January 15, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s not often that a grocery list grabs people’s attention.

But that’s exactly what happened the other day at a restaurant for Krystal Leichliter and her husband Ryan. Krystal and Ryan are the owners of Sweet Afton Studios, a design and letterpress studio. Krystal was using an extra card from a recent project to write her grocery list. A waitress, mesmerized, came up and immediately started feeling the back of the card.

That experience spoke volumes to Krystal, because she says she saw how much letterpress really jumps out to people. As she explains, the paper used for letterpress is made of 100 percent cotton, so it’s very soft and tactile.

While Krystal and Ryan founded Sweet Afton Studios in 2011 after they obtained a letterpress, they have expanded their business to designing business cards, wedding invitations, signs, logos, banners, and more. Their goal is to make brands, gifts, and even everyday products stand out with an exceptional and personalized design.

Krystal is the designer at Sweet Afton, while Ryan runs the press. Krystal had worked in advertising for years, but decided she wanted to leave the corporate setting. She had always loved beautiful paper, and after designing wedding invitations and logos for friends, letterpress and design were disciplines she thought she and Ryan could work at full time.

“It was really just a desire to pursue being creative and doing the things I love,” says Krystal.

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But the couple got more than they bargained for when they purchased their first letterpress, an approximately 1,500-pound behemoth that Krystal says “looks kind of like a time machine.”

“It wasn’t attached to electricity, so we couldn’t really see it, and we just kind of bought it in faith that it really was going to work,” Krystal says with a laugh.

Through internet research, assistance from a letterpress studio in Lincoln, and many sleepless nights, Ryan and Krystal had their first creation two weeks after they bought their letterpress: wedding invitations for a friend.

“We were crazy,” Ryan admits.

Now, once a client is set on a design, Krystal and Ryan can turn around a finished product in about two weeks. As they say, letterpress is a very labor-intensive process. Once Krystal and Ryan have a finished design on the computer, they will get to work creating polymer print plates to imprint with different layers of the design. Each color has to have a separate plate, so if a design has three colors, Ryan has to run it through the letterpress three times.

“It [letterpress] is an art, and it’s a product of time and labor. You can’t just do what you see on the computer on letterpress.”
– Jara Sturdivant-Wilson, customer of Sweet Afton Studios

Krystal mixes the different-colored ink by hand. Finally, once the plates, the ink, and the paper are ready to go through the letterpress, Krystal and Ryan will sometimes print hundreds of extra copies, and handpick the ones to give to clients.  “With letterpress, the thing that makes it so beautiful is that it’s hand-done, and that means that each piece is going to be unique,” says Krystal.

Jara Sturdivant-Wilson, a customer of Sweet Afton and a former neighbor of Krystal’s, agrees. She reached out to the Leichliters when she wanted to give her husband a gift with a more personal touch. Sturdivant-Wilson admitted that she didn’t have many ideas when it came to designing a gift, but that Krystal was very helpful, meeting with her throughout the process at coffee shops.

Eventually, she ended up with a calendar and a set of cards that catered to her husband’s interests. For example, one page of the calendar was designed with her husband’s favorite softball team in mind, while some of the cards featured a line-drawn picture of his dog. “It [letterpress] is an art, and it’s a product of time and labor. You can’t just do what you see on the computer on letterpress,” says Sturdivant-Wilson.

As they have learned the ropes of letterpress, Krystal and Ryan have had the time to expand their design business beyond strictly letterpress projects. One of Sweet Afton’s newest clients is the Seattle Children’s Museum. For the museum’s new displays every month, Krystal will come up with a design concept for the overall exhibit, and then work on designing signs, banners, and buttons for employees to wear. Ryan is also getting his chance to dive into design; he earned a degree in animation last year, and he plans to offer animation services to customers, as well as help Krystal with her dream of designing a children’s book with an animated component.

As their customer base has expanded, mostly through word-of-mouth, Sweet Afton Studios has started doing more business outside of Nebraska, everywhere from California to New York and even Spain. Krystal and Ryan have even had a few companies approach them about carrying some of Sweet Afton’s cards in their stores. But for now, Krystal and Ryan plan to keep all of their business online, on sites such as Etsy, The Knot, and Dribbble. While they were considering opening a storefront, they enjoy the flexibility of working from home. Krystal also wants to be able to devote more time to working on children’s illustrations.

“It’s all about having fun,” says Ryan.

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