Artist, business woman, and self-proclaimed queen bee at Steel Petal Press, Shayna Norwood is bringing the art of letterpress back into a digitally dominated world. Her passion for connecting people and making the world a more beautiful place has lead her to turn her love for art into a successful boutique letterpress shop that produces one of a kind designs that are as awe-worthy as they are environmentally conscious.
After moving to Chicago to pursue a MFA at Columbia College, Shayna began to sell her letterpress products under the name Steel Petal Press. Shayna soon opened an Etsy shop, and Steel Petal Press quickly took off. Her unique, custom, handmade products make a bold statement whether in the form of a wedding invitation, business card, or thoughtful note–making her a coveted name in the letterpress industry. Today, Shayna shares how she turned her love of art into a growing business, and how she finds balance as a designer, printer, and business woman.
Full name: Shayna Katherine Norwood
Location: Chicago IL
Current title/company: Owner, Designer, Printer, Queen Bee @ Steel Petal Press
Educational background: BFA Interdisciplinary Art + partial MFA
What was your first job out of college, and how did you land it?
I took a slightly different path than many people, by deciding to take a few years off in the middle of my college career. During that time I did any number of part-time jobs to pay the bills, from working at an art supply store to painting a mural to teaching after school art programs. I was 25 years old when I finally graduated from San Francisco Art Institute. My first job was a 6 month intern-residency at Women’s Studio Workshop in a tiny little town in New York state. I had to apply for the position with a portfolio, a statement of purpose and several letters of recommendation. There was a phone interview process and I was one of 3 interns accepted that season! It was an absolute dream come true! I was paid to work at an art studio full time and also had full access to their studio space after hours. I now realize how rare and special it was to have access to all that equipment and the wonderful and nurturing community of women artists that run the studio.
Your background is in Book and Paper Arts. What initially interested you in that discipline?
I love the multi-disciplinary nature of Book and Paper art. I also love its interactivity; the viewer has to pick the book up and turn the pages in order to fully experience the work. I also love the incorporation of words and text with images to tell stories and evoke emotions. Books are wonderful because as the viewer you enter and interact with them.
Take us through a brief career bio. What steps led you to where you are today?
It’s been a long and winding road, so I’ll give you the abbreviated story:
While finishing my BFA at San Francisco Art Institute I took my first class in book arts and fell in love. After graduating I was immediately accepted to the six-month internship at Women’s Studio Workshop where I was immersed in artist books, papermaking, silk screening, and letterpress printing. After WSW I took a few more years off, moving around, applying for grants, volunteering and traveling.
I was accepted to graduate school in the MFA Book and Paper Program at Columbia College which brought me to Chicago in 2008. Letterpress was a huge part of that program. While still in graduate school I started printing and selling cards under the name Steel Petal Press as a part-time side-project. Sadly the program didn’t work out and I left after a year. However Steel Petal Press remained an active, yet part time part of my life. In the years that followed I applied for more grants, helped start a community garden, and planned my own wedding. Another year later and I was ready to give it a shot and devote my attention to making Steel Petal Press my full time job. Luckily it worked out! I am in love with my job. I couldn’t think of a better marriage of my skill sets and interests.
You’ve worked in San Francisco and New York. Why did you choose to start Steel Petal Press in Chicago?
More happenstance, less of a conscious choice, Chicago just happened to be where I was living when things started to take off. However, there are several factors making Chicago an easier choice than in SF or NY. 50-100 years ago Chicago was the center of the printing world so these days it’s much easier likely to find old presses in people’s basements or in schools. (Vandercook, one of the main manufacturers of presses is buried in a graveyard on the north side of town.) Most importantly, space is much more affordable in Chicago which is SO important when starting out and needing a place to put those huge presses on a shoestring budget. I love Chicago, it’s been good to me and I’m glad things worked out the way they did.
A lot of your business is through your Etsy shop. Describe your experience with Etsy and its impact on your business. Would you recommend it to other artists who produce letterpress products?
Etsy is AMAZING for anyone who is just starting out and needs a way to get exposure and experience with a low overhead. In the beginning the majority of my sales were through Etsy. The site was instrumental in getting my business started and now still plays a significant role in how I find customers. It’s great because you don’t have to spend a lot of money building an e-commerce site or finding ways to drive traffic there. There’s a community of buyers and sellers already searching and shopping for unique handmade items.
As a business owner, what do you wish you would have known when starting Steel Petal Press?
I wish I knew more about actually running a business! As my business has grown I’ve taught myself what I need to know and I’m still learning something new every day. It’s definitely been a huge a learning process. But imagine how much time I could have saved if I started out knowing the basics!
The art world is very competitive. What characteristics do you think make you stand out as an artist and business woman?
The art world is tough. You have to have persistence, determination and the ability to continue to grow, evolve and change over time. I’m just soo glad I found letterpress printing which to me is a perfect blend of art, craft and commerce. I get my hands dirty in the studio, I’m able to be creative and, most importantly, I can make a living off it. These days my art (greeting cards and invitations) is much more democratic and accessible. It’s not hanging in a wall in a gallery or museum, it’s in people’s hands and a part of their lives. I am really passionate about what I do and I think that shows through in my work.
How did you initially market Steel Petal Press?
