What happens when you combine equal parts Rust Belt work ethic and Texan attitude? You get Triple Threat Press, relative new kids on the block known for their salty sense of humor and love of really, really, really old machines. Run by Ohio natives Dave Koen and Laura Drapac, Triple Threat Press is on a mission to reintroduce Ohio to it's historic maker past one letterpress at a time. They've just added a fifth machine to their fleet of presses, which you can find working it's ass off in their Slavic Village studio. Interested in how they're taking the old and making it new again? Follow along in their Maker Series interview below!
Cleveland Flea: Tell us about the roles you each play in the business.
Dave Koen & Laura Drapac: Dave is in the Triple Threat Press studio every day, and acts as designer, printer’s devil, product photographer, webmaster, and janitor. Laura has a full-time job as the Event Coordinator for The Cleveland Flea, but keeps Triple Threat Press as her side hustle, where she is a designer, head printer, and hard-headed business babe.
CF: How would you describe your business in one sentence?
DK & LD: Triple Threat Press specializes in bridging the gap between traditional, letterpress printing and contemporary, computer-aided design.
CF: What was your path to beginning your business?
DK & LD: In 2012 Laura graduated from the University of North Texas with a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking. When she graduated, she lost access to the university’s print lab and decided that an in-home studio was the solution. While scanning Craigslist one morning before Laura left for her teaching job she found a little press listed, which we rescued from a barn in Sanger, Texas later that day. It was in pretty bad shape, so much so that the joints had seized. It was completely covered in rust. There were parts missing. Thankfully, the combination of Laura’s experience and Dave’s elbow grease allowed us to completely disassemble, clean, reassemble, and restore the press to working order. Although we purchased four other presses after that, our original 5x8 Kelsey Excelsior press–named “Pretty Girl”–served as our workhorse until the beginning of May, when we were finally able to get our most recently acquired press up and running.
CF: Why do you love what you do?
DK & LD: Letterpress is the intersection of art and mechanics. It activates the left and right brains simultaneously, which means that we’re rarely bored.
CF: Why does Cleveland need a business like this?
DK & LD: Cleveland has a rich printmaking history. The Chandler and Price corporation, which manufactured the most popular commercial letterpress of the 20th century, was founded in Cleveland in 1881 and operated here until 1964.
While there are quite a few Cleveland-based fine art printmakers, studios, and custom-design businesses that offer letterpress printed items, not many of them offer consumer products. We think that letterpress is the perfect medium to create art for the masses. That’s why we sell our items in retail situations for an affordable price. We’ve intentionally decided to create goods that could be priced within the budget of most people who live in Cleveland. Our art is accessible, nostalgic, and affordable by design.
CF: Why is Cleveland a great place to run a creative business?
DK & LD: Cleveland’s history of being home to communities of working class makers created the current culture of support for creative entrepreneurs. That–combined with the affordable cost of living–has made Cleveland a city where creative small business owners can not only earn a liveable wage, but thrive as well.
CF: What's the best part of running your own business?
DK & LD: Laura says that the best part of running your own business is setting your own hours. Dave says it’s picking what candy goes in the candy dish. Obviously we have divergent priorities.
CF: What's your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
DK & LD: A lot of people think that to start your own business that you need to be an expert at everything related to that business… but the secret is that most of us don’t know how to do it all, but it still has to get done somehow!
CF: What are your goals for the business this year?
DK & LD: Our number one goal this year is to get our most recently acquired press up and running. Thanks to our landlord/friend Anthony Trzaska at Sonny Day Development and Keith Berger at Cranky Pressman we're finally able to realize that dream! Our new baby is a Gordon Oldstyle press made by Schneidewend & Lee around the turn of the last century… but for the non letterpress nerds out there that means that we’ll be able to create bigger work faster, and in larger quantities than we could previously produce. The pie-in-the-sky goal is to collaborate a bit more with local vendors… maybe it’s not so far off? We’re releasing our newest product collaboration with Sweet Dish and Darling this month!
CF: Did you see yourself growing up to be a creative vendor?
DK & LD: We were both creative kids. Laura did a lot of theater, played the violin, sang in choirs, and drew all the time. Dave was a musician and a photographer, which meant he grew up designing show posters for his own bands. You could say that we’ve been on artistic trajectories for our entire lives. As far as business goes… it wasn’t something that Laura saw herself getting tangled up in, but Dave actually went to college to study entrepreneurship.
CF: What's the first big moment where you knew you were headed in the right direction with your business?
DK & LD: We had sold during events for a year before we got into brick-and-mortar retail, and it was another year before we made the leap into wholesale. Surprisingly, within two weeks of opening our online wholesale storefront we received an order from John Frechette at MADE in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At the time MADE was American Express’ official small business storefront for Small Business Saturday, and it blew our minds how someone who had never met us could have such a positive impact on our business.
CF: Who inspires you?
DK & LD: So many of the artists who inspire us go uncredited, mostly because the makers in our field were considered strictly tradesmen up until the mid 1900s. They weren’t promised credit, and for lots of people printing was just a job… so we’re not always sure who we’re inspired by because there aren’t many names that accompany our favorite eye candy. We can tell you that we’re always referencing 1900’s patent artists, imagery from pulp magazines and book covers, OG sign painters, textbook botanical illustrations, and album art from the 1940s to present day.
That being said, we’re mobilized by the makers who surround us to be better. Every day we look to our creative businessowner friends to get off of our asses: Rachel Elise Handbags, Starr Studios, Jude Landry, Shawna Smyth Studio, Cranky Pressman. We could write an entire book about all of the talented the folks around us… but we can’t forget to mention our moms. HI MOMS! Thanks for literally making us who we are.
CF: What's one thing people would be surprised to learn about your business?
DK & LD: We actually started our business in Denton, Texas before moving back to Cleveland in 2016.
CF: Have you learned anything about your business by participating in Cleveland Flea?
DK & LD: The most evident lesson that we learned at The Flea is how important the community of people around you is to the success of your business. When they do well, you do well (and vice versa). The connections we had in Texas from Laura’s grad program, our neighbors, and our local brick-and-mortars were what made us such a strong business.
Relocating to Ohio meant not only finding a new customer base, but also rebuilding a local vendor support network. We really do need each other, and it’s our good luck to be a part of such an innovative group of people here in Cleveland.
CF: What's your favorite piece of advice as it relates to your business?
DK & LD: Do no harm, but take no shit. We even made a print of it! To elaborate: be nice and people will be nice back… unless they aren’t. Give them a second chance, but don’t let yourself get trampled. Sometimes it’s important to respectfully end a business relationship when it’s not balanced. Otherwise resentment can fester. Nothing good can come from that kind of a relationship. You’ll be happier later, and you might even be able to be personal friends after that because you were able to make that hard business decision.
CF: How would you hope to hear your business described by your dream customers?
DK & LD: A lot of our customers shop with us because they love our processes, and we really get a kick out of listening to them describe how our press works to their friends and family. Someone once said “It’s just magical!”... we’re pretty sure that’s as good as it gets!
CF: What are your favorite booths at the Flea?
DK & LD: When we eat at The Flea, we always hit up Pierogi Lady. Laura’s family makes thousands of pierogi every Christmas for dinner, but sometimes it’s nice to have someone else make them when a craving rears it’s head. In vintage there’s a tie between Rook Modern (their furniture really gels with our own home’s interior design) and Black Kitten Vintage (Dave gets lost in their selection of vintage cameras). When it comes to handmade, we’re process people and nobody has a more unique process than Deanna of Cleveland Street Glass!