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Inside L.A.’s oldest letterpress printer beloved by celebs, from Oprah to Jon Hamm

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Surviving in an obsolete industry as long as Aardvark Letterpress has requires fundamental elements of entrepreneurship. Skill, dedication, creativity and professionalism are essential. General manager and co-owner Cary Ocon returns to another theme that’s kept what’s now the city’s oldest letterpress print shop running since 1968.

“Dumb luck,” he says.

Brothers Brooks and Cary Ocon on the floor of Aardvark Letterpress.

A test negative taped to the window of Aardvark's office.

The lack of pretense and polish here belies the pedigree of much of Aardvark’s client base. Entertainment, fashion, art and other creative industries converge at the unlikely corner of 7th and Carondelet streets overlooking the southwest edge of MacArthur Park. Both basic and technically complex, making letterpress goods is a process that involves the physical act of pressing inked plates onto paper using mechanical presses in a manner that literally leaves a deeper impression.

A look through samples of artful work imprinted with boldfaced names and known entities from Apple to Rihanna’s Fenty Corp. to Valentino to Billie Eilish reveals the many layers of exceptionalism at work that inspire trusting partnerships. When actor and producer Jamie Lee Curtis established her production company Comet Pictures in 2019, “Aardvark Letterpress helped me start off with a strong logo and design,” she shares via text message. “I’m grateful for their expertise and guidance.”

In addition to relying on Aardvark to help shape their professional image and branding, people come here for a richly tactile experience. Personally printed matter made with this level of care has a way of inspiring connection and celebration.

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“Cary and the team at Aardvark represent that sadly disappearing sector of tradecraft in the current culture,” actor Jon Hamm says via email. “Singularly, almost maniacally, devoted to one thing, they practice an attention to detail that is as precise and exacting as it is gorgeous in its finished quality.”

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“We were typographers before we were printers,” Cary says, pointing to the hulking Intertype brand typography machine dating from the early 20th century that stands in one of the shop windows. With its complex movements that cast lead into a mold to form letters, leaving piles of shavings that get repurposed, it’s the original piece of equipment Cary’s father, Luis Ocon, obtained when he bought Aardvark Typographers 56 years ago in its previous location on Grand View Avenue.

The atmosphere is earnest and soulful, imbued with the makings of a one-act play setting and populated with a cast of characters. Gently sarcastic Cary handles overall management duties, while technically minded Brooks Ocon is the hands-on printing expert, alongside laser-focused master printer Bill Berkuta. Derek Pettet, a friend of Cary’s since the fourth grade, adds to the familiar dynamic.

Brooks Ocon aligns a block for printing.

Brooks Ocon aligns a block for printing.

Master Printer Bill Berkuta prints an order for a customer.

Master Printer Bill Berkuta prints an order for a customer.

Another moment of good timing came in 1988 when Brooks went to run an errand at H.G. Daniels art supply store on 6th Street. He couldn’t find what he was looking for, so he was directed to McManus & Morgan Fine Art Paper nearby. Brooks noticed a “for lease” sign in an adjacent storefront inside the detailed 1924 Spanish Colonial Revival-style Westlake Square Building designed by architect Everett H. Merrill. It struck him as an ideal place for Aardvark to put down new roots, and his father agreed.

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“This was the original art district,” Cary notes, referencing the erstwhile concentration of art schools in the area. Otis Art Institute (later renamed Otis College of Art and Design), the ArtCenter School (ArtCenter College of Design) and Chouinard Art Institute, which was the predecessor of CalArts, were clustered within blocks of each other before relocating to their respective campuses. Multiple art supply stores catered to the student population.

The initial period of Aardvark Letterpress becoming a studio whose services are prized among glitterati clientele like Oprah Winfrey and art galleries and fashion houses, however, was not so smooth.

Print of deceased founder Luis Ocon at Aardvark's entrance.

A print of founder Luis Ocon at Aardvark’s entrance.

A view of Aardvark from South Carondelet Street.

A view of Aardvark from South Carondelet Street.

