Printmaker Dave Lefner Honors Classic Neon Signs from His Downtown LA Live-In Studio

Posted inDesigner Profiles

Dave Lefner has been working from home long before it was normalized— in fact, he’s been making art from his live-in studio in Los Angeles for the past 25 years. The prolific printmaker has a dreamy set-up at the Brewery Artist Lofts in Downtown LA, where he’s lived and worked in a split-level loft bathed in buckets of SoCal sunshine since the late ‘90s when he first moved in.

Lefner is a born and bred Angeleno, growing up in the San Fernando Valley and attending Cal State Northridge. After relocating to the LACMA area, he found himself on an open studios art walk of the Brewery Artist Lofts downtown, and immediately fell in love. “I was like, I gotta live here!” he told me while generously giving me a personal tour of the very studio in which he would end up setting up shop. As fate would have it, Lefner only had to wait about a month after applying to move in, and almost three decades later, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “It’s like nothing else,” he said. “It’s a dream for an artist, or any creative type. And it’s amazing how hidden it is. We clocked 13,000 people at the last art walk between the two days, and still, so many people don’t know that there are 310 lofts here. They say it’s one of the world’s largest artist communities.”

It was on one of these tours of the Brewery Art Studios that I myself first came upon Lefner and his uniquely stunning relief printmaking practice. “I show at galleries, but it’s such a different experience to come into people’s homes,” he said of the studios’ bi-annual art walks. Lefner guesstimates that about 70% of the residents both live and work in their spaces, with the remainder using their studios purely as work sites. 

Lefner is one of the longest-standing residents at the Studios, which saw increased turnover when the pandemic first hit. Established in 1982, the studios encompass the 16-acre site of the former Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery, as evidenced by its signature cement tower with “BREWERY” painted vertically down its side that’s viewable from the 5 freeway. In addition to its many artist residents, the Brewery Art Studios’ collection of sky-piercing industrial buildings are home to onsite bars and restaurants at street level, and they even have an indoor rock climbing gym built inside what was once one of LA’s earliest power stations. 

Lefner’s personal space on the premises is a curated treasure trove of retro discoveries and a printmaker’s paradise, all within a spacious, open-area loft. His devotion to printmaking and vintage signs emanates from all aspects of the studio, from his prints themselves to his lovingly sourced decor. He has a cluster of gargantuan wooden drawers filled with handset metal type in one corner, which he adopted from a retired letterpress printer a few years back after she developed carpal tunnel. Massive neon letters that spell out “Cal-Oaks” have been installed on the beam bisecting his bedroom loft from the downstairs kitchen area, which he rescued from the eponymous 1960’s pharmacy in Pasadena. 

And of course, Lefner has multiple printing presses in the room, including his first-ever press which he bought for $40 in college. “To get time on the press in college when there are so many kids was such a drag,” he said. “I printed a lot of stuff with my car. I’ve always gone to those lengths in the name of this art form.” 

More of a studio than an apartment, more of a gallery space than a studio, Lefner’s loft is set up as a place where he and his wife can live, create, and educate curious visitors like me who stop by. “I’m sure there are people that walk in and probably have to rush out because there’s so much going on; there’s so much visual stimulation,” he said. “But I absolutely love our place.” 

When it comes to Lefner’s artwork, he considers his process to be just as important as his output. Using a very specific form of linocut relief printing, he reimagines old-school road signs, vintage cars, Tootsie pops, and other retro iconography in small editions. 

“I painted and did all kinds of things, but then I took a printmaking class and I discovered Picasso’s series of linocuts from the 1950s,” he said of his path to this niche printing process. “I had a great teacher, and he was very encouraging, but it was really finding this book at the library that got me. I was like, What is this medium? It was such a lost art form.” 

Linocut relief printing is an unforgiving and exacting technique, where registration and layering of colors needs to be bang-on for the print to really sing. For Lefner, it’s precisely this difficulty that makes him love it so much. “The reason I got into it was because it was so challenging— that was the whole point,” he said. “With the reduction process of having to print in these multiple colors, in these multiple stages from the same block, you really have to have tremendous foresight and intention. You really have to be paying attention— there’s no drinking and carving. One, they’re sharp tools, and two, if I carve something away, I can’t put it back.” 

The content of Lefner’s linocuts is the direct result of his LA upbringing, where he was surrounded by spunky signage and peacocking cars. There’s also the added layer of Lefner’s desire to preserve old businesses and signs that might not be around forever. “Growing up in the Valley, there were a lot of cool mom-and-pop shops that I would drive by, and I would look up one day and they’d be gone,” he explained. By recreating these signs with his prints, Lefner sheds light on their aesthetic beauty while honoring the businesses themselves. 

When Lefner moved downtown, he was surrounded by an entirely new universe of stunning retro signage that captivated his creative eye. “Luckily, most of those signs are now protected, but some of them are still having to fight to be taken care of,” he said. As part of his process, Lefner maintains a running list of signs he comes upon that he might one day want to print. “I’ll be driving with my wife, and she’ll see it too, and she’s like, ‘You can turn around…’ She’s always so nice about it. So I turn around, jump out, and take a photo with my phone.” 

Critical to Lefner’s method is taking his source photos at the perfect time of day when the lighting is just right. “What really got me about neon signs initially was neon in the daytime, and the shadows that cast from it,” he said. “Usually you think about neon at night, but what really caught my eye were the shadows. So a lot of times we can be driving by a cool sign, but it’s not the right time of day for the sun. I have a little notepad in the car to write down the location and then come back.” 

At the end of my visit, Lefner excitedly showed me an in-process print of a vintage beach umbrella. “I’ve been doing this so long that I’m usually not impressed by certain things, but when I printed this one I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool!’” he said, his face lighting up as he examined the interplay of three layered colors. “It’s just such a trip.” He smiled down at the umbrella print in his hands, unable to look away. “I totally love what I do. I’m so blessed to be able to make a living doing this. It’s always still fascinating to me.”