When we visited the Dallas, Texas studio of Lily Smith+Kirkley—owner and creative director of Lilco Design + Letterpress Studio—a true sense of pride in her craft was apparent from the minute we stepped into her eclectic studio space. Balancing the day-to-day business operations with the creative spark it takes to be a maker in today’s society is something that comes natural to Lily. She’s a celebrated west elm LOCAL artist in our various Texas stores—she even created a west elm exclusive color combination of her “Prickly Pear” print, which is inspired from the flourishing cacti outside of her studio. Take a look into Lily’s working space + process – and say hello to Wilma, the cutest little rescue pup below.
Tell us about yourself + your studio space.
I’m a soon to be 36-year old Native Texan and graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art. I have a degree in Graphic Design and have worked as a graphic designer since 2003. In 2013, I won one of the Scion Motivate awards and left full-time employment to run my studio, Lilco, full-time. I’ve been with my partner, Kim, for nearly 18-years and we have 3-dogs, 2-ish cats, chickens and guinea fowl.
My studio is a former machine shop in West Dallas. It is a free-standing beige brick building with lots of Texas cacti, native grasses and our four chickens and guinea hens roaming about. Inside there’s an office where Kim and I each have a desk. Beyond the office is the main space of the studio which is one large room with Kim’s painting studio on one side and my print shop on the other. There are three presses: a Chandler & Price platen press, a Heidleberg Windmill and a Vandercook SP-15. Dividing the two-halves of the room is a main work table which has flat files underneath for print and paper storage. The space is compact and filled to the gills. There’s a bike suspended from the ceiling, an old neon horseshoe sign and lots of weird stuff that we collect. It is our own slice of heaven!
What does a typical work day look like for you?
First, there is no typical work day. Being your own boss means that I must be ready and willing to take whatever comes at me. Sometimes that means waking early and staying up super late. Other days I might sleep in to make up for the prior day. Right now, to smooth the highs and lows of income I’ve taken on a freelance gig that provides 20-hours of work every week. To make this work and not let any Lilco projects fall through the cracks I wake at 5:30am and work until 8am. At 8:30am I go to the freelance gig until 12:30pm when I head back to Lilco to finish my work day. Some days I run one of my presses and other days I sit at the computer designing projects for clients. It’s all over the place!
Tell us about your design and manufacturing process.
What attracted me to letterpress printing in the first place was that it didn’t have to involve a computer and that the final product was one-of-a-kind. Whether I’m making a new print or a tea towel I try to maintain those principles: no computer and one-of-a-kind. Now, that does not mean that I don’t use the computer to create my products BUT, all the imagery created in my work is generated using tools outside of a computer: pencil, paper, ink, carving tools, and wood/lino blocks. Letterpress printing has experienced such a boom in the past few years that to stand out my work must be totally unique and by carving the plates by hand and using materials that I scavenge my work has a look that cannot be replicated. Furthermore, I love how carving as opposed to drawing, has its own special quality — it’s hard to explain — but if I draw something it looks okay but, if I carve it, it looks ten-times more interesting. Carving is a subtractive process — which is mind trip — and there are errant cuts and marks that cannot be anticipated or made in a computer. Once the blocks are finished, it’s time to print and then the magic really comes into play. Printing a new print is very exciting because it’s a surprise. I’ve imagined how it’ll look but until the blocks are carved and each color is printed there is no way of knowing for sure.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
Being a maker is difficult. I feel that from the outside looking in people think I have an idyllic existence where I make stuff all day and it’s like Etsy porn 24/7. Let me reassure you that, that is not the case. To make things takes money and to make money you must have margins that allow for profit. If selling retail, the artist gets more profit but in a wholesale environment the margins are much smaller. To acquire wholesale accounts most makers setup booths at large expos in NYC which can cost upwards of 5-10K all-in. Additionally, there are marketing materials and buyers want to see new products on a consistent basis. It’s a very difficult existence. Most of my income still comes from client based design/branding work — which is all profit with little to no overhead. I struggle to find the motivation to make new products when my shelves are still stocked with existing product. My days are filled trying to sustain myself and I have not found time to market my products, or reach out to stores and buyers on a regular basis. I’d like to grow the product side of Lilco and I hope in time to shift my business more in that direction.
Why do you love the Texas area?
I’m a Native Texan so it’s difficult to articulate why I love where I come from…it’s home. I’ve lived other places but nowhere else has felt like the right fit. Texas has its warts and stains but I’ve found my people here. In Dallas, there’s a vibrant creative community that is warm and welcoming. Furthermore, I really relate to the Texan ethos: grit, go-getter, take the bull by the horns, yadda, yadda, yada….
What’s next for you?
For now, I’ve got to make money so I’m going to stick with the freelance gig and get my financial situation under control. Hopefully, in the margins I can create more new prints and continue to expand my offering of products. It’d be nice to trip over a pot of gold so I could afford to make products exclusively but until that happens I’ll continue to hustle.