Britt Rohr of Swell Press Paper
On running a letterpress studio and navigating a healthy work/life balance.
photography by COURTNEY RAY
introduction by KIM CONWAY
This interview was originally published in Issue Two.
Letterpress wasn’t always in the stars for Britt Rohr of Swell Press Paper, but her first hands-on opportunity with a press left her instantly hooked, “It was totally kismet.” What began as a creative outlet quickly flourished into a full-time letterpress business. Named after one of the many local elements that influence her work, Swell Press expanded from its home in Britt’s garage into a “unicorn” of a studio in LA—there, you’ll find a number of presses, a wall full of clipboards, and a busy Britt, who just might be in the midst of demonstrating ink mixing for her Instagram following.
Britt’s love of letterpress lies in what makes her style so distinct: the “deep bite” of her impressions, the colors and textures of her beachy atmosphere, and her passion for creating something that’s tangible. She’s still working out the kinks in operating her business as both a designer and a printer, but as Swell Press continues to grow, Britt’s focus is on attracting clients who trust her vision.
From noticing color combinations in the wild and playing with layers to practicing unusual techniques and thinking of ways to push the limits of design, curiosity is what fuels Britt’s creative fire—but ultimately, she values design that “keeps the method in mind.
In our conversation, Britt gets honest about the realities of balancing two full-time jobs, how she’s navigating her way toward a healthier work/life balance, and the importance of not getting lost in the comparison game—something she still has to remind herself of as well, she notes. Read on to learn more about how she fell (and continues to fall) in love with the art of letterpress, what inspires her design process, and why she starts her mornings with a visit to her happy place—the swells of Manhattan Beach.
Tell us about the origins of Swell Press and what led you to explore letterpress!
I’ve always been kind of artsy. When I went to college, I wanted to be an art major to explore it more, but I was encouraged to do something a little more practical, so I studied advertising with a minor in film studies. I moved to LA and got a job at a production company, worked my way up there for a couple years, and put my love of art and crafts on the back burner. Around 2008, when blogs started coming out, I dove back into my love of appreciating artistic stuff. I started making wedding invitations for friends just for fun and I taught myself Adobe Illustrator in my down time. And then I took a class in letterpress—it was totally kismet.
A friend and colleague of mine found this place up in LA and told me, “You should take a lesson!” I didn’t really know what letterpress was, but I had this piece of paper from a jewelry company that I knew was letterpress—it was thick with the words pressed in and I was obsessed with it. So I took the class with Mable Lee of Lala Press. When I got there, I saw she had this studio with these antique machines and after seeing the whole process, I was completely hooked. I was enamored. And it sounds cheesy, but the second I had that first roll through the letterpress, it was as if the heavens parted—like this is what you should do!
She also did press rentals, so I continued exploring and seeing which friends I could print wedding invitations for. I finally decided to buy a press—kind of on a whim, but I found myself limited by having to drive an hour north to go print and I wanted the freedom to play around with it more. Presses are really hard to find. I looked for six months and finally found one on eBay. I remember the moment I bid on it—it was so nerve wracking! Once I bought the press, I changed my garage into a studio.
I enrolled in Otis College of Art & Design and took two semesters of letterpress while my press was still wrapped up in my garage—I was scared to even unwrap it. Otis really taught me the fundamentals and the basics of letterpress and in the meantime, I started an Instagram, really as just a hobby and an outlet. I thought oh, it would be awesome if I could do this full-time one day, but I never really had a plan laid out. It was just fun!
At what point did you make that hypothetical “one day” a reality? Was it a difficult transition?
I started getting a lot of traction from Instagram, so I was full-time exploring Swell Press while still working in my super stressful production job. I didn’t have a life for a couple years—I had two full-time jobs and every weekend, I was pressing. I’m very fortunate I still have friends that want to talk to me! For a long time (longer than I ever let on on Instagram or to my friends), I wanted to seem like I was very professional and everything, but really I was scrambling and struggling to balance two full-time jobs. It was only about a year and a half ago that I quit production. Now I try to be more transparent about it. At the same time, I’m so lucky that I’ve always had a really hardcore work ethic, like to a flaw. When I was building Swell Press, it wasn’t my main source of income. Any money for Swell Press I used just for Swell Press. As I built the business and formed my look and my design aesthetic, I wasn’t really beholden to clients or doing jobs I didn’t want to do. I think I was really lucky in that regard—that I wasn’t financially dependent on it.
When you started your Instagram handle, did you call yourself Swell Press Paper?
