DOWNERS GROVE – North High School graduate Leo Kowal's crafty business beat more than 2,000 others to win the Martha Stewart American Made audience choice award this fall.
Kowal, his wife and business co-owner Mary Rudakas are in New York this week to meet Stewart and receive their $10,000 prize. The business also might appear in Stewart's magazine.
Their business, SVGCuts, sells downloadable designs for two-dimensional paper crafts like cards and scrapbooks in addition to three-dimensional paper projects that can be used for home decor or center pieces for events.
Users at home download the design templates and send the information to electronic paper cutters about the size of a printer. The machine cuts the pieces, which can then be assembled into striking designs, like a three-story haunted house – Kowal's favorite, or a mini hot air balloon, among others. The intricate designs look more sculptural than paper-made, and the selection of colored and patterned paper available at hobby shops adds an extra "pop."
"People will use some of the crazier 3D things for parties or events," Kowal said. "And most of the time we'll make it so that you could put something inside of it, if you want to use the actual box as a gift box. There's so many applications I probably don't even know about that people have adopted for their businesses. ... The possibilities are endless."
The couple started the business in 2009 after greeting cards designed by Rudakas became popular, nearly overnight, on their Etsy.com online store, Kowal said.
"One night when she was laying in bed she said, 'Why don't I sell the digital designs that I create?'" Kowal said. "We put the files on Etsy and made a couple hundred bucks in a weekend.
"And before you know it, our business evolved from creating two-dimensional shapes for scrapbooking and card making to 3-D, off-the-page stuff."
For Kowal and Rudakas, it's a quick four-year ascent after finding themselves unemployed after the 2008 recession.
Kowal was working in IT for Chrysler when he was laid off during the auto industry collapse, and Rudakas had recently left her job.
The couple discovered the world of die-cut paper crafts when Kowal's mom bought Rudakas, a self-taught graphic designer from Western Springs, an electronic cutter for Christmas in 2008.
Rudakas has been designing the couple's projects ever since, and Kowal, who has professional photography experience in addition to his IT career, handles the web, marketing, photos, videos, customer service and everything else involved with an online business.
The website has attracted more than 800,000 unique visitors, Kowal said, garnering 16 million page views.
Kowal credited long-time North High School biology teacher David Jakes with getting him interested in digital photography when the technology was new.
"He was the first guy to hand me a digital camera back when photos were being saved to floppy disks," he said. "I still talk to him to this day."
Kowal and Rudakas run the business from their St. Charles home.