came from a very different background,” Joel begins to explain. He also grew up in the Pacific Northwest. “My Dad is a contractor so I had a pretty blue collar start. Similar to Rosanna, I wasn’t discouraged from doing what I wanted. I did work in construction for many years with my Dad and knew that I didn’t want to be digging ditches in the rain for the rest of my life. So, I went to art school and got my degree in Photo and Video. As soon as I graduated, I was back to digging ditches in the rain with my Dad. But, then, I did a lot of work in Seattle as an art gallery assistant and worked for some film festivals.”
“Then, Rosanna and I met. I had never actually done letterpress myself but I had done printmaking and was familiar with the process. Then we started dating–”
“And the rest is history,” Rosanna interjects with a laugh, throwing two arms in the air.
The way they met is funny as it relates to their coming to Los Angeles: they met because of mopeds, which Rosanna makes clear is not a scooter. “Joel was in a moped club and I eventually became a part of that moped club. There are different clubs all around the country.”
The two were married nearly a year after dating. This was also nearly a year after starting Iron Curtain Press, too. The business became a joint effort and a small family business of sorts led by Rosanna’s vision.
“It’s great being a team,” she says. “I think learning some of his perspective as a fine art person has been super helpful to my creative process, especially after coming from a place where the art in my life was very commercial with my Dad working as a graphic designer. I really appreciated having the inspiration to think things through more deeply and ask why I was doing something. It’s simple things, too.”
She motions to the hairpin leg table they sit at. “He built this dining room table. That’s awesome! All of my product photography looks really excellent and I would not be able to do that myself. I might have been able to learn to do it passably but it wouldn’t look great. I think my product photography looks great because of Joel.”
“We’re a good team of different skills,” she says. Joel nods his head agreeing. “I dream that I can print all day and Joel can send e-mails and take photos all day. I’d be so happy.”
This career didn’t start as a full time gig though: it was Rosanna and her press in addition to various service industry jobs supplemented by Joel’s film festival jobs. However, film festivals enabled the two to do more with letterpress–and exposed them to Southern California. Joel explains. “I was working for a film festival in Palm Springs and Rosanna and I had just started dating. She was still serving coffee and I asked her if she wanted to come down to Palm Springs and work for me. She did for a couple of weeks, which made her enough money so that she could quit her job serving coffee and do this full time. That was my first investment in Iron Curtain Press.”
“Yes, it was hiring me at the Palm Springs Film Festival that made all this possible,” Rosanna adds, giggling.
Joel continues: “After we got married, we always did this thing where she would be printing full time and I would be working at a film festival or various other jobs while helping on this business. We always had really good friends down in LA and, any time we had extra money or time, we’d fly down here to visit.”
“It got to where we were visiting three to four times a year,” Rosanna says. “We got to thinking, ‘Hmmm…what would it be like to move down there?’”
They met their Los Angeles friends by in the same way they met each other: a moped club. “When we were in Palm Springs, trying to figure out how to get away for the weekends, we became really good friends with the moped club in Los Angeles,” Rosanna says. “They let us stay with them and they would take us on excellent moped rides, show us around LA…it was a really, really wonderful community. Now all these people surf and ride motorcycles and we all hardly ride mopeds anymore.”
“That was the beginning, though: mopeds. It’s great. We have friends who like doing things with a common interest and everyone is very different. It’s really interesting.”
With a little nudging from these friends, moving to Los Angeles was an easy sell. “I mean, come on: this weather is great,” Rosanna says. “I have not gotten over seeing the sun most days. It seems like such a small thing but, having grown up in Western Washington, it is a miracle to see the sun every day.”
“I love this place,” she continues. “You never leave home without rain gear in Seattle! Nine months out of the year, I wouldn’t leave home without a rain jacket.”
“Come on: you’re exaggerating a little,” Joel interjects.
“Well, I hate being wet!” Rosanna states.
This geographical change has also meant a shift in working. For example, their giant press now sits before a picture window and usually tans in the sun all day. Rosanna’s creations have also gotten a little color too. “I’ve been working on my own greeting card line and, to me, the biggest change I’ve noticed is that they have become so bright and colorful and a lot bolder. I know for a fact it’s because the sun is out and there’s a lot more color. I’ve really noticed that influence.”
Joel has felt a bit of an influence as a result of his industry being very tied to the Los Angeles economy. “Now I freelance in art department for photo shoots, so my work has certainly changed. All of a sudden I have transitioned into a really LA life of being on photo shoots or video shoots all the time. It’s great.”
Rosanna and Joel, their dog Lucy, and their letterpress are not planning on leaving Los Angeles as their friends and careers have been going so well. They have big dreams that they see coming to fruition here. “Being in Los Angeles in general means more people: I have been blown away by how much work I’ve been able to get,” Rosanna says. “In Seattle, I had my base of clients and I was able to keep a lot of them when I moved as we can handle things by e-mail and mail. Still: it is overwhelming that our customers from Seattle loved our localness and we’ve been able to move to LA and build that same spirit around our business here. I’ve been so thankful to think that we haven’t even been in Los Angeles a year and yet our transition has been so incredibly smooth.”
“It’s a fine line between what we do and what we value in our business,” Joel adds. “There’s a point where it doesn’t make sense for us to be producing things–but that’s not where we want to be. We like being able to print everything ourselves and be able to change everything ourselves instead of a third party.”
Rosanna nods in agreement and continues where Joel left off: “For being a letterpress shop, my turnaround time is super fast because it is me doing the work. If I know someone really needs something, I can flip-flop jobs and work it out. It keeps me more mobile. Keeping that spirit as we get bigger will be a wonderful goal, too.”
“I can’t wait to have a bigger shop so I can get more presses,” she says. “A storefront would be super fun to sell greeting cards and a special curated selection of things we like. The sky is the limit. I’ve been super encouraged by how well our work has gone here.”