Yes, I started as that. I had a cloud album that I would send out to friends of friends when they wanted invitations done and that was it. Finally my husband said, “You need to get a website and an Instagram.” We live in a pink house, so we thought let’s call it Pink House Press. Ironically enough, I actually hate the color pink. I’m not very girly, so I didn’t want to do that. My husband was the one who said, “Why don’t you call it Swell Press?” because we live by the ocean—and the ocean and the beach are really important to me. So it’s swell, like an ocean swell—which a lot of people don’t know. I’m not really a “gee, golly, that’s swell” person.
Aside from having a larger space to work from, what have you found most beneficial about growing into a studio?
The biggest thing with moving into a studio is that I was able to get help. I’d always had people offering to intern, but I was working out of my house and there was barely room for me in the garage, let alone another body. Having help outside of myself has proven to be the most beneficial thing I’ve done in growing the business. It’s really hard because I’m not just a printer—I’m also a designer. I could spend all day, every day, designing and that’s kind of what you have to do to do new work, but then you have to execute the designs and print—so there’s a cap to how much I can do. I trained one of my former interns, Kate, to be an incredibly skilled presswoman and she’s a rockstar—one of those people who is good at everything. She’s so valuable to me. When I’m designing, my other work can also be executed, which is huge. We also switch around, she does some design edits for me and I still love to print. In February, I hired my client services coordinator, Caroline, for a remote position—basically to handle client correspondence and all of our initial inquiries and emails. And that, again, has totally changed my life.
Has moving your office from your garage at home to a separate studio space enhanced your work/life balance?
My intention with the studio space was that I would start having a “normal” life, to kind of have that separation. I would be lying if I said I’ve achieved that yet—I’m still working crazy hours, but that’s the goal in mind, is that I will have that work/life balance and that my work stays at the studio. But being a creative, my mind is always buzzing with ideas. It’s hard, you can’t really ever turn that off, as I’m sure a lot of people understand. Some of my ideas, I’m in the middle of watching TV or dinner with my husband and I’m like wait! I’ve got an idea, where’s my notebook? So you can’t really turn that off.
Can you give us a little tour around your studio? What’s included in your space?
I’ve got four presses right now. My two working presses are Vandercooks, which is a flatbed cylinder press—that’s the kind I learned on and the only kind I’ve printed on. The other two presses are Chandler & Prices and they’re the kind that are really beautiful and antique from the late 1800’s/early 1900’s with the wheel and the treadle that you see. My goal is to have my husband to learn how to use them. I also have two paper cutters—one is a giant hydraulic paper cutter that has changed my life because it’s automatic, while the other is a manual guillotine from the 1800’s. And then I have my desk, a desk for Kate, and a workstation for quality control and assembling.
How many projects would you say you have going on at once? What does your workflow look like?
Slowly as I go, I’m figuring out the workflow. I have a whole wall of clipboards and anytime a project comes in—not an inquiry, but when a project is booked and they pay their deposit—it gets a clipboard. Each project gets a number and follows the stages from designing and editing to ordering the plates and printing. We have 24 clipboards and they’re usually all full, but projects are at various stages. Some weeks are a lot busier than others. Last week, we sent off five projects. This week we’ll probably send off five more big wedding suites. Sometimes it’s a lot of smaller ones. It changes!
Take us through a day in the life of Britt and Swell Press. What does a typical day look like from start to finish?
I wake up between 6:30 and 7AM, drink my coffee, check my email, and walk down to the beach—I either go for a run, have a meditation session, or go for a walk. I really try to get out there and see the water and have that moment to just center. I’ve realized that is really important for my mental health. Then I’ll answer a few more emails and head into the studio around 10AM to meet Kate. We work away all day between printing, press checks, designing, and editing. When I’m coming up with a design from scratch and it’s fully custom, I typically do that at night when I’m alone. Some nights I’m lucky enough that I can shut my computer off at 6PM and not open it until the next morning. Those nights feel like a treat and I think they’re there to remind me of the life that I want! I’m still in the first year and a half of doing this full-time and I’m learning how to work out all the kinks.
What might readers be surprised to learn about the letterpress process?
A lot of people are surprised by how laborious every stage of the process is. We do have a manual feed press, so that adds a little bit of labor versus a Heidelberg or an automatic press, but everything takes a lot of time and every little piece of the process is so precise and meticulous. When I have people in the studio for a lesson, a lot of them comment that there’s more math involved than they thought—it’s everywhere from cutting down the paper and weighing the ink, to measuring the plate and getting the rollers set to the right height. It’s funny, I loved math and I never thought that I would come around to find a career that uses it so much!
Your website says, “We live to create—not just produce.” What does that creation process look like for you?
