Paper Chase Press, now in its 43rd year, is a force and fixture of the Los Angeles art world. Located on Sunset Boulevard, in the heart of Hollywood, the printer counts among its clients everyone from Commune Design to Adidas and MoCA. Still, it’s no small feat to be a thriving print business in 2019, and the resurgence and continued success of Paper Chase can be attributed to the effusive and resilient spirit of its second-generation owner, Nicole Katz. She gave the backstory of her family's business and how its evolved to fit changing needs since the 70s.
“It’s a very L.A. story, straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie,” says Katz, a natural raconteur, as she tells an anecdote of how her parents — her father, an Israeli immigrant by way of Tel Aviv, and her mother, a former Playboy bunny — fell into a whirlwind romance, marrying and starting a (true) mom-and-pop office supply company in the late 70s, within the first few months of meeting. Before moving to the U.S., her father worked for Gestetner, the German company that pioneered offset printing. With this specialized background, their business soon morphed to include commercial printing services, initially run out of their home basement, and eventually grew to its current storefront. Then, by the request of an aspiring actor who passed through their shop by chance (this is Hollywood, after all), the Katzes later cashed in on a cottage industry, printing premium headshots for stars like Diane Keaton and Milton Berle, the latter of whom was “my little buddy growing up, and used to love coming by the shop,” Katz says.
Custom print jobs for a celebrity clientele still account for a slice of the business today, though Paper Chase now dominates a wider sector of the cultural sphere, and has since grown to include art books, lookbooks, and custom print jobs, an in-house stationery line called Paper Cuts, and Infoshop L.A., a line of collaborative artists’ editions. “We’re like Beyonce’s Kinko's,” jokes Katz, who spent many afternoons at the shop as a kid, learning the ins and outs of the trade by osmosis. She officially took over the family business in 2008, though this wasn’t always in the cards. Like many young adults coming of age, she sought to cut her own creative path.
Second-generation owner Nicole Katz took over the family business with her husband in 2008, but was surrounded by the trade from an early age. Family photo courtesy of Nicole Katz. Portrait by Skyler Dahan.
“It's funny, because if you'd asked me back then, if I wanted to one day run the business, I would have said a resounding no,” says Katz. “I was being rebellious, but then I always ended up doing things that kind of orbited around the print world. My actions spoke a lot louder than my words.” After high school, she moved to New York to attend Bard College, then returned to L.A. after graduation — working in art books, at galleries, and as an exhibition producer — before moving back to New York for a second stint, this time to the city, for an executive-level gig at Aperture Foundation. It was there that she met her now-husband, artist Kane Austin, who convinced her to give in to the wayward pull back to the West Coast for good.
The lure of space — both physical and mental — was a luxury that New York City could not provide the creative couple, who soon transformed one part of the shop into a gallery, hosting exhibitions and opening parties, gaining a foothold into the local creative community.
Katz was also ready to be her own boss, and even as she eventually closed down the gallery to focus on overtaking her father’s business the following year, it was hardly a turnkey operation. This was 2008, at the peak of the Great Recession, which was unforgiving to many small businesses. Offshoring big print orders to China had become the industry norm; over the next several years apps like Twitter and Pinterest broke out, and as the rise of social media platforms began to take hold of Internet culture, reshaping the publishing industry in the process, the prospect of a running a viable and independent, print-based business seemed shakier than ever.
Paper Chase Press started as an office supply company in the 1970s and expanded to include commercial printing, headshots and custom services. Photography by Tana Gandhi.
Yet in the haze of uncertainty, Katz saw opportunity. “I knew that it was still a really viable business, because I spent time in the art world among a population of people that are print obsessed,” she says. In the past decade, she has steadily reinvented a business model that has proved to be recession-proof and impervious to what she now sees as waning digital trends.
“It’s funny, I feel things have really come full circle: There was definitely a moment in the early aughts, when everybody started getting smartphones, and there was this real love affair with it,” says Katz. “That’s when people started crying, ‘Print is dead!’ and all that. Now, people hate their devices, and we’re spending more and more of our existence in that digital realm — people are hungrier than ever for something physical.”
As a seasoned veteran of the art world, Katz keenly understands the value of print among fine arts, small-run, premium projects — of “experiential versus utilitarian print,” as she says — and has smartly invested in boosting that niche print culture through a network of events, workshops, and an imprint of in-house posters, print goods, and publications, including a line of artists’ cookbooks launching this fall. Paper Chase Press is prized for its high-quality print products that often push the boundary of the very medium and embrace avant-garde takes on a supposedly dated form.
Paper Chase Press specializes in small-run projects for independent designers and artists. Photography by Tana Gandhi.
“Print is not some old-school technology,” Katz attests. “Within the manufacturing of print, there are some extremely cutting-edge developments happening in the industry,” she adds, from presses that print nano-dots, to UV presses with LED technology, augmented reality, and 3D-printing. And advancements in digital printing, combined with traditional bindery and finishing methods, mean that one-off, DIY and independent projects can best the gloss and professionalism of a big publisher. As Katz says, “Print is still this persistent medium.”
Located in a storefront sandwiched between a strip club and a motel — remnants from the seedy charm of old Hollywood — today the immigrant-founded, women-run printing press is favored among artists and designers. In the age of Amazon and on-demand everything, Paper Chase has resolutely thrived not in spite of its independent, brick-and-mortar business model, but because of it.
Over the years, she has cultivated a network of local designers who are familiar with the shop’s printing capabilities, and as part of Paper Chase’s recently added Hire a Designer service run in partnership with Matthew Swenson, now acts as ad-hoc producer and collaborator for new clients in need of consultation to usher their projects to fruition. In variety of other ways — with the launch of community events, youth workshops, and other programs — Katz and her partner continue to double down, investing back into the culture and creative community that provide Paper Chase business, and in turn, support and nurture its growth. With a commitment to zero-waste production, it is also at the forefront of sustainable practices.
Paper Chase Press is sought out by artists, designers and print devotees for its innovative designs and high-quality production. Photography by Tana Gandhi.
There is a mutual generosity and passion that plays into the company’s overall strategy, and the argument that print is alive and well in 2019 needs not even be said to any of the throngs of international visitors who attended Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair in New York last month — where tens of thousands were in attendance, and Paper Chase Press nearly sold out of its offerings. Business is booming for Paper Chase Press, against industry odds, with no signs of slowing down.
“We knew we wanted to be more dynamic than just a printing company. Kane and I were used to having a voice, working with artists, hosting events, and we love to make books and retail goods. Those side projects are some of the most intellectually stimulating stuff we get to do,” says Katz. Luckily for the multihyphenate, it has also been good for business.
“You have to sustain the community that sustains you,” Katz maintains. “We’re keeping people interested in print, and in doing projects that use print. That’s our long game: making projects happen so that we continue to support the print community, and the medium in general.”
Aileen Kwun is a Korean-American writer and editor covering art, design, culture, and travel. The author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Design, an anthology of oral histories with living design legends, she was also formerly a senior editor at Dwell and Surface magazines, and has contributed to dozens of publications internationally.