Impressing with Imprinting
When Andrea and Joe Lanich got married, Andrea, already an architect, designed their wedding invitations. The project was so satisfying, she decided this sort of work might be enjoyable to do on the side. Then she learned about letterpress printing and was immediately intrigued. Together with design, it used some of the same detail-oriented skills she’d trained in. She and her husband, who worked as a robotics engineer, decided they might invest in a small tabletop printing press and run it just for fun. After a short search, they discovered other letterpress enthusiasts and presses for sale.
Then living in New Jersey, the couple discovered a printer who lived only twenty minutes away. He had a sort of museum—“It was in his garage with everything he’d ever saved in his life!” Andrea says. After seeing his collection, “we decided we would go big or go home.” A short time later they encountered an older man with a letterpress for sale, one he’d mostly used for small jobs like numbering tickets. He was ready to retire, and, “he wanted to see them go to someone who would use them. So we bought everything we’d start our business with for 100 dollars, and set up in our garage.” For two years they printed things as a hobby after their work.
Finding it as rewarding as they’d hoped it would be, they decided to quit their day jobs.
“We could do it full time, but not in New Jersey because of cost of living,” Andrea continues. So, seven years ago, they moved to McKean County where Andrea grew up and set up shop in their garage in Kane. They built their brand through the Etsy marketplace and online sales, bought more machines, then rented a storefront in 2014. The business continued to grow, and in 2016 they purchased a historic department store building and expanded some more.
Today they have eight large, heavy, letterpress printers—some weigh as much as a ton. One of their initial renovation tasks was reinforcing the first floor by adding a load-bearing wall in the cellar. Their oldest and quietest press dates from 1908. It’s treadle powered, so work is cycled by foot. The newer printers—their newest is of 1960s vintage—feed the paper in automatically, run on electricity, and, of course, are noisier.
Work printed by letterpress has the imprint of a job done by hand. Words or designs are literally pressed into the paper, unlike the inked words and images floating on the surface of the paper in this magazine. “You kind of have to hold it in your hand to see it,” Andrea says. “You can feel the impression of the printing on the paper, it’s so crisp. Hand someone a card and you can see them feeling it as you talk.”
Letterpress printing can be distinctive in additional ways—the transparency of the ink becomes a factor in the design, meaning at times using two colors means getting three where the colors intentionally overlap. The nature of the ink means words have to be placed away from the flow of color, and type has to be large enough for clarity. It also means every job can be custom-designed to fit its purpose, whether that’s thousands of imprinted coasters for a bar or a wedding that are printed and cut to size in the same process, or a special business card where the ink has to be a particular custom-mixed color.
Most of Laughing Owl’s work orders arrive via the Internet, which means they’re often designing, printing, and mailing to customers who know their work but have never met them face to face. “The area we’re in, the cost of living isn’t too bad, so we can be very competitive on pricing,” notes Andrea. “That’s our advantage. We ship a lot to California and New York, even internationally.” Some requests have been unexpected, like the Canadian customer who wanted them to print and die-cut six different original shapes for air fresheners. “One was a samurai,” she says. Luckily, they can create dies digitally, but “I don’t know how they got the scent on,” she muses.
A large segment of their business has to do with wedding printing. “The invitations are the first glimpse of your wedding for the guests,” she says. Many brides work with Pinterest boards and then share them with her so she can get a sense of their aesthetic. This also finds the business on the cutting edge of wedding trends—“Last year everyone was getting huge invitations!” For the big day, they might also be printing wineglass stem tags or tags to go over the top of a beer bottle for those couples whose weddings feature craft beer, little notebooks as favors, door hangers for guest rooms, or favor bags. “As long as it can go on paper, we can do it,” she says. “We can do anything we want on the computer and still print it on a press that’s 100 years old.”
The paper, too, can add variety, though the presses are happier with machine-made paper that looks handmade rather than the unevenness of the real thing. One customer wanted paper thick enough to cast a shadow on the table it sat on; sometimes customers will send paper with their order. Sourcing unusual paper is part of the fun. And they have to love their work—at the time of their last expansion, they were both still working seven days a week.
“I was nine months pregnant [with their second son] when we bought the building we’re in now, and we were just starting the renovations. I came home from the hospital after having Henry and went back to printing.” Now things are a bit easier and she no longer needs to work every single day. “We’ve got such a good team now!” she enthuses.
Expansion thoughts continue to engage the couple’s imagination. Because they’ve got the space, they’ve considered offering printing classes and workshops. They also have yet to set up a long-planned retail area offering printed products and village souvenirs for sale. “Kane is going through a resurgence,” Andrea says. “People may want souvenirs about Laughing Owl Press, cards, and other fun stuff we can think of.”
But for the moment, they’re concentrating on the more, um, pressing business of custom work. Visit the business at 59 N. Fraley Street, Kane, at laughingowlpress.com, or call (814) 561-1191.