I love everything about the creation process. The part that excites me most is—whether it’s a client that has the budget that allows it or the client that has the vision that trusts me—when I have the freedom to really think not so myopically about paper and an invitation, but what is this entire experience going to be like? How is this going to unfold from the envelope? What else can I do beyond just paper? Is there something that’s laser cut? Is there something else that’s in there? What can I do to make this interesting?
As an art form, what is it about letterpress specifically that you’re obsessed with?
It’s funny, the reason why I love it is not what letterpress should actually be. Letterpress traditionally is: you lay down the type, roll a piece of paper through it, and get a kiss impression. It’s not a deep bite—but that’s why I love it. When I was in school at Otis, I would put thick paper in and I would add a lot of packing to get that pillowy impression and the teachers would get so mad at me! They would be terrified that I was going to break the press! Even now, after all these years of doing it, I love when you get everything set perfectly and you pull the paper off the press and it’s that deep impression. I just love it! I don’t know if it’s a sensorial thing or something?
How much of what you create is directed by a client coming to you asking, “This is my vision, can you make it happen?” versus you saying, “I would love to try this, this seems like the perfect job for it”? Are you attracting clients that have a good sense of what they want and are trusting you with that?
I think it’s a healthy combination. There was a save-the-date client I just had and I was obsessed with the design. I realized I was designing it for three colors, but they had only paid for two. I told them I love this design, I’m just gonna do the third color, on me—which is not good business, but I love it! I think the further along I get, I’m attracting clients that have more trust in what I do. I create my best work when I’m given no real constraints. Some of my most popular designs and my best-selling designs have been clients that completely trust me and let me do whatever I want. I think I’m fortunate in that, as I’m progressing, I’m getting more of those types of clients.
What does the process look like between a paid deposit and the first round of printing?
We have two levels of design: our stock designs that are shoppable on our website and our custom designs. For fully custom projects, most initial correspondence is with Caroline. She makes sure that their vision is something I’d be on board with. I feel more comfortable now saying “no” to things just as much as I do saying “yes.” It takes a lot of creative energy for me to create something out of nothing. I create my best work when I’m excited about it and that, in turn, makes my client happy. I really try to honor that.
Once they’ve paid the deposit, I start going through all of the notes from the emails and really look at their vision. The initial design phase usually takes a couple weeks, depending on the complexity of their design. From there, it’s working pretty closely with the bride, going back and forth, doing edits. Once we’re locked into a design and have our plate proof, it gets put up on a clipboard and that’s what we look at when we’re printing—it has our colors and paper stacks and all of that stuff. We order the specialty paper when the plate proof comes in, then the plates are ordered and it gets scheduled into our press schedule.
You often share stages of the letterpress process on Instagram stories—has your online community influenced the way you approach that process? What kind of feedback do you receive from your followers when you let them see behind the scenes?
There have been times in building the business where it’s been really, really hard—making money is hard, having a balance is hard, not working myself to death is hard. And there have been times when, if it wasn’t for the support of the Instagram community, I probably would’ve thrown in the towel by now. There were days a year ago when I thought maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I should go back to production… but I can’t let all those people down! I get a lot of questions about the process and that’s why, whether the videos are on Youtube or Instagram TV, I really want to make a conscious effort to start documenting it and making it more of a learning resource—which has its own insecurities, because sometimes I’m like I’ve only been doing this for like four years, who am I to teach people?
How would you describe your design aesthetic? What elements and/or techniques do you think best represent your passion for letterpress?
Sometimes I have a hard time with this because my style is everywhere. It’s all over the map—I love something that’s totally maximalist, like a ton of color and really pushing the limits in design. And then I also love really restrained, beautiful type on a piece of paper. I think that’s why I started letterpressing, because I just love the look of simple type beautifully impressed on paper. I always joke that it’s funny that I’m known for color, because my first love of letterpress was gray—I wanted to do everything in gray because I thought the letterpress method itself was so pretty. At the end of the day, hopefully it’s all beautiful design that keeps the method in mind. I’m so curious and I always want to push the limits of what can be done. I think my passion is represented in my curiosity and how I’m really driven by exploring different mediums—not just paper and ink.
Your work is heavily influenced by nature, especially the beach and the ocean. What is it about those elements that inspires you to reflect them in what you create?
Oh, I love them! The beach is my happy place. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but I’ve always loved the water. I’m so lucky that I live right by the beach in Manhattan Beach. That’s truly what’s shaped the colors that I love and everything—the colors of the sunset and the colors of the ocean. A lot of the work I do is driven by the landscape of the area, that’s why I love destination weddings! You want to get your guests excited about going to this place. What specifically, besides celebrating your love of course, is there to get pumped about? Is it that it’s going to be a desert location? Then let’s play with the cacti element. Is it going to be in the mountains? Let’s explore that. I’m clearly very affected by my environment. If I lived in Washington state, I’m sure all of my stuff would be greens!