A self-taught newspaper Linotype operator who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico City, Luis Ocon’s purchase of Aardvark Typographers from his former boss Ken Matson coincided with the early adoption of computerized typesetting. “The business just started to nosedive because no one’s doing metal type anymore,” Cary explains. A customer suggested they learn to print in order to adapt to the changing times. “We got our first press and stumbled our way through letterpress printing,” Cary recalls.

While Cary was earning degrees at UC Berkeley and the University of Minnesota and then embarked on what would be an unsatisfying law career, Brooks and Luis were “struggling” to keep Aardvark afloat. Patriarch Luis, who passed away last year at the age of 86, was their stepfather who raised them as his own after meeting their mother, Helen, when Luis and Helen worked at the Holland House Cafeteria in what was Britts Department Store across the street from the Original Farmers Market. (The Ocon brothers also have two sisters and a half-sister.)

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Decades before exclusive event planners trusted Aardvark Letterpress to create exquisite wedding invitations and noted artists such as Shepard Fairey partnered with the team on limited edition letterpress works, the business was hyper-local. Mariachi musicians would walk in on a Monday morning needing a fresh supply of business cards after a busy weekend promoting their talents.

Otis Art Institute in its original Westlake location accounted for the occasional job, and Gary Wolin, who still owns the century-old McManus & Morgan, referred customers who needed to print on the specialized papers he sold. The simpatico, closely connected businesses remain neighbors after Wolin downsized within the same building. (Newer tenants in the recently renovated property include taste-making firm Commune Design and Hannah Hoffman gallery.)

“We were a secret among graphic designers,” says Cary, who joined the business full time in 1998. Otis alumni would remember the old school print shop down the street, where the 1920s stencil-painted ceilings, multiple Heidelberg, Germany-made production presses, sturdy wooden drawers full of brass type in hundreds of fonts and other tools still serve as a portal to a pre-digital era.

One of Aardvark's six Heidelberg presses, vintage printing machines that apply designs directly to paper.

Because cultural tastes and trends have a way of being cyclical, toughing it out eventually paid off. Cary points to Martha Stewart’s championing of letterpress stationery as part of the reason why a revival came around in the early aughts. Aardvark was ready to meet new demand. “Again, it was dumb luck, because we had all the ability to set type.”

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In this analog environment computers are used to manage workflow, and a processor upstairs transfers digital design files to make polymer plates used for most jobs. (Aardvark turns to A&G Engraving in Vernon to fabricate photoengraver metal plates for select projects and fine art prints.) This team’s expertise remains unrivaled in L.A. To mix inks, for instance, Berkuta refers to the color recipes on his well-worn Pantone fan deck and then relies on his eye and experience. “I’m weighing it in my head,” he says about getting the ratios right.

“I have collaborated with the team at the Aardvark studio adjusting plate pressure, ink colors and translucency to achieve sublime effects that no other medium can deliver,” artist Fairey states via email.

A linotype detail.

A linotype detail.

A Marilyn Monroe print on foil.

A Marilyn Monroe print on foil.

“I consider the invitations, menus and other objects they provided for our wedding to be works of art. Turns out 100 years of experience is worth something!” Hamm adds.

Despite the accolades, Cary is upfront about the challenges of sustaining this artisan enterprise. “To even print a simple business card, it’s much more labor intensive, so we can’t do it for 50 bucks,” he explains. To keep evolving, he’s preparing to launch Aardvark Printworks, a collection of letterpress art featuring imagery such as artists’ renderings of L.A. landmarks.

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“I didn’t appreciate what we were doing,” Cary reflects about his earlier relationship to Aardvark Letterpress’ niche trade. “I see how it does move people.” Even if the family has yet to devise a clear succession plan for the future, the Ocons are proud of their legacy. “It’s something special. We’re thankful we can keep going,” Cary says.

Their impact reaches beyond Los Angeles. “I value a family business that keeps the craft of letterpress, an important printmaking tradition, alive and accessible to L.A. artists and businesses,” Fairey echoes.

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