Etsy was a big part of my marketing in the beginning. It allowed me to reach a much larger audience that I would not have otherwise had access to. Also friends and family; I emailed everyone I knew and told them what I was doing, asked for their support and hoped they would help spread the word. I also sold at lot of local craft fairs around Chicago and I participated in Indie Wed, a small showcase of independent, local wedding vendors. As the business has grown I’ve relied heavily on social media, facebook, pinterst, blogging, twitter and my monthly newsletter. I’ve been written up in blogs and magazines. This May I’ll be heading to the National Stationery Show in New York for the first time, which is a huge step for me professionally.
Beauty, Connections, and Education are the three primary components of you mission statement. Tell us a little more about those three components. How are they integrated on a day-to-day basis?
Beauty and connections explain how my products exist in the world
My favorite quote says: “In such an ugly time the real protest is beauty.” I believe that even in it’s small way, beautiful letterpress and good design can help bring beauty into the world and make it a better place.
The nature of stationery is to connect people through mail and through the written word. When someone puts pen to paper to write a note in a greeting card to send to someone, they are also connecting with the materials, the paper and the process of letterpress.
Education dictates how I, as a stationer and a letterpress printer, interact with the public. I really want to make myself available as a resource for knowledge on the history and craft of letterpress printing. It is one of the reasons I made the video (https://steelpetalpress.com/about/). Each time I have visitors or potential clients in the studio I always let the tour the studio, meet the presses and do a short demo of the process. I also see education as a connection to the process.
You are committed to using 100% recycled rag paper, rubber-based inks, and environmentally friendly cleanup methods. What led you to make this commitment? Does it pose any unique challenges?
I feel very strongly about making conscious decisions to preserve our delicate environment. For a while I really struggled with the fact that my business was adding more ‘things’ to our already overly consumptive and wasteful society. Committing to being as ‘green’ as possible definitely helps with some of my guilt. Luckily the paper and ink I use are relatively easy to use and to find. I’ve had a bit more trouble finding a rag service that will supply and wash dirty rags at the small scale that my shop requires. Luckily I found a guy willing to tack my little order onto a larger account and provide environmentally friendly cleaning for the solvents and the rags. Also my studio is in a building that still doesn’t provide a recycling service for its tenants. So twice a month I have to load up my car with paper scraps and drive them back to my house for recycling pick up.
In 2012 Steel Petal Press has seen tremendous growth and has been featured on Style Me Pretty, Inside Weddings, and Stationary Trends–just to name a few. All of your products are handmade on vintage presses, using a 1950s paper cutter. As your business continues to grow, how do you keep up with demand, while preserving the integrity of your products?
Each year I’ve had to add more equipment and more helpers. First I bought one press, then I bought the paper cutter, this past year I bought my second press. I’ve also been blessed with the help of several lovely interns. As my business grows I definitely plan on adding as many additional presses and helpers as needed. I want to keep as much of the production in house to ensure I can keep an eye on the quality and integrity of the products.
Your customer feed back is incredibly positive, both for your products and your customer service. How do you continue to provide such personalized service, while juggling all of your other roles within Steel Petal Press?
For me the quality of the customer service and the products are the most important, most fundamental parts of my business. If either of those components start to slip, there’s no amount of marketing or advertising that can save you. For me, customer service is the easy part. I have been blessed with the most amazing customers and I genuinely want them to be happy. I always try to do everything in my power to ensure they have the very best experience possible.
Small business owners are very busy, but you are not only the owner but also the designer and creator. How do you find time for balance when you’re involved in every facet of your business?
It has definitely been a struggle learning how to balance it all. Especially when I was starting out and my business was growing so quickly I could barely keep up. The first few years I ended up working 80+ hour weeks on a regular basis, but it didn’t take long to realize it was not a sustainable lifestyle; my health, social life and relationships were all suffering because of my work load. I really had to make streamlining my business a priority. I found ways to automate as many aspects of Steel Petal Press as possible. At the beginning of 2012 I moved into a larger studio giving me the extra space I needed to bring on two amazing interns. I was able to hand off some of the easier tasks to them and they are both still with me today. I seriously couldn’t do it without them and now they are like family to me.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up between 7-8am, I’ll either head to the gym or start working on emails. I try to get most of my computer work done in the first half of the day. I’ll write a blog post, spend some time on social media, respond to emails and work on any custom design orders. I head to the studio around 11am and spend the rest of the afternoon trimming paper, printing cards and invitations, shipping out orders, in client meetings and answering more emails. I usually finish up and head home around 6pm. I try not to spend time working too late into the night but sometimes I do find myself answering emails or doing more design work into the evening.
What is the best part of owning your own business? What is the most challenging?
I love it! I even love the challenging parts – I think I have to or else I wouldn’t have made it this far. I love the freedom I have on a day to day basis to work my own schedule. I love the sense of accomplishment that comes in knowing my successes are a direct result of my own hard work.
Right now it’s really difficult for me to take any actual vacations. If I’m not around then things don’t get done. If I head out of town I still end up doing some work remotely almost every day.
What advice would you give an artist who is thinking about starting his or her own business?
Do it because you love it; and you REALLY have to LOVE it. There’s very little glamour and a LOT of hard work involved. Follow your heart and trust your own instincts. Stay true to yourself, your aesthetic, and ideals. Don’t ever give up.
Best moment of your career so far?
Seeing my work in print on the pages of Stationery Trends and Inside Weddings.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Keep on doing what you’re doing. Have fun, work hard and you’ll figure it out eventually.
Shayna is offering a 20% discount for Everygirl readers on everything in the Steel Petal Press Etsy Shop. Enter the code EVERYGIRL20 on checkout.