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Studio Tour: Underwood Letterpress

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In her gorgeous Los Angeles studio, Cara Underwood, the printer behind recently launched Underwood Letterpress, is cooking up new-school designs (she hand draws everything herself) on an old-school printing press, which turns the big 100 next year. We popped by to check out her space—those brick walls, that shelving!—and are now thrilled to introduce you to one of our favorite paper pushers around.

From fiddle-leaf fig trees to succulents, common houseplants were the inspiration behind these quirky-cute cards.

When did you start letterpressing?
I took a bookmaking course as an undergrad and was exposed to a range of printmaking techniques, including letterpress. I remember the professor taking us through the entire process from creating negatives to mixing ink to adjusting the press.

What did you love about it?
I was immediately drawn to the combination of creativity and industriousness. I love moving between design and getting my hands dirty on the press.

Cara and her studio mate, a wedding photographer, DIYed these pine-and-metal-pipe shelves after hours spent doing shelving calculations in the aisles of their local home-improvement store.

When did Underwood Letterpress launch?
Last August, so almost a year ago!

What drew you to the idea of starting your own company?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. As a kid, I’d go climbing with my dad and sister to pick mistletoe off trees, and we’d bag it up, put a bow on it, and sell it. So starting a business wasn’t scary to me. I have a masters in public policy, was working in the field of philanthropy, and I wanted a change. Letterpress had always just been a somewhat expensive hobby, but it dawned on me that it didn’t have to be, and could be my full-time job.

Just-for-show “gifts” wrapped in Underwood’s wrapping paper share space with one of Cara’s two antique Underwood typewriters, inspiring to her for their heritage and, of course, name.

What does a typical day in your life look like?
It might include oiling my press, then meeting with a client; mixing ink, then responding to emails; trying to calibrate the press to achieve a perfect print, then coming up with new greeting card designs. I don’t think I could do only graphic design and be glued to the computer all day—I love being able to mix digital design with a hands-on craft.

Cara approaches one wall of her studio like a 3-D inspiration board, adding to it as she goes. Up there now? A few of her favorite things including a dried protea wreath, an antique phone gifted to her by her beloved grandma Nonie, and a dream catcher.

What are your favorite projects to work on?
Those that bend the rules or challenge the traditional use of the paper medium. I absolutely love bold color and exploring ways to heighten its effect on paper. A recent love is dyeing cotton paper with bright colors and then letterpressing on it. It has an extra handmade feel and texture.

Cara keeps old metal type, no longer used by most of today’s printers, in bowls as nostalgia-inducing decor.

What do you love about paper?
I like the tactile feel of paper, and with letterpress the quality of paper you use is so delicious and luxurious.

With digital now the mass medium of choice, where does paper come in?
Paper has become more of a luxury used for only the most meaningful occasions. Paper has a way of surprising people, and making them feel special and celebrated. Just think about how you’d feel if you received a handwritten letter!

In addition to her card sets and custom-letterpress work, Cara also sells vintage stamps, usually by color, to anyone wanting to make their correspondence that much more eye-popping.

 

What’s the most special letter you’ve ever received?
Since I was little, I’ve always put every letter I’ve gotten in a box. I still have a “Do you like me?” letter from a boy in first grade with ancient Hershey kisses taped to it. But I think the most special letters were those my husband—then boyfriend—sent me when I was studying abroad in west Africa. They’re handwritten and especially cherished.

After the design is done, the process of letterpressing begins at Cara’s ink station.

You do all your own illustrations. How would you describe your drawing style in five words or less?
Minimalist but playful with pops of color. Is that five??

If you’re in a restaurant with paper on the table and crayons at the ready, what are you drawing?
A hot-air balloon! It’s elevated and exploratory.

When it comes time to mix ink, Cara always references her trusty Pantone book (it’s one of the tools she says she couldn’t live without), so she doesn’t have to rely on manufactured colors.

Are you more drawn to organic or geometric shapes?
I love geometric shapes, clean lines, and pattern.

She uses a rubber-based ink and mixes all her colors by hand.

What most inspires you?
I’m really interested in peoples’ everyday lives and living spaces. I love pulling details out of them in a way that people can connect to. That’s what I was thinking about, for example, with my houseplant card sets.

A smear of ink is all the printer needs.

Is there a quote you live by?
“So perhaps the best thing to do is to stop writing Introductions and get on with the book.” -Winnie the Pooh

The printer distributes the color evenly across its ink plate.

Are there any local LA spots you find visually compelling?
I’m really fortunate to work in an inspiring neighborhood. There’s tons of unbelievable street art all around me. There are old fabulous murals that art historians have written about, and then new stuff that gets painted and painted over. It’s always changing.

To get her designs onto paper, Cara transfers her illustrations to a mold made out of a plastic or metal that makes a printing plate. That plate is then put into the press and printed by hand with each piece of paper being fed one by one.

If you could spend a day with an iconic figure, living or past, who would it be?
My favorite artist, Josef Albers. He’s a color genius who has a way of making color talk. His pieces are usually just a few squares of different colors placed together that seem simple, but can have a fascinating effect. They can seem to melt together or dance around each other—sometimes making you feel dizzy.

A look at one of her finished designs.

Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter?
Instagram! Everything I do is so visual and it’s the best way to express what I’m working on and what inspires me.

And who are your three favorite Instagrammers?
@karenkimmel for unbelievable color.
@pauloctavious for shots with an element of surprise.
@mindykhaling for comic relief.

Can people visit your studio?
By appointment only, but definitely!

Photos by Nicole LaMotte

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