How do you move past creative blocks?
Usually, I have a chat with a client, I get millions of ideas running through my head, I get super pumped about the job, and then I go to put it down on paper and it’s just a block. Nothing is coming out how I want it to and there’s a disconnect there. Or I have nothing. I’m looking at a blank screen and I start to freak out and question if I’m good. And then I finally push through it and once I get going, it happens. I guess you could say the creative process used to “torment” me, but that part where I’m staring at the screen and I think I suck and that I’m not going to be able to do it—now that I know it’s part of the process, I can deal with it better.
What keeps you inspired?
I very intently try not to look at what other letterpressers and designers are doing. Information is so out there for everyone. I think you can see something, then you don’t even remember you’ve seen it and it comes back to you and you think it’s an original idea. Sometimes I see stuff online that looks really close to what I’m doing and I get kind of bummed, but then I’m like who’s to say that I’m not the only person with this idea?
Living at the beach is a huge inspiration for me. One of my best-selling suites is called Tropical Minimalism, it has blind emboss palm trees around the side. I got that from looking at the shadow of a palm tree. Recently, I was pulling out of the house and saw my neighbor’s garbage can had a box in it with this amazing color combination. I was in a huge hurry, so I called my husband and I was like our neighbors—you need to go outside and take a picture of their trash can. They’ve got this box and it has this amazing color scheme on there. It’s the color combination and the way colors play off of each other—in letterpress, you can overlap colors and there are a lot of ways to play with that, so that’s always fun to me. I love experimenting, pushing the limits, and seeing what I can do.
What advice would you give someone who might be interested in starting their own letterpress company?
Don’t look at someone else and what they have and think that they’ve got it all figured out or wonder why you’re not at that part yet. I think there are people that look at me just because I have a bunch of Instagram followers and think that I’m the most successful person ever, as far as running a business. But there are people who have a small fraction of the followers I have who have a far more successful, streamlined business.
My biggest advice to anyone is not to get into that comparison game. That’s something that I always have to remind myself too. What other people and I are posting on Instagram is the fruit of our labor. You really have to love the labor and I think the reason why I’ve been successful—by successful, I mean I was able to quit my job and start a company without going into debt and support myself full-time from it—is because I have a relentless curiosity and work ethic. Not getting discouraged to the point of quitting—because I’ve been discouraged a lot—is the only reason why I’m still here and still doing this. Because I’ve pushed through it.
Barbara Corcoran said, “The difference between successful people and others is how long they spend time feeling sorry for themselves.” And I think that’s true. I’ve failed and I still fail, but I don’t look at it that way, I look at it as alright, this is a lesson. Everything I’ve done the wrong way, I have taken a really, really important lesson from it. That’s my biggest advice as well, someone can sit here and help you get on your feet, but nothing is going to replace work ethic and being scrappy in your pursuit of finding out what works. I think if you don’t have that, it’s not going to work out.
Outside of the studio, what are some things you do to fill yourself back up? How would you describe a perfect weekend away from work?
I’d be outside all the time, I’m obsessed with that! I do love to travel, explore new things, and be in beautiful locations—I just did a wedding invitation for The Parker Hotel in Palm Springs. I’ve never been there, so after doing that invitation, I was like I’m booking a night there. I love getting inspiration from my surroundings, which is why I love where I live so much! Honestly, we’re right on the beach and I’m so lucky. I love being able to go down to the water. Every day I try to go for a walk or a run on the sand, but if I can’t make it, there’s a bench just a couple steps away from the ocean. I try to go there every morning to kind of reflect, practice gratitude, and try not to really think of work in a to-do list way, but in a more broad-spectrum way. It’s a lot of giving myself pep talks.
I realize that I do a better job when I’m not burnt out, I’m sure like everyone, but this is something that has taken me years to learn. I met with a business coach and she asked, “What’s your goal?” I told her, “I would love to work 40 hours a week.” She looked at me and said, “Most people say their goal is to work 10 hours a week.” And I was like, “No, I work 80 to 100 hours a week. I would love to work 40 hours a week.” That’s what I’m hoping to get to. I’m actually starting to have weekends now. This past weekend my husband and I went roller skating (he didn’t roller skate, I did) all the way down to the next beach town and it was really nice, just enjoying the beauty of where we live.
I’m looking forward to having more time to do what I love, which is to think of ideas, make them, and bring them to life. That is my favorite part of what I do—having an idea hit me when I’m running on the beach and then being able to bring that all the way from a spark of an idea to a